A desert oasis hints at a long history of resilience and exploration
The oasis of Jubbah stands like a stained green footprint in the sea of dunes that is Saudi Arabia’s Nefud desert. It is fitting that the image was taken by a modern explorer, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station: the site is a testament to changing climate patterns, and human resilience and exploration .
Thousands of years ago, when the region was considerably less arid, the basin was a lake, providing fresh water for wildlife, livestock and humans. Even in times of drought, the lake remained, supporting pastoral communities. Rock art and hearth traces dotting its ancient coastline suggest long-term human occupation beginning around 10,000 years ago. However, our presence in the region may be considerably older.
The Nefud Desert is a region that archaeologists and paleoanthropologists call Green Arabia: during key periods in the history of human evolution and dispersal, climate patterns changed and this desert landscape now scorched by the sun turned into an area of grasslands, rivers and lakes. Researchers have found numerous sites with stone tools around Jubbah, suggesting Homo sapiens may have first left Africa through this green corridor. In 2018, a partial human finger bone, found nearby and dated to at least 85,000 years old, confirms that at least one population of early humans passed.
Jubbah Paleolake, and the oasis that stands there today, exist thanks to a quirk of local geography. To the west of the site, the massive sandstone formation known as Jebel um Sanman, or Jabel umm Sinman, rises sharply up to 1,300 feet from the desert floor. The mountain had first been the protector of the lake and now guards the settlement of the oasis. Powerful westerly winds rushing across the flat desert slammed into the dark rock and smashed around it like water split from the bow of a ship, leaving the basin unscathed. Jebel um Sanman itself is home to some of the most important early rock art in the Arabian Peninsula and is recognized by UNESCO. Some of the petroglyphs depict humans hunting with dogs and represent the earliest known depictions of our canine companions in the region.