A tiny pearl that tells a much big­ger story about our an­ces­tors 8,000 years ago

The National - News - - OPINION - TI­MOTHY POWER Ti­mothy Power is an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and au­thor of A His­tory of the Emi­rati Peo­ple, to be pub­lished in 2021

The tiny speck of light cur­rently on dis­play in Lou­vre Abu Dhabi, part of an ex­hi­bi­tion called 10,000 Years of Lux­ury, rep­re­sents the old­est known pearl in the world. This 8,000-year-old pearl was un­earthed on Marawah Is­land about 170 kilo­me­tres west of Abu Dhabi and still has its nat­u­ral lus­tre. As small as it is, it tells a re­mark­able story. To­gether with the sherds of pot­tery, bones and shells found by ar­chae­ol­o­gists at sites across the re­gion, it has helped build a pic­ture of what life might have looked like in the Emi­rates thou­sands of years ago.

The Ne­olithic rev­o­lu­tion was set in mo­tion by the end of the last Ice Age. It be­gan in the Fer­tile Cres­cent – the river val­leys of Iraq and Egypt – about 14,000 years ago. Pri­mor­dial hunter-gatherer so­ci­eties slowly gave way to set­tled farm­ing or no­madic herd­ing com­mu­ni­ties and land own­er­ship trans­formed hu­man so­ci­eties.

By about 10,000 years ago, the Ne­olithic rev­o­lu­tion was be­gin­ning to reach the emi­rates. Flint ar­row­heads found at Jebel Faya in Shar­jah be­long to a Ne­olithic tool­kit im­ported from the Fer­tile Cres­cent. It seems that groups of no­madic pas­toral­ists were mov­ing south­wards from Syria-Pales­tine. This re­pop­u­la­tion of Ara­bia most likely provided the base­line gene pool of the Emi­rati peo­ple.

A pi­o­neer­ing Ne­olithic vil­lage was es­tab­lished on the is­land of Marawah in the emi­rate of Abu Dhabi about 8,000 years ago. Three struc­tures have so far been lo­cated. They were built of lo­cal lime­stone and one has an ob­long plan. The up­per sec­tions of the walls and roofs were prob­a­bly made of palm fronds. Sim­i­lar struc­tures have been found at Al Sabiyah in Kuwait.

These stone-built houses can be con­trasted with palm-frond round­houses at Delma Is­land in Abu Dhabi and Suwayah in Oman. Anal­o­gous palm-frond struc­tures have been found at the set­tle­ment at Akab in Umm Al Quwain. Dif­fer­ences in ar­chi­tec­ture could be in­dica­tive of the co-ex­is­tence of dis­tinct cul­tural groups in the emi­rates at the time.

The Marawah pearl dates from 5,800 to 5,600BC. It pre­dates the pre­vi­ous old­est pearl in the world by sev­eral cen­turies, found in Al Sabiyah and dat­ing to 5,300BC. Prior to the dis­cov­ery of the Marawah pearl, the old­est found in the Emi­rates was at the set­tle­ment of Akab, which flour­ished be­tween 4,750 and 3,900BC.

Pearls are some­times found at Ne­olithic coastal set­tle­ments in the Emi­rates, in­clud­ing Yar­mouk in Shar­jah and the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site UAQ2 in Umm Al Quwain. The largest num­ber ever found ac­tu­ally come from the in­te­rior, from the ceme­tery of Jebel Al Buhais in Shar­jah, where 62 pearls dat­ing from around 5,000 to 4,500BC were dis­cov­ered.

Many more pre-mod­ern shell mid­dens, or ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mounds, dot the coastal land­scape of the Gulf. Some of these date to the Ne­olithic pe­riod and are broadly con­tem­po­rary with the Marawah pearl. One of the largest – a three­me­tre-high mound densely packed with shell frag­ments – was found at Dosariyah in Saudi Ara­bia. The num­ber and size of these mid­dens give some in­di­ca­tion of the po­ten­tial scale of pearl fish­ing in the Ne­olithic pe­riod.

No ev­i­dence has yet been un­earthed, how­ever, for Ne­olithic meth­ods of pearl fish­ing. It is pos­si­ble that boats were al­ready be­ing used to trans­port divers to pearl beds and that the divers were us­ing weights to sink to the bot­tom of the sea. Al­ter­na­tively, oys­ters could have been col­lected by wad­ing from the shore at low tide, a prac­tice which con­tin­ued into liv­ing me­mory in the Emi­rates.

Oys­ters and other shell­fish were an im­por­tant source of food for coastal com­mu­ni­ties. It is un­clear to what ex­tent oys­ters were fished specif­i­cally for their pearls. Cer­tainly some of the pearls from Ne­olithic sites around the Gulf were pierced and turned into jew­ellery, as was the case with the Al Sabiyah pearl and those found adorn­ing the dead at Jebel Al Buhais.

It has of­ten been sup­posed, largely on the ba­sis of analo­gies with bet­ter-known his­toric pe­ri­ods, that the pearls were traded be­yond the Gulf. How­ever, no pearls have yet been found in Me­sopotamia – the re­gion of south­ern Iraq where com­plex ur­ban civil­i­sa­tion first emerged – prior to the Bronze Age in the third mil­len­nium BC.

Pot­tery pro­vides the best ev­i­dence for trade with Me­sopotamia. The Ne­olithic com­mu­ni­ties of the Emi­rates had no knowl­edge of ce­ramic pro­duc­tion and im­ported fine-bod­ied dec­o­rated pots made in and around the site of Tell Al Ubaid in south­ern Iraq. One of the most cel­e­brated ex­am­ples is the Marawah vase, now in Lou­vre Abu Dhabi.

Sherds of Ubaid pot­tery are found all along the coast of east­ern Ara­bia.

It is pos­si­ble these were traded di­rectly or, per­haps more likely, via one or more mid­dle­men. By the Bronze Age, Bahrain had emerged as a hub of Gulf trade: the leg­endary land of Dil­mun. This trade con­sti­tutes one of the ear­li­est mar­itime net­works.

Ev­i­dence for early sea­far­ing has been found at Al Sabiyah. Frag­ments of bi­tu­men bear­ing the im­pres­sion of reeds on one side, with bar­na­cles ad­hered to the sur­face of the other, sug­gest that Ne­olithic boats were made of reed bun­dles coated with bi­tu­men. A clay model of a boat from the site gives an im­pres­sion of how these ves­sels might have looked.

Trade was nev­er­the­less only a part of the Ne­olithic way of life. It is pos­si­ble that palms were al­ready be­ing grown, as sug­gested by two car­bonised date stones found at Delma Is­land. Dates may al­ter­na­tively have been im­ported from Me­sopotamia, as in­deed they were un­til re­cent times. Farm­ing does not ap­pear to have be­come sig­nif­i­cant in the emi­rates un­til the Bronze Age Umm Al Nar cul­ture be­gin­ning around the mid-third mil­len­nium BC.

Over 90 per cent of the bones found at butch­ery sites at Jebel Al Buhais are from do­mes­ti­cated sheep, goat and cat­tle, in­di­cat­ing the de­clin­ing im­por­tance of hunt­ing. Most of the sheep and goat were el­derly fe­males, sug­gest­ing that they had been kept for their milk. The pic­ture emerges of a no­madic herd­ing com­mu­nity mov­ing to Buhais for the lamb­ing sea­son in the spring and spend­ing the summers fish­ing on coastal and is­land set­tle­ments like Akab and Delma.

Jebel Al Buhais pro­vides the most com­plete pic­ture of Ne­olithic life in the emi­rates. About 500 in­di­vid­u­als were found buried in the ceme­tery. A study re­vealed that the av­er­age life expectancy for women was 33, com­pared to 40 for the men. More women than men died in their teens and twen­ties, ow­ing to the dan­gers of child­bear­ing, while the skeletons of the men dis­played a greater oc­cur­rence of near or be­fore-death trauma as­so­ci­ated with a vi­o­lent death.

Many of the in­di­vid­u­als buried in the Buhais ceme­tery wore pearls and it is pos­si­ble that the Marawah pearl was lost be­fore it could be pierced and worn. Al­ter­na­tively, it was lost be­fore it could be shipped to Me­sopotamia in ex­change for man­u­fac­tured goods and agri­cul­tural sur­plus. In ei­ther case, the pearl opens a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow on life in the emi­rates dur­ing the Ne­olithic pe­riod.

The pearl is just one of many finds on Marawah Is­land to have helped build a pic­ture of how peo­ple lived in the emi­rates

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