Newspapers and journals all over the world last month rushed to report on an extraordinary discovery in a Saudi Arabian desert — that of an 85,000-year-old fossilized human finger bone. The significance of this discovery lies in the fact that, up until that point, it was thought that Homo sapiens had moved from the African continent to the Middle East a mere 60,000 years ago; thus it challenged everything we thought we knew about the migration of early humans and their settlement outside the continent of their origin.
Researchers have said the finding is the oldest human fossil on record unearthed outside of Africa and the Levant — and the oldest human remains to be found in the Kingdom. That we have been able to unearth countless leads and windows to our origins as a race in the past few decades is owed largely to the incredible advances in science and technology made around the world.
Across the globe, new discoveries of ancient mass graves, human tools and artefacts, and the remains of entire civilizations are regularly made. However, even with the archaeological discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula, the area (in my opinion) had been largely untapped until recently. Earlier this year, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage announced the discovery of yet another archaeological gem, that of life-sized camel sculptures dating back to between 100BC and 100AD, according to estimates, in the desert rocks of Al-Jouf Region. All over the Kingdom, as many as 35 joint archaeological missions consisting of Saudi archaeologists and others from around the world are searching for ancient and historical treasures and working to uncover the remains of the ancient and diverse civilizations in the region. This, of course, is great news for historians and history lovers everywhere.
If 2018 is to become an important point in Saudi Arabia’s history from an archaeological standpoint, the year 1996 marked a turning point in the history of all living organisms. This was the year that Prof. Keith Campbell and embryologist Ian Wilmut, along with other colleagues at the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh, succeeded in cloning Dolly, the most famous sheep in the world. Dolly was cloned using amammary gland cell, proving that a cell taken from a specific part of the body could recreate a whole individual. Since Dolly, scientists have been able to clone rats, cats, dogs, pigs, as well as an attempt at the Pyrenean ibex, an extinct wild mountain goat.
The significance of Dolly does not end there. If all we need to (theoretically) recreate a living thing is a single cell, why stop at an animal? With such advancements, who is to say we cannot bring Neanderthals back to existence to learn more about them and what really happened to their kind? Why speculate about certain species of the past when you can recreate them and get a more accurate glimpse into history, using modern science and technology? In fact, scientists are currently preparing to create “miniature brains” that have been genetically engineered to contain Neanderthal DNA.
Just as the potential uses of science and technology are limitless, so are the potential archaeological treasures in an area like the Arabian Peninsula. While there is evidence that human habitation in the peninsula dates back to somewhere between 106,000 and 130,000 years ago, much is left for us to learn and verify about its history.
The Arabian Gulf countries provide the perfect platform to marry history and science together in order to uncover larger chapters in the story of humans in general. To do that, scientists, historians and governments must work to generate more interest in modern science and help people understand how it can be an instrumental tool, not only to improve lives but also to understand human history. They should also encourage people to learn about the historical significance of the region (from a factual perspective as opposed to the traditional fable-based perspective). More importantly, however, governments and private sector players must recognize the value of investing in modern science and technology to help historians study and understand the region’s past in relation to the rest of the world’s.
Investing in modern science for the sole purpose of uncovering historical segments coming from the Arabian Peninsula can have an immense impact on how historians in the region work; forensics and archaeology, for example, make it possible to analyze DNA to determine migration routes and family relationships. They can help us determine how people lived and why they died. Quite often, historical figures such as Tutankhamun are excavated to run some tests on their remains and try to find out how they died.
Modern science also allows us to date documents, artefacts or biological remains, and can help us accurately determine the composition of materials, which can help us understand where they came from and how they were produced. Using special multi-spectrum lights and cameras, even damaged ancient documents can now be read and analyzed. Furthermore, computational simulations are now used to test the validity of historical claims, as it allows us to, for instance, simulate how bright a supernova would have been for observers in 1572, or what the positions of Jupiter’s moons were at the time of Galileo’s observations.
The incredible strides in modern science and technology are rarely, if ever, associated with history at first glance, due to the stark contrast of modern and pre-modern they usually invoke in people’s minds. However, the age we live in today could possibly be the best for the seekers of the history of our species and the world at large, precisely because of scientific and technological advancements that allow us to piece together important fragments of history. Thus, given the significance of the latest archaeological finds in the Arabian Peninsula, it is vital that we invest more time, effort and funds in scientific and technological tools that will enable us uncover larger truths in the story of humankind, and put a large piece of the puzzle where it belongs.
• Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif