Archaeology: Footprints from the past

A recent dramatic find of prehistoric footprints in Al Gharbia has set the hearts and minds of international scientists and archaeologists alight

One of the brightest jewels in Abu Dhabi’s crown, Al Gharbia would seem to already have a near perfect array of glittering facets. Fringed by 350km of untouched coastline and soothed by the warm waters of the Gulf, it expands inland across over 60,000 sq km of arid desert and is punctuated by idyllic oases and modern cities.

Now with the recent discovery of ancient elephant tracks, in a region already brimming with archaeological treasure, this fascinating corner of the UAE is once again capturing the attention of the world’s scientific community.

Visually stunning

This most dramatic find in recent times was revealed in a study published in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, in February 2012. Global headlines reverberated with the news that the world’s oldest elephant tracks had been discovered. The report, co-authored by an international team from Germany, France, the United States and the UAE, was led by Faysal Bibi, a researcher at the Institut International de Paléoprimatologie. Co-authors include Andrew Hill, Professor of Anthropology at Yale University and Dr Beech of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA).

The site where the prehistoric footprints were discovered is known as Mleisa 1. Located in the Baynunah Formation it has revealed the ancient trackway of a herd of at least 13 elephants of varying sizes and age; there was at least one calf in the herd. The seven-million-year-old footprints are not the world’s oldest elephant tracks but provide the first concrete evidence of how the ancestors of modern elephants interacted. Covering an area of five hectares, this is now the largest known trackway site in the world. In another exciting find nearby, a 260m-long track of a solitary male leads off in a different direction. Taken together, the two trackways show behavioural similarities to living elephants: adult females lead the herds while males leave at the point of sexual maturity, returning only to mate.

“Basically, this is fossilised behaviour,” says Bibi. “This is an absolutely unique site, a really rare opportunity in the fossil record that lets you see animal behaviour in a way you couldn’t otherwise do with bones and teeth.”

It is a curious thought that seven million years ago elephants were roaming along a muddy track in an area that is now arid desert. Yet the footprints that a solo male and a herd of elephants left in the mud which hardened, were buried and later re-exposed by erosion, are proof of the tale. “The trackways are visually stunning,” says Hill. “They present a visitor with a sensation of walking back in time, across a Miocene landscape where elephants might have strolled by just a little time before.”

But the Mleisa elephants looked very different to those of the 21st century. According to the study, while they were certainly proboscideans with their distinctive curled tusks – and therefore of the same order – these were probably of the genus Stegotetrabelodon syrticus, a primitive elephant whose remains have been found in North Africa and Arabia.

The key difference is that instead of simply having two tusks in the upper jaw, they also had another pair in the lower jaw. Apparently, having four tusks would have made it easier to extract the vegetation from the higher branches of trees.

An ever-shifting landscape

Few visitors to a desert landscape can conjure up a vision of a land covered by water, but 150 million years ago the UAE was a part of a vast sea floor under the Tethys Ocean. It was only about 40 million years ago that the Arabian Peninsula was formed after the rifting which created the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Fossils from the late Miocene period, when the elephants are thought to have roamed this land, portray areas of savannah-like grasslands surrounding watering-holes around which animals naturally collected. The now extinct Baynunah river once flowed through the Al Gharbia region creating a multitude of rivulets and channels, lined by grasses, shrubs, acacias and palm trees. Now known as the Baynunah formation, it is thought to have been part of a larger system which, today, is represented by the Tigris and Euphrates.

Around 43 species of vertebrates have been identified from the remains of animals that once grazed and hunted on the Baynunah. Here lived members of the equid family, precursors of the horse and ass. Hippopotami and crocodiles existed side by side with turtles, monkeys, sabre-toothed cats, squirrels and rats. It is believed that large grazing animals such as the antelope and the giraffe’s ancestor first appeared in this region. Ostriches trod the same paths as elephants. Many of these animals resemble those identified during the same period in Africa, with similarities to Asian and European species.

Unsurprisingly, many of the artefacts were discovered near water sources and the bones of animals came from domesticated varieties. Rock formations, fossils and artefacts show the developing picture of the landscape over the centuries. When humans first appeared in the region, the Gulf, as we know it today, was merely a river bounded by trees. Some 8,000 years ago it was flooded with seawater, caused largely by rising temperatures which affected populations across the globe. In addition, movement of the earth’s axis shifted the monsoon belt with the result that the Gulf regions experienced a much wetter climate than today. Two thousand years later, the world turned once more: the lakes and water sources, previously created, disappeared in a new and drier era.