The Homo erectus in today’s Saudi Arabia were too conservative to survive

Saffaqah Stone Tools (Image courtesy Shipton et al.)
Saffaqah Stone Tools (Image courtesy Shipton et al.)

An article published in the journal “PLOS ONE” describes a research on a population of Homo erectus which claims that their extinction was partly due to their laziness. A team coordinated by the Australian National University (ANU) excavated in Saffaqah, near Dawadmi, in central Saudi Arabia, examined remains belonging to the acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic, concluding that in the collection of resources and in the production of tools, local Homo erectus used minimal effort strategies with poor adaptability that could have been fatal in the long run.

The acheulean culture was first studied in the 19th century thanks to the discoveries made in the Saint-Acheul suburb of Amiens, France. According to the reconstructions carried out over time, about 750,000 years ago stones worked symmetrically and consequently called bifaces, started spreading in Africa and later in Europe and South-Western Asia. During the 1970s, acheulean sites were discovered near the Arab city of Dawadmi, and one of them was discovered near the village of Saffaqah, the target of this new research conducted by a team led by Dr. Ceri Shipton of ANU.

The artifacts found at Saffaqah were made mostly of andesite but local Homo erectus sometimes also used quartz, rhyolite and granite. According to dating carried out during research conducted in the 1980s, some artifacts were over 200,000 years old, the oldest found in the Arabian Peninsula at the time. The excavations and the survey conducted by Dr. Ceri Shipton’s team took place in 2014.

The conclusions of the researchers after examining the artifacts found is that the local Homo erectus had a very conservative attitude in the search for resources and in the production of tools. They believe that this, together with an inability to adapt to climate change, may have caused the collapse of that population in the long run.

Dr. Ceri Shipton explained that the analysis of thousands of artifacts discovered at the Saffaqah site indicates that those Homo erectus produced their tools with whatever stone they found near their camp. He made a comparison with the behaviors of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, who went to look for good quality stones in places that were sometimes distant in order to produce good tools.

The sediments discovered at the Saffaqah site indicate that the environment was changing during the time when Homo erectus lived there but they continued doing the same things with their tools. The lack of progress to adapt to changes, and in particular to the fact that conditions were becoming increasingly dry and the transformation of the environment into the desert existing today, may have caused the collapse of their population.

Dr. Ceri Shipton thinks those causes could have contributed to the extinction of the whole Homo erectus species. Those are opinions bound to raise controversy. The Homo erectus species emerged about 1.8 million years ago and probably died out around 140,000 years ago, which means that it survived for a very long time. The Homo sapiens species has existed for perhaps 300,000 years, a fraction of the period in which the Homo erectus existed.

The article seems far more prudent in its conclusions, which concern the population of Homo erectus who lived in the area of ​​today’s Saffaqah. Dr. Ceri Shipton extended them to the whole species but it’s an extrapolation that represents a personal opinion. It’s difficult to understand the motivations of such ancient populations that belonged to a different species, generalizing them is far-fetched.

Dr. Ceri Shipton during the excavations (Photo courtesy ANU)
Dr. Ceri Shipton during the excavations (Photo courtesy ANU)

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