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Africa-Arabia connections: coastal environments, tectonics and human dispersals


This project focussed on two themes that are highly topical areas of current debate:

  • The potential role of the ‘southern dispersal route’ for human dispersal out of Africa, via the southern Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, and the most likely palaeogeographical and climatic windows of opportunity for transit of the Bab al Mandab Straits and the coastline of the Indian Ocean during the glacial-interglacial cycle;
  • The time depth of human exploitation of marine resources and the presence or otherwise of coastal adaptations during periods of lower sea level and their contribution to patterns of early human dispersal.


Project members
Project dates
  • 2003-2006
Funding bodies
  • NERC (EFCHED Programme)
  • British Academy
  • Saudi ARAMCO
  • Shell Companies Overseas
  • The Saudi British Bank (SABB)
  • The Deputy Ministry of Antiquities and Museums, Saudi Arabia
  • The Supreme Commission for Tourism, Saudi Arabia
  • The Ministry of Defence and Aviation, Saudi Arabia
  • The Department of Military Survey, Ministry of Defence and Aviation, Saudi Arabia


  • Reconstruction of Quaternary palaeoshorelines in relation to bathymetry, sea-level change, and tectonic and isostatic movements
  • Modelling of rift formation and mapping of tectonic landscapes
  • Underwater exploration of submerged coastlines
  • Investigation and dating of known Palaeolithic sites on land and the potential for more detailed correlation between archaeological, geological and palaeoclimatic records


Work comprised:
  • Desktop analyses of geological records and satellite and bathymetric data for the Red Sea Basin and adjacent regions
  • Laboratory analyses, principally dating of field samples together with some limited isotope analysis of deep-sea cores from the Red Sea
  • Training of an underwater diving team with a capability in mixed gas diving with nitrox (nitrogen-oxygen) and trimix (nitrogen-oxygen-helium), which allow safe diving for longer periods and at greater depths (down to –90m) than compressed air
  • Exploration of underwater caves offshore of Gibraltar during dive training
  • Exploratory fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, with field surveys in 2004 and 2006, including on-land and underwater survey in the Farasan Islands
We have:
  • Provided a systematic evaluation of the Palaeolithic archaeology and landscapes on the southern Red Sea coastline of the Arabian Peninsula, together with new radiometric dates
  • Improved understanding of the environmental and geographical constraints on early human dispersal across the northern and southern ends of the Red Sea
  • Produced detailed maps of changes in the shoreline of the Red Sea with varying sea level during the glacial-interglacial cycle of the past 800,000 years, and to a lower level of precision or certainty for the past 2 million years, and the varying width of the sea channels at the southern end (Bab al Mandab Straits) and the northern end (Gulf of Suez), corrected for isostatic and tectonic effects
  • Refined understanding of tectonic effects on the human palaeogeography of the Red Sea, both at the large scale of rift propagation within the Red Sea as a whole and at the local scale in relation to salt tectonics
  • Discovered a rich and largely undamaged onshore record of Postglacial shell mounds on the Farasan Islands, which provide a benchmark for the geoarchaeological signature of a marine-adapted human economy that can be used to guide the search for earlier and now-submerged coastal sites
  • Explored submerged palaeoshoreline features down to depths of -60 m using mixed gas diving techniques
  • Developed computer methods for converting satellite images into maps of topographic complexity and tectonic activity, indicating areas of potential attractiveness to human settlement and dispersal at a variety of scale
  • Articulated more detailed hypotheses about the effects of palaeogeographical factors on human evolution and dispersal with respect to tectonic and coastal landscapes


  • Lambeck, K., Purcell, A., Flemming, N.C., Vita-Finzi, C., Alsharekh, A., Bailey, G.N. (In press).  Sea level and shoreline reconstructions for the Red Sea: isostatic and tectonic considerations and implications for hominin migration out of Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews
  • Bailey, G.N., King, G.C.P. (2011). Dynamic landscapes and human evolution: tectonics, coastlines and the reconstruction of human habitats. Quaternary Science Reviews 30: 1533–53, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.06.019.
  • Bailey, G.N., Reynolds, S, & King, G.C.P. (2011). Landscapes of human evolution: models and methods of tectonic geomorphology and the reconstruction of hominin landscapes. Journal of Human Evolution 60 (3): 257–80, doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.01.004.
  • Bailey, G.N., King, G.C.P.  (2011). Living with sea level change and dynamic landscapes: an archaeological perspective. In V. Badescu, R, Cathcart (eds.) Macro-engineering Seawater in Unique Environments. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 1–26.
  • Bailey, G.N. (2011). Continental shelf archaeology: where next? In J. Benjamin, C. Bonsall, K. Pickard, A. Fischer (eds.) Submerged Prehistory. Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 311–31.
  • Bailey, G.N. (2010). Earliest coastal settlement: marine palaeoeconomies, submerged landscapes and human dispersals: the Africa-Arabia connection. In A. Anderson, J. Barrett, K. Boyle (eds.) The Global Origins and Development of Seafaring. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 29–40.
  • Bailey, G.N. (2009). The Red Sea, coastal landscapes, and hominin dispersals. In M. Petraglia & J. Rose (eds.) The Evolution of Human Populations in Arabia. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, pp. 15–37.
  • Bailey, G.N. & Flemming, N. (2008). Archaeology of the continental shelf: marine resources, submerged landscapes and underwater archaeology. Quaternary Science Reviews 27 (23–24), 2153–65.
  • Bailey, G.N, Al Sharekh, A., Flemming N., Lambeck, K., Momber, G., Sinclair, A. & Vita-Finzi, C. (2007). Coastal prehistory in the southern Red Sea Basin: underwater archaeology and the Farasan Islands. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 37: 1–16
  • Bailey, G.N., Flemming N., King, G.C.P., Lambeck, K., Momber, G., Moran, L., Al-Sharekh, A. & Vita-Finzi, C. In press (2007). Coastlines, submerged landscapes and human evolution: the Red Sea basin and the Farasan Islands. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 2 (2).
  • King, G.C.P. & Bailey, G.N. 2006. Tectonics and Human Evolution. Antiquity 80: 265–86.
  • Vita-Finzi, C. & Spiro, B. 2006. Isotopic indicators of deformation in the Red Sea. Journal of Structural Geology 28: 1114–1122.
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