This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
imaginary image of the stone age man in Yemen. image courtesy of Mohanad al-Sheikh and Shihab al-Ahdal
With the advent of the most extreme of all the ice ages, and the transformation of a verdant Africa into a vast dune-strewn land, ancient humans were forced to migrate to more forgiving climes. Reaching the Eritrean coast, they encountered the sea for the first time, and there they settled, convinced they had come to the edge of the world. And so time passed, and nothing changed, until some courageous individuals, without boats, dared to venture across the ocean. They were the pioneers, the adventurers who arrived in Yemen and became the first human beings to set foot outside of Africa.
But for all that, Yemen is today regarded as a shortcut, a passage that our forebears passed through on their way to the rest of the world. A place that was only settled relatively late in human history. In this article, we present evidence that contradicts the current consensus on ancient Yemen and suggests models that might answer our questions: When was Yemen settled by humans? Who were these early settlers? What technology did they have? What kind of environment met them on their arrival?
In discussing these early migrations, scientists have long postulated that sea levels fell around Bab El Mandeb, turning the strait into a land bridge. This model assumes that the crossing took place between 50–40,000 B.C. and, in support of this hypothesis, points to the arid climatic conditions which prevailed prior to this point, which would have made Yemen unfit for human settlement. However, there can be no fall in sea levels without the onset of an ice age, causing the oceans to freeze at the northern and southern poles, and this did not occur during the period in question. More recent studies have posited a date of around 85,000 B.C. for the migrations. In other words, during an ice age, and coeval with what climatologists concur were damp conditions in Yemen, ideal for human habitation. Yet even this model gives rise to some difficult questions.
Did ancient humans settle in Yemen or use it as a staging post?
The current dominant emigration model supposes a group of between 150 and 1,000 individuals crossed the Red Sea then undertook a trek along the southern coast of Yemen to the Hormuz Straits, from where they crossed into Persia and India which, according to this theory, were the first places that humans settled outside Africa. By extension, it rejects the idea that there was any settlement in Yemen, which is regarded as no more than a staging post. But is it really credible that ancient humans would have entirely disregarded a land in which they had only just arrived, and set out along its coastal extremities, without wandering inland a little, or heading for cooler, more verdant territory? GPS technology was not an option, so how did they so rapidly acquire such precise geographical knowledge of this previously unknown terrain? Is this model not, in fact, closer to the pattern followed by present African migrants, who travel as quickly and efficiently as possible through Yemen on their way to their final destination? Is it not quite incompatible with the mindset of primitive humans who had no conception of some European endpoint to their journey?
The discovery of human settlements in Wadi Surdud, in western Yemen, the oldest of them dating back some 70,000 years, confirms that human migration through the country took place far earlier than previous theories allowed. Wadi Surdud is located among the high plains of al-Mahqwit, nowhere near the southern coastal plains of Tihama, and the existence of these sites tell us that early human beings had made it from Africa to the Yemeni uplands with its rivers and tropical forests. In all likelihood they followed the animals. Indeed, it is a mistake to treat ancient human migrations as separate from animal migration, particularly because at that time both humans and wildlife would have been responding to the same stimuli and drives: the need for fresh water, abundant quarry, and a wetter climate, all of which were more readily available on the Yemeni uplands than on the coast. The distribution of polished stones and bones on excavated sites in Wadi Surdud confirms that there was intensive human settlement in the area and, moreover, that the first settlers then spread east towards the lowlands that are the Yemeni deserts of today on their way to the Hadramawt plateau where Paleolithic stone tools were discovered by a Soviet archaeological expedition in 1983.
The stone age Yemeni man in a confrontation with the leopard and the giant elephant with the straight cane. Fictional image courtesy of Shihab al-Ahdal
Isolated for 40,000 years in a largely arid climate, the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia preserved many of their African features. The same was not the case in Yemen, where their isolation did not last long. Over the course of millennia, the relatively cool climates of the uplands, coupled with repeated breeding with Eurasian peoples, prompted a gradual change in their features. At the same time, many descendants of these first settlers preserved some physiological characteristics from their East African ancestry. Bone analysis gives us a detailed picture of the build of humans in East Africa around the time of the hypothesized emigration. These include a slightly wider skull, thicker limb bones, and slightly taller than contemporary humans. It is notable that compared with contemporary humans, their skull capacity was larger: 1,450 cubic centimeters vs. 1,350 cubic centimeters in modern humans. Using this data and 3D-modelling software, we have been able to reconstruct the appearance of the earliest settlers in Yemen from 85–60,000 B.C.
What technology did they have?
The horns of gazelles and mountain goats as well as elephant thigh bones were the preferred weapons of nomadic hunters, who would extract the longer bones from the skeletons of large mammals and use them as spears and daggers after sharpening them with stones. Bone fragments were made into knives and pins, and needles were used in primitive surgical operations. Hollowed bones were ideal for making musical instruments like flutes and whistles. Bones were also made into combs and other accessories. However, many of the bone objects have not survived tens of thousands of years intact, and their fragility is one of the major obstacles confronting scientists who wish to determine whether marks are the product of predation or human manufacture.
Ancient Yemenis used stones as small tools. They were broken up by directly striking them with stone hammers, to produce a diverse range of razors and cutting blades employed for combat, hunting, butchery and slicing food. The density and hardness of rhyolite and basalt made them ideal for heavy-duty usage. Flakes of phonolite were also used as blades.
What was the natural environment of the time?
With the advent of the ice age, the climate in every part of the world was turned upside down. Europe became a wasteland of ice: in England hippopotamuses were frozen into the rivers. The human population in Africa was forced to flee an extremely hot and arid climate, and when they reached Yemen they saw wonders: rainforests overhanging riverbanks, thick forests of juniper carpeting the upland plains, and green grasslands broken by the great lakes which filled the steppes of the interior, the area known today as the Ramlat al-Sab’atayn. This we know from pollen found in ancient lakebeds in the Hoowa desert region.
Map of human settlements and environmental conditions in Yemen during the Stone Age. Image courtsey of Abeer Hamed and Shihab al-Ahdal
It is impossible to be certain about species when it comes to the Paleolithic fauna of Yemen, as no skeletal remains are in good enough condition. Studies focusing on Yemen’s wetter climate during this period have begun to paint a picture of an environmental haven amid the ice ages of the Pleistocene, and as a result Yemen has been regarded by many as a place that must harbor many secrets. But until specialists are able to dig and survey, we will lack the solid foundations for hypotheses about fauna based on their skeletal remains. The current presence of tigers in Yemen, the panther hunts immortalized in rock carvings from al-Aqla in Shabwa, and the lions depicted on cave walls in Saada, all show that large predators from the Felidae family were at home in the Yemeni environment during dry periods. How much more welcoming, then, would the wetter environment of ancient Yemen have been? It suggests that these predators would have settled in Yemen in the very distant past. As humans were crossing Yemen from Africa, various species of large Machairodontinae were still widely distributed throughout Africa, Asia and North America, in particular Amphimachairodus giganteus, a feline predator larger than a lion with a range that extended throughout Asia and Europe.
As the icing over of river systems shrank, the viable habitats of Eurasian mega fauna, and the dunes of the Arabian deserts were transforming into rich grassland fed by streams and rivers, the herds of Eurasian ruminants headed south in search of pasture. While mammoths may have made their way all the way to what is today the Nafud Desert in northern Saudi Arabia, straight-tusked elephants had the most extensive migration range of all. During the ice ages they were found in land stretching from Central Asia to Africa, so it is likely that the remains of these vast creatures lie beneath the dunes of Yemen’s deserts. The same can be said of hippopotamuses, whose remains have been found in the Nafud Desert, and salt-water crocodiles, whose presence in ancient Yemeni rivers and deltas is almost certain. These conjectures give rise to the possibility of a bloody encounter between the fauna of ancient Yemen and human beings, whose arrival in the country coincided with a major mass extinction which led to the disappearance of larger mammalian species, as indicated by macro botanical remains.
It is difficult to conceive of the life of ancient humans in a land whose cave systems were yet to be discovered. In the past, caves were humans’ natural habitat; the places where human and animal remains are usually found in a good enough condition to allow for their reconstruction. If we conceive of how humans lived, between barren, featureless mountainscapes and ever-changeable climatic conditions, then we may understand why the discovery of skeletal remains in Yemen remains so delayed.
 Simon Armitage et al., The Southern Route ‘Out of Africa’: Evidence for an early expansion of modern humans into Arabia (2011). See also, Nick Drake et al., Homo sapiens in Arabia by 85,000 years ago (2018), p.6.
 ‘Inland Human Settlement in Southern Arabia 55,000 Years Ago: New evidence from the Wadi Surdud Middle Paleolithic Site Complex, Western Yemen’, Journal of Human Evolution (2012), p.456.
 Sang Lee Hee and Milford H. Wolpoff, ‘The pattern of evolution in Pleistocene human brain size’, Paleobiology (2003), pp. 186, 187, 190.
 See The Institute of Human Origins: www.becominghuman.org/node/homo-sapiens.
 ‘Humans were in Southern Arabia 10,000 years earlier than previously thought’, University of Huddersfield [??], 11 May 2016.
 Roman Uchtyel, World of Prehistoric Fauna, 2012