Carbon dating of ancient organic remains from Wadi Debay’an, a site a few kilometres south of Al Zubara on Qatar’s north-west coastline, has yielded the earliest yet known date for human occupation in Qatar – 7,500 years before present.
This was revealed by Environmental archaeologist Dr Emma Tetlow of the Qatar National Environment Record (QNER) in a presentation last week to members of the Qatar Natural History Group on recent investigations at Wadi Debay’an.
The QNER is a combined project of the Qatar Museums Authority and the University of Birmingham, UK, directed by Dr Richard Cuttler.
Previous to the work of the QNER, the application of environmental archaeology and geoarchaeology to sites in Qatar has been limited, but now geomorphological and sedimentological data are being used to establish sites which would have been favourable for human occupation. Applying analytical techniques to pollen, macroscopic plant remains and those of insects – Tetlow’s special field of research – is revealing fascinating material about the terrain and climate of Qatar seven millennia ago.
Carbon dating, often known as C14, involves measuring the rate of decay of an isotope of carbon called carbon14, which all living things have within them.
Decay begins the moment the organism dies, and from the measurements archaeologists can obtain an approximate date, give or take 50-100 years or so.
“In Europe,” observed Dr Tetlow, “waterlogged deposits are perfect retainers of ancient organic material, ideal for carbon dating – being anaerobic the contents of these deposits decay very slowly and can survive for thousands of years.
“When I came to Qatar I thought – well, this is a desert – we are not going to find any waterlogged deposits here. How wrong I was! At Wadi Debay’an we are using an electrically powered auger, known as an Atlas Copco Window Sampler, to drill deep beneath the surface terrain of loose stones and sand and the layer of concrete-like gypsum that lies under it, into layer upon layer of organic deposits containing vast quantities of material.”
Among the organic remains is that of a midden – an accumulated pile 2.5m thick where people dumped their rubbish, including thousands of fish bones.
By identifying the bones, especially tiny ear bones known as otoliths, specialists can determine which species were found in the Arabian Gulf at the time and which formed preferred fish catches.
There are also sea shells, including those of pearl oyster shells and murex, and bivalves which have been pierced for use as ornaments, flint tools and fragments of pottery.
A solitary canine tooth may have come from a domesticated dog or could have belonged to a fox or a jackal – more research has to take place on this specimen.
The 41 lithics (stone tools) found so far date to the late Neolithic period of around 6000 years ago and are finely worked.
Some are made from a beautiful chocolate-coloured tabular flint. There are also 141 sherds of painted Ubaid pottery, made in Mesopotamia in what is now modern Iraq, at the same period.
A piece of dark ironstone may have come from a meteorite and perhaps was valued for its rarity. Ancient human bone generally does not survive well in Qatar, but the highly fragmented remains have been found of a burial.
Evidence of trade routes that covered thousands of kilometres, said the speaker, is borne out by the discovery of a deposit of obsidian, which has been sourced from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey.
It is clear that these fish-eating inhabitants of Qatar were not living in isolation but as part of a wide pattern of settlements throughout Asia.
What may prove to be a post-hole for a dwelling has been excavated; evidence that at least for part of the year people were staying beside their main food source rather than leading a purely nomadic existence. A hearth near the post-hole yielded the earliest date of 7,500 years ago.
In the Neolithic period the climate was much wetter than it is today, and sea levels were higher. Dr Tetlow said that carbon dates have revealed evidence of continuous occupation of the Wadi Debay’an sites from the Neolithic right through to the Bronze Age, covering a span of some 5000 years.
Recently, deep within a trench, the archaeologists came across what looked like a wall built of stones. They now think that this is possibly a fish trap, of the type that was constructed around Qatar’s shores until very recently. Many can still be seen – long lines of stones stretching out into the shallow water at right angles to the shore, on which nets would have been fastened to trap fish as the tide went out.
‘Until last year,’ said Dr Tetlow, ‘no insect remains had ever been found on archaeological sites in Qatar. Now we have some from 6000 years ago!’ Organic remains of insects, plants, wood and diatoms – microscopic unicellular organisms, such as plankton, which form fossil deposits – yield a wealth of information once under the microscope. From these experts can learn much about the climate at the time, the vegetation coverage and the fauna. Already, pollen from mangroves has confirmed for the first time that this coastal tree, which in Qatar now survives, in stunted form, at the very edge of its natural range, is in fact indigenous to this peninsula and has not been introduced.
Excavations and research at Wadi Debay’an will continue through 2011 into 2012, and more discoveries at this remote and lonely site, on the surface so apparently barren but so rich in evidence of the lives of the ancestors of the Qatari people, will continue to shed light on ancient Qatar.