Ancient Rock Art Reveals Arabia Was Once Home To Some Unexpected Animals

Many of the animals in the rock art are not species associated with Arabia. Maria Guagnin

Most of what we know about the natural history of the Arabian Peninsula comes from skeletal remains, however, these are few and far between in the vast dust plains of present-day Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, a bunch of ancient hunters left some clues about the prehistoric animals roaming over their homeland, hidden in their rock art.

Archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany have recently been busy studying the thousands of ancient artworks at Jubbah and Shuwaymis, a UNESCO world heritage rock art site in Ha'il province, north-western Saudi Arabia. Some of the rock art at this site is thought to be around 10,000 years old and spans through the middle and early Holocene.

The new study of the site can be found in the Journal of Biogeography.

Looking through the 6,618 individual animal depictions, the researchers saw an animal that bore an uncanny likeness to the lesser kudu, a large antelope with amazing spiraled horns and distinctive vertical stripes. Nowadays, this beast can only be found in East Africa and there hasn’t been much evidence to suggest it ever left Africa at all, until now.

The rock art also seems to show an auroch, a vast ancient ancestor to wild cattle that inhabited Europe and North Africa. They also found illustrations of wild camels and African wild asses, two species not widely believed to be native to this particular area.

Maria Guagnin

“The presence of lesser kudu, wild camel, and African wild ass shows that the Jubbah oasis was a focal point for animals from different habitats,” the study authors note. “Carnivores identified in the rock art include lions, leopards, and hyenas. These carnivores were likely attracted to the Jubbah oasis by the rich available prey biomass.”

The researchers admit that it’s hard to tell whether the depiction of animals at Jubbah is the result of human or animal mobility. However, there is evidence that suggests that northern Arabia during parts of the Holocene was not the sandy dusty place we know, but a relatively lush plain of grasslands and lakes. This means that north-west parts of the Arabian peninsula would be perfectly capable of supporting a rich array of large mammals.

"The presence of large and medium-sized ungulates, such as kudu, onager, African wild ass, and aurochs, reflects the extent to which the vegetation and rainfall regimes of the Holocene humid period opened up corridors across northern Arabia that enabled the movement of humans and animals." the authors explained.

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