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Unearthing Ancient Human Existence in a Sprawling Lava Tube Cave

Archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of evidence indicating human occupation of a lava-formed cave in Saudi Arabia, unveiling insights into the intriguing history of human habitation in the area.

The discoveries documented by a team of international researchers comprise rock art and animal remains, providing insights into both the utilization of the cave system by people and the composition of their diets during their stay.

Dating back approximately 10,000 years, the findings suggest that the cave, known as Umm Jirsan, served as a residential site for at least 7,000 years, possibly extending into the Bronze Age.
Umm Iirsan entrance

The entrance to Umm Jirsan cave. (Green Arabia Project)

“While subterranean habitats hold global archaeological significance, our investigation marks the inaugural comprehensive study of its kind in Saudi Arabia,” noted archaeologist Michael Petraglia from Griffith University in Australia.

Previous reports from Umm Jirsan had uncovered human bones interspersed among hundreds of thousands of animal remains believed to have been deposited . However, the current study focused on human activities within the 1.5-kilometer-long cave network.

The recent excavation revealed remnants of fabric, crafted wooden artifacts, rudimentary stone constructions, and rock fragments potentially used as implements, alongside additional animal bones. Some artifacts were unearthed from spoil heaps, while others were retrieved from a pit.

While the researchers refrain from categorizing the rock fragments as ‘tools’, their consistent shapes imply intentional production and possible use as scrapers.
Umm Jirsan excavation

Conducting excavations in the cave. (Green Arabia Project)

An examination of human remains within the team’s excavation of the lava tube indicates a diet abundant in protein across the ages, with a gradual rise in the consumption of associated with oasis settlements.

These findings further support the notion that these caves offered pastoralists a haven from the harsh desert environments as they traversed between oases, likely engaging in social interactions and trade.

“Our discoveries at Umm Jirsan unveil a rare glimpse into the ancient societies of Arabia, showcasing recurring phases of human presence and illuminating the pastoralist practices that once flourished in this terrain,” remarked archaeologist Mathew Stewart, also from Griffith University.

Newly discovered artworks etched into the rock near Umm Jirsan depict various animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep in pastoral settings alongside human figures, reinforcing the idea of these cave systems being utilized by livestock herders.

Caves like Umm Jirsan pose as valuable assets for archaeologists, safeguarding remnants from wind erosion, intense sunlight, and other forms of weathering prevalent in this region.

“These findings underscore the vast potential for interdisciplinary explorations within caves and lava tubes, offering a distinctive glimpse into the ancient history of Arabia,” added Petraglia.