The Archaeology of Pleistocene Coastal Environments and Human Dispersals in the Red Sea: Insights from the Farasan Islands

  • Geoff N. Bailey
  • Matthew Meredith-Williams
  • Abdullah Alsharekh
  • Niklas Hausmann


This chapter examines the different sources of evidence—phylogenetic, palaeoclimatic and archaeological—that have been used to investigate the hypothesis that early human dispersals from Africa during the late Pleistocene were facilitated by exploitation of marine resources and seafaring abilities and followed a predominantly coastal route including a crossing of the southern end of the Red Sea. We examine critically the current evidence and arguments for and against such a hypothesis and highlight the need for a more sophisticated understanding of the taphonomic factors that determine the formation, preservation and distribution of coastal archaeological deposits such as shell mounds. We present new data on the mid-Holocene shell mounds of the Farasan Islands and examine their spatial and temporal distribution in relation to a coastal environment that has been subject to rapid changes of sea level, geomorphology and ecological potential. We demonstrate that substantial shell mound deposits can accumulate rapidly over a matter of decades, even in a dynamic shoreline environment undergoing changes in relative sea level, that the ecological conditions that provide an abundant supply of marine molluscs as food are highly episodic in time and space, and that the resulting archaeological record is extremely patchy. We highlight the problem of dealing with negative evidence in the archaeological record and the need for a more detailed investigation and understanding of the various factors that determine the survival and visibility of archaeological deposits.



We thank HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), Dr. Ali Al-Ghabban, advisor to the President, and Jamal Omar, Vice President, for granting permission for the archaeological fieldwork reported here and their ongoing support and that of their SCTH colleagues in Riyadh, especially Dr. Saad al Rashid, Dr. Abdullah Al Saud, Dr. Hussein Abu Hassan and Dr. Abdullah Al Zahrani. Grateful thanks are also extended to the staff of the SCTH offices in Jizan and Farasan, to the Governor of Farasan, Hussein Aldajani, and to Dr. Faisal al Tamaihi, Jizan University. We also thank the President of the Saudi Geological Survey, Dr. Zohair Nawab, and his staff, in particular Dr. Najeeb Rasul for additional support. We thank Katerina Douka for assistance in the collection of the radiocarbon samples and the interpretation of the results and Eva Laurie for the identification of marine molluscs. The research is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Ideas Programme of the 7th Framework Programme as Advanced Grant 269586 ‘DISPERSE: Dynamic Landscapes, Coastal Environments and Human Dispersals’. This is DISPERSE contribution no. 38.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Geoff N. Bailey
    • 1
    • 2
  • Matthew Meredith-Williams
    • 3
  • Abdullah Alsharekh
    • 4
  • Niklas Hausmann
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK
  2. 2.College of Humanities, Arts and Social SciencesFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Archaeology and HistoryLa Trobe UniversityBundooraAustralia
  4. 4.Department of ArchaeologyKing Saud UniversityRiyadhSaudi Arabia
  5. 5.Foundation for Research and Technology–Hellas, Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser (IESL)HeraklionGreece

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