Ancient Desert Oasis Echoes Eden

Civilizations in the Arabian Peninsula and southern Iran found refuge during periodic dry spells along an ancient Gulf coastline.

The waters of the Persian Gulf may cover one of humanity's oldest and largest footholds outside Africa - according to archaeologist Jeffery Rose in this month's issue of Current Anthropology.

A verdant oasis provided a sanctuary the size of Great Britain for humans from at least 74,000 years ago until 8,000 years ago. The Gulf Oasis, as the area is called, provided a refuge from the harsh deserts created by the Ice Age.

Humans may have inhabited southern Arabia for more than 100,000 years. While researchers previously considered the area a corridor between Africa and Eurasia, evidence from the Gulf Oasis shows humans used the coast region to create homesteads and survive dry spells while independently developing cultures and technologies. Archaeologists find evidence of this in distinctively Arabian stone working techniques, Rose reports.

The Gulf Oasis expanded and contracted as the world's climate changed throughout the ages known as the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene. Then, around 8,000 years ago, the Indian Ocean flooded into the basin, creating the Persian Gulf and driving out the humans.

The refugees, apparently, did not travel too far to find a new place to call home. Along the coast of the Persian Gulf, archaeologists found more than 60 sites appearing suddenly from culturally advanced peoples, where before only a few hunter-gather camps dotted the landscape.

The Gulf Oasis refugees survived by a combination of fishing, date palm cultivation, and raising livestock. These newcomers managed to also continue their network of overseas trading. By 7,000 years ago, there is evidence that the refugees from the sunken oasis were also using irrigation in the northern portion of the coastline. Archaeologists suggest that the irrigation developed there eventually led to the creation of cities.

The Gulf Oasis was at the southern tip of the Fertile Crescent, or Mesopotamia. The Fertile Crescent eventually gave rise to some of the first cities, including Ur, which was located in the southern portion of Mesopotamia. One famous resident of Ur was Abraham, considered to be the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions.

While the use of religious books to interpret archaeological findings is a highly dubious and controversial practice, it may be possible that echoes of the submerged oasis have passed through to modern times via traditional stories. Oral traditions can carry information about past changes in geography.

For example, Rose quotes a Portuguese explorer, Pedro Teixeira, who traveled to the island Bahrain in 1603. Bahrain would have been part of the Gulf Oasis before the creation of the Persian Gulf.

"Certain of the oldest Moors of the isle, with whom I spoke of this, told me that these springs were once far inland; but the sea broke in and overflowed them, as we see at this day," wrote Teixeira.

Rose is aware of the similarities between mythology and archaeology regarding the Gulf Oasis. But he tried to steer clear of mythology in his article and look solely at the science.

"Indeed, there has been quite a bit of speculation about the mythological implications of the Gulf basin as the genesis of both the Eden as well as the Deluge myth. As a scientist, these are perilous waters to tread since it touches upon some very sensitive subjects," Rose told Discovery News.

One aspect of a Biblical story mirrored in the Gulf Oasis is the number and names of waterways. Springs welling up from aquifers beneath Arabia and four rivers - Tigris, Euphrates, Karun, and Wadi Batin - fed the Gulf Oasis, according to Rose. The Tigris and Euphrates are also described in the Biblical book of Genesis, as associated with the Garden of Eden. Though Rose did not speculate on any connection between the Gulf Oasis and the Biblical paradise, I can't help but wonder.

Other researchers have speculated about past flooding events inspiring legends that have lasted to present day. Geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman, detailed in their 1998 book, Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History, their work analyzing a flood event in what is now the Black Sea that inundated local communities and, they proposed, may have formed the seed for the story of Noah's flood.

The flooding of the Gulf Oasis occurred at roughly the same time, fits the description of the Garden of Eden better, and was closer to the homeland of Abraham, whose descendants would go on to tell the story of the flood and the people and livestock who escaped it.

"Certainly, I think there is compelling evidence to suggest that both the flood and Eden myths may be rooted in these events around the Gulf basin. When we trace the flood myth back in time from Genesis, it appears almost verbatim in Babylonian and Sumerian sources (living in southern Mesopotamia/ northern shoreline of the Gulf) at least back to 2,500 BC when writing was first used to tell stories." Rose said.

"Moreover, the Sumerians kept careful records of their rulers called the "King List." In every King List, they mention 10 rulers before "the great flood washed over the land," followed by the post-deluge list of monarchs," Rose said.

It is possible that actual geological events may have made their way into the oral traditions of people in the area. Those stories may survive to this day in the holy books of world religions.

"Epigraphic evidence suggests this was indeed the case, with the oldest flood accounts impressed on Ur III clay tablets from Lower Mesopotamia, followed by a virtually unbroken chain of transmission through Akkadian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and Qur'anic iterations," said Rose in the discussion section of his article in Current Anthropology.

Rose quoted the author of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, to make his point, "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands."

PHOTO 1: Oasis such as this one, Wadi Bani Khalid, provide an important source of water in the otherwise dry surroundings; istockphoto. PHOTO 2: The Persian Gulf; Wikimedia Commons PHOTO 3: Map of City-states in the Fertile Crescent; Wikimedia Commons PHOTO 4: Noah's sacrifice by Daniel Maclise; Wikimedia Commons