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Red Sea Coast of Eritrea (2005 – 2009)

For my dissertation, I conducted a pioneering archaeological survey and excavation of Stone Age sites along the Red Sea Coast of Eritrea, Northeast Africa. The African side of the Red Sea basin plays a central role in the current debate about early human dispersal routes out of Africa, because human populations specifically adapted to coastal environments in Northeast Africa - to which the Eritrean coastal landscapes form a significant portion - are thought to have been source populations for human dispersal into Southwest Asia and Arabia. Unfortunately, the region had seen little prior research due to protracted political instability in the neighboring countries. As such, our knowledge of human adaption on the African side of the Red Sea has been limited compared to the interior territories.

The region where my research took place encompasses two prominent landscapes: the Buri Peninsula and Gulf of Zula. The study area occupies an important position at the nexus of three broad ecological zones: the highland escarpments to the west, the Danakil depression to the south and coastal plains adjacent to the seashore, making it attractive for migrating humans from the highlands and the Afar rift basins. Survey and excavation of prehistoric sites on the Eritrean coast hoped to address the following specific questions:


§  Under what climatic conditions have the Buri and Zula coastal plains become attractive for Upper

    Pleistocene and Holocene human settlements?

§ What economic and technological developments were associated with human adaptation of the Buri 
    Peninsula and Gulf of Zula?
§ How were Prehistoric human settlements organized with respect to the Red Sea shorelines and adjacent
    terrestrial landscapes?

My project documented more than a dozen prehistoric sites representing Middle and Late Stone Age cultural periods. Three sites, namely Asfet, Gelalo NW and Misse East (see figure below) were selected for detailed survey and excavation and formed the basis my dissertation work.



 Asfet – Middle Stone Age Surface Lithic Assemblage

Located on the southwestern edge of the Gulf of Zula (800 -1000 m from the present shoreline), the Asfet Site  encompasses a low laying sandy basin between two north-south running basalt ridges ranging 10-30 m above sea level. No characteristic marine deposits are visible within the site’s perimeter today. Such deposits may have been either eroded away or sea level did not reach the area in the recent past.

A distinctive Middle Stone Age occupation was identified from surface lithic evidence at Asfet. Prepared cores, points and blades on a variety of raw materials characterize the Asfet surface assemblage (see representative artifacts below). The assemblage shows technological affinity with some assemblages from the Arabian Peninsula, thereby indicating at least intermittent population contacts between the two sides of the Red Sea in the Upper Pleistocene. Prehistoric humans successfully adapted to the Eritrean coast may have continued moving southward up to the vicinity of the Strait of Bab al Mandab afterwards crossing into the Arabian Peninsula.


Go to the slideshow below to view more photos of Middle Stone Age artifacts. 
Late Stone Age Shellmiddens

Excavation of three selected sites (Asfet Unit F, Gelalo NW and Misse East) revealed Late Stone Age occupations associated with coastal economy as indicated by mollusk exploitation. Blade production and microlithic technology, mainly on obsidian raw material characterize the Late Stone Age sites (see representative artifacts below). Based on radiometric age determinations and lithic composition, two Holocene occupations are recognized on the Zula-Buri plains: i) eighth millennium settlement at Gelalo NW and Misse East, and ii) a mid-Holocene or sixth millennium settlement at Asfet Unit F. The discovery of later prehistoric shellmidden sites hints at human intensification of coastal resource in response to climatic fluctuation or population pressure in the early Holocene.

Specific shell types were found at the excavated sites. Atactodea glabrata, a small bivalve found buried in the sands of intertidal zone dominates the Misse shell midden, whereas the Asfet and Gelalo assemblages were represented by Terebralia palustris, a large gastropod living among mangroves and muddy substrate.  The exploitation of specific shell types at each site suggests cultural choices that characterize specific human groups adapted to distinct coastal habitats along the Buri-Zula landscapes.