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Latest Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World


Persian Gulf the Cradle of Civilisation or Just another pre-Historic Culture in the region?


16 February 2011



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Maps of Persian Gulf

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Jeffrey Rose secured a prestigious AHRC Early Career Research Grant worth £205,000 for his fieldwork project entitled Archaeological and Palaeoenvironmental Investigation of Upper Pleistocene human occupation in the Dhofar Mountains, in Oman. The project, running from July 2009 until June 2012, involves three seasons of survey and excavation in the Sultanate of Oman.


LONDON, (CAIS) -- Is the Persian Gulf the Cradle of Civilisation or Just another pre-historic culture? Dr Jeffrey Rose, archaeologist and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham, in a recently published paper theorises that beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf lies a 'Civilisation'.  


Rose’s paper summarises 'theories' that the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf may well hide evidence of the earliest human migrations out of Africa. So far no scientific evidence has been offered to back the claim.


According to Rose, around 8,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age drew to a close, rising sea levels resulting from the melting of the ice caused the Indian Ocean to break through a natural barrier in what is now known as the Straits of Hormuz. In what must have been the mother of all waterfalls, sea water poured through the gap and over a period of some 200 years flooded what had been a fertile plain, watered by rivers including the Tigris and Euphrates in what is nowadays Iraq,  as well as Karun (Kārun) in Iran and springs which welled up from an aquifer through the karstic limestone which lines the basin. 


He further adds, such springs still exist to this day and are thought to have given rise to the name of modern Bahrain  – ‘two seas’, ie salt and fresh water. However Bahrain is a new term. The modern state was called Mishmahig (mišmāhig) before 7th century CE Arabs emigration to the area.


Rose believes during the Pleistocene period, which ended around 12,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the southern part of the Persian Gulf were among the first anatomically modern humans to branch from the common ancestral population that first appeared in East Africa some 190,000 years ago.


The Persian Gulf is a shallow epi-continental sea approximately 1,000 km long and some 200-350 km wide, narrowing to about 60 km across at the Straits of Hormuz. It is bounded to the west by the deserts of the Arabian peninsula, to the east by the Zagros mountain range and the Iranian plateau and to the north by the Mesopotamian floodplain. The sea is one of the shallowest in the world, averaging only 35m in depth. During the glacial period in the northern continents the worldwide sea level was 120m lower than in the modern era, and along the basin of the Persian Gulf ran a prehistoric river, the Arvand Rud (Arabic Shatt-Al-Arab) located between Iran and Iraq discharging into the Indian Ocean at the Strait of Hormuz.


It is inconceivable, given the nature of much of the harsh surrounding landscape, that early humans did not make use of the most precious of all commodities: plentiful fresh water. Rose theorises that this well-watered fertile land could have seen human occupation for over 100,000 years.  From about 74,000 years ago until 8,000 years ago the Persian Gulf oasis formed the southern tip of what is known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’. The low-lying floodplain of the Arvand-Rud included not only the river itself but two sizeable lakes, a mosaic of springs, mangrove swamps and estuaries.


Modern archaeology in the Arabian peninsula dates to about 60 years ago. It got off to a slow start with the Danish expedition to Qatar in the 1960s, designating as Paleolithic what they regarded as early examples of stone tools. Then came the French scientific expedition a decade later. Based on their excavations at sites around Al Khor, they dismissed the Danes’ tentative dating and postulated that the whole assemblage of stone tools in Qatar was no older than the Neolithic period, i.e. around 7,000 years before the present era. 


For many years most scholars accepted the dating put forward by the French expedition. It was known, from carbon dating of charcoal found in the Krafteh Cave in the Zagros Mountains in Iran-proper, that humans occupied the cave 35,000 years ago, and still remains undisputed. In 2009 the discovery of a surface scatter of stone tools at Ras ‘Ushayriq on the north-west coast of nowadays Qatar which dated to 7,500 years ago reinforced the French dating.


In the last decade, archaeologists have identified over 60 settlements along the shores of the Persian Gulf, dating to about 7,500 years ago. The scattered camps of Neolithic hunter-gatherers were already known, but these were settlements, occupied by modern people who built permanent stone houses, made fine decorated pottery and sophisticated ‘pressure-flaked’ tools of flint, grew crops, domesticated animals, constructed sea-worthy boats and established long-distance trading networks. 


Where did they come from? Such civilisations, if they were civilisations do not spring up overnight and Rose insubstantiality and conveniently claims that 'evidence' of preceding populations is missing because it is hidden beneath the Persian Gulf.  He said, “These new colonists may have come from the heart of the Persian Gulf, displaced by rising water levels that plunged the once fertile landscape beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean.”


“It is no coincidence,” he went on, “that the founding of such remarkably well developed [pre-Arab] communities along the shoreline corresponds with the flooding of the Persian Gulf basin around 8,000 years ago.”


However, if such a 'Culture' or 'Civilisation' as Rose claims to exist beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf, they were perhaps the extended communities of the Zagros people rather than romanticised claim of East African origin.


Water was vital to human settlement. Much later, in the Bronze Age when the Dilmun culture flourished in the Persian Gulf, the Sumerian legend of the god Enki and his consort Ninhursag relates, “For Dilmun... I will create long waterways, rivers and canals, whereby water will flow to quench the thirst of all beings and bring abundance to the land.” 


On the former Iranian islands of Mishmahig (Bahrain), only after its separation from mainland Iran in 1970 and after emigration of Arabs to the islands brought an increased population which drained the aquifers near the surface.


There is  evidence that humans could have been in the region even before the Persian Gulf oasis suffered its catastrophic flooding. Recently, sites in Oman and Yemen have produced a type of stone tool very different  from those in East African tradition. They bear affinities with Levantine and Zagros stone tool assemblages. This suggests that human beings could have been established in the south of the Arabian Peninsula as long ago as 100,000 years, or even longer. To such early migrants, the fresh water of the Persian Gulf and the green trees and vegetation would have been a sanctuary amid the barren desert landscapes.


It may well be that deep beneath the busy shipping lanes which now criss-cross the waters of the Persian Gulf may lie vital pieces of the human evolutionary puzzle. Meanwhile, a project between Qatar Museums Authority and The University of Birmingham, directed by Dr Richard Cuttler, is undertaking research into this former landscape to investigate the former environments and archaeological remains within the Persian Gulf.



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