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Human Interaction with the Environment in the Red Sea

Selected Papers of Red Sea Project VI

Edited by Dionysius A. Agius, Emad Khalil, Eleanor Scerri and Alun Williams

This volume contains a selection of fourteen papers presented at the Red Sea VI conference held at Tabuk University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2013. It sheds light on many aspects related to the environmental and biological perspectives, history, archaeology and human culture of the Red Sea, opening the door to more interdisciplinary research in the region. It stimulates a new discourse on different human adaptations to, and interactions with, the environment.

With contributions by Andre Antunes, K. Christopher Beard, Ahmed Hussein, Emad Khalil, Solène Marion de Procé, Abdirachid Mohamed, Ania Kotarba-Morley, Sandra Olsen, Andrew Peacock, Eleanor Scerri, Pierre Schneider, Marijke Van Der Veen and Chiara Zazzaro.

Chiara Zazzaro


For at least seven centuries Adulis has regulated the maritime trade of the people of the Northern Horn of Africa with the Mediterranean and India, first as main market for the people of the region and later on – at least from the late fourth and fifth centuries AD onwards – as a port also for transhipping goods from India to the Mediterranean. Its main role in the trade dynamics of the southern Red Sea and in the region has been assessed by recent and previous surveys and excavations, but the anchorage, landing facilities and port structures have not yet been found. Another aspect, relevant for outlining the maritime vocation of Adulis and its inhabitants, is its “fleet”, the existence of which is mentioned in the Martyrium Sancti Arethae and suggested by other sources but no traces of the ship remains, iconography or ship-related equipment has been found so far.

Abdirachid Mohamed Ismail


This article will focus in this article on a tale which illustrates the cultural contacts between the Arabo-Persian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa and particularly the Persian influence on the Somali coast. This tale is a revisited version of the famous Greek story of Aesop, the Lion’s Share. We will show that this tale, one the most famous folktale among Somalis, is so well integrated into the Somali oral literature that it has never been seen as an exogenous tale. We also show that it is the Persian version of Mohamed Djalal-Od Dīn Rumi which is the source of the Somali version, although the late has lost the mystical dimension given to it by the Persian poet.

Edited by Dionisius A. Agius, Emad Khalil, Eleanor M.L. Scerri and Alun Williams

K. Christopher Beard, Pauline M.C. Coster, Mustafa J. Salem, Yaowalak Chaimanee and Jean-Jacques Jaeger


Distributional patterns of early Oligocene mammals from the northern part of Afro-Arabia support at least a moderate degree of faunal provincialism at that time. These patterns of endemism are surprising given the generally similar paleoenvironmental settings of faunas currently known from the early Oligocene of Zallah Oasis in Libya, Fayum in Egypt and Dhofar Province in Oman. Possible explanations for these faunal differences across northern Afro-Arabia include habitat fragmentation caused by the cooler, drier climatic conditions of the early Oligocene and the presence of marine barriers to dispersal caused by tectonic rifting and changes in global eustasy. Further work is necessary to clarify the nature of faunal provincialism across northern Afro-Arabia during the early Oligocene and its impact on macroevolutionary patterns among early African mammals.

Eleanor M.L. Scerri


The Red Sea and the deserts on both sides of it are often seen as barriers to Pleistocene human dispersals. It is typically assumed that the Saharo-Arabian arid belt was too dry to be able to support populations of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. However, recent research across this region increasingly indicates that past environmental amelioration events transformed the desert into grasslands with extensive lake and river networks from at least 130 thousand years ago. Crucially, similar stone tool assemblages associated with these hydrological networks have now been found across the Saharo-Arabian belt, indicating that that Arabia played a key role in the human story. This paper reviews the evidence and argues that the Red Sea is more of a theoretical boundary to archaeologists that it was to the prehistoric people inhabiting the Saharo-Arabian belt.

André Antunes


Tectonic splitting of the Arabian and African plates originated the Red Sea together with one of the most unique, remote, and extreme environments on earth: deep-sea anoxic brine lakes. They combine multiple extremes namely increased salinity (7-fold), temperature (up to 70°C), concentration of heavy metals (1,000- to 10,000-fold), and hydrostatic pressure.1

Despite such harsh conditions, they harbour an unexpectedly high biodiversity and are teeming with life. Increased interest in their microbiology led to multiple recent and on-going studies. Highlights of this research include: the isolation, physiological characterisation and genome sequencing of unusual new extremophilic microbes; the identification of several novel phylogenetic lineages; and on-going cultivation- and molecular-based assessment of microbial community variation between and within different brines.2

The uniqueness of these environments offers a high potential for discovery of new microbes, strategies and biomolecules to cope with extreme conditions, and biotechnological applications.

Solène Marion de Procé


Archaeological investigations in the Farasān archipelago (southern Red Sea, Saudi Arabia) in the past decade have unveiled unsuspected historical information regarding Antiquity in that part of the Red Sea. The presence of South Arabian inscriptions and artefacts has been outlined. Exchange with the northern Horn of Africa still needs to be defined through further archaeological investigations. As for the Roman presence, Latin inscriptions testified that a military detachment settled on the islands in the 2nd century AD. Archaeological surveys have revealed architectural elements and artefacts that are relevant to this phase of occupation and provide preliminary information on the material presence of Roman soldiers; further investigation will hopefully shed light on the interaction of these with local inhabitants through the study of material culture.

Marijke van der Veen and Jacob Morales


The Red Sea has long functioned as a major conduit for long-distance trade and several harbours on its coast played key roles in the ancient spice trade. Excavations at one of these ports, Quseir al-Qadim (Roman Myos Hormos and Islamic Kusayr), have revealed many well-preserved food remains, and these are providing new insights into early antecedents of food globalisation. The range of spices traded and changes in the scale and nature of the trade over time are discussed, as are the impacts of the introduced plants on local foodways and agricultural production. Food and geopolitics are found to be intricately linked.

Ahmed Hussein Abdelrahman Adam


This study discusses the impact of the geographical nature of the Red Sea on the material culture of the region, especially in Aqiq, one of the most important ports in the region. This research focuses on the natural resources of that area and how ports were affected by them (e.g. the coral reefs in the surrounding environment and the prevailing climate in Aqiq). Also the paper looks at different types of material culture found in Aqiq unearthed through field work conducted in the area. This includes cemeteries, small finds, pottery, jewellery items, and other imported and local goods. Thus, it can be said that the Aqiq port was a centre of cultural interaction as reflected on its buildings, other constructions, the community in various respects and the culture products as whole.