U-Th and 40Ar/39Ar Dating of Palaeolithic Landscapes at Wadi Dabsa, southwest Saudi Arabia

  • Stone, Abi (PI)
  • Sahy, Diana (CoI)
  • Inglis, Robyn H. (CoI)
  • Barford, Dan, N. (CoI)

Project Details


This project will employs a multi-method approach to reconstruct the past environmental conditions at Wadi Dabsa in the southwest of Saudi Arabia. Palaeoenvironmental records are sparse in this part of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, which means that a detailed understanding of the environments and landscapes occupied by Palaeolithic populations in the Saharo-Arabian belt is still to be developed. Reconstructing landscape development and palaeoenvironmental conditions is vital to better understand the timing and mechanisms of dispersals of hominin populations from Africa.

The volcanic landscapes of the Harrat al Birk, SW Saudi Arabia contain tufa carbonate deposits, which represent rarely-exploited palaeoenvironmental records, and in the case of those within the Wadi Dabsa basin, are associated with a newly-discovered concentration of Palaeolithic artefacts. Over 3000 Early (ESA) and Middle Stone Age (MSA) artefacts (potentially dating to 1.8 Ma to 300 ka and 300 to 30 ka respectively) have been collected here, making it one of the richest Palaeolithic localities recorded to date in SW Saudi Arabia. To fully understand the artefacts, and their implications for hominin activity, we therefore need to constrain them within their palaeoenvironmental and chronological context. The hydrology, and subsurface hydrogeology, of the Wadi Dabsa basin may also have been influenced by active phases of volcanism during the Quaternary. 

The multi-method approach involves U-Th dating (this proposal) and δ18O & δ13C analysis of tufa carbonates (which is scheduled to be undertaken by PI Stone with terrestrial carbonate expert Ian Candy at RHUL) and 40Ar/39Ar dating of basalts (this proposal) within lava flows in this volcanic landscape. Geomorphological mapping has been undertaken in order to start to unpick the history of landscape development at this site and to guide the collection of tufa and basalt samples to constrain the chronology of the basin’s development. The proposed analyses date the tufa deposition (U-Th) and basalt flow emplacement (40Ar/39Ar) within the basin to provide (a) the chronological context for the important palaeoenvironmental archive provided by the tufa in this dryland landscape that lacks a richness of available proxies and (b) a chronologically-constrained landscape context for the Palaeolithic archaeology to enable the assessment of human-environment interactions at Wadi Dabsa. This allows us to test the working hypothesis that humans utilised this landscape within wetter episodes in the past when this site was a particularly attractive site to animals that served as prey to be hunted.
Effective start/end date1/10/171/07/21

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water
  • SDG 15 - Life on Land


  • Geoarchaeology
  • Chronology
  • Quaternary Science
  • U-Th dating


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