The African origin of early modern humans 200,000--150,000 years ago is now well documented, with archaeological data suggesting that a major migration from tropical east Africa to the Levant took place between 130,000 and 100,000 years ago via the presently hyper-arid Saharan-Arabian desert.
This migration was dependent on the occurrence of wetter climate in the region. Whereas there is good evidence that the southern and central Saharan-Arabian desert experienced increased monsoon precipitation during this period, no unequivocal evidence has been found for a corresponding rainfall increase in the northern part of the migration corridor, including the Sinai-Negev land bridge between Africa and Asia.
Passage through this "bottleneck" region would have been dependent on the development of suitable climate conditions.
Vaks et al. present a reconstruction of paleoclimate in the Negev Desert based on absolute uranium series dating of carbonate cave deposits (speleothems). Speleothems only form when rainwater enters the groundwater system and vegetation grows above a cave.
Today the climate in the Negev Desert is very arid and speleothems do not form, but their presence in a number of caves clearly indicates that conditions were wetter in the past. Vaks et al. dated 33 speleothem samples from five caves in the central and southern Negev Desert.
The ages of these speleothems show that the last main period of increased rainfall occurred between 140,000 and 110,000 years ago. The climate during this time consisted of episodic wet events that enabled the deserts of the northeastern Sahara, Sinai, and the Negev to become more hospitable for the movement of early modern humans.
The simultaneous occurrence of wet periods in the northern and southern parts of Saharan-Arabian desert could have led to the disappearance of the desert barrier between central Africa and the Levant.
The humid period in the Negev Desert between 140,000 and 110,000 years ago was preceded and followed by essentially unbroken arid conditions; thus creating a climatic "window" for early modern human migration to the Levant. Vaks et al.'s study suggest that climate change had an important limiting role in the timing of dispersal of early modern humans out of Africa.
Reference: Desert speleothems reveal climatic window for African exodus of early modern humans, Anton Vaks, Hebrew University, Institute of Earth Sciences, Edmond Safra Givat Ram Campus, Jerusalem 91904, Israel; et al. pages 831-834.
Materials provided by Geological Society of America. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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