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Venturing 65 million years back through Abu Dhabi history

Once marked by forests and freshwater rivers the coastline of Abu Dhabi has changed considerably from how it likely appeared tens of millions of years ago. A geologist and archaeologist recently led people 65 million years back into the region's history, using a series of fossils to tell the story of how the area once appeared long before human habitation.

Venturing 65 million years back through Abu Dhabi history

The dry desert of Abu Dhabi vaguely resembles the region it was millions of years ago when sabre-tooth cats, primitive horses and even a four-tusked elephant once roamed the fertile savannah. That’s the message a geologist and archaeologist hoped to convey when they led an audience back through millions of years of history at Manarat Al Saadiyat last month. As previewed in an article published in The National in late May, the two were there to take people along on a 65-million year trip through history.

As author Nick Leech explains, Dr. Mark Beech from Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority joined Dr. Khalid Al Bloushi, head of the geology department at UAE University in Al Ain in part to preview the upcoming Zayed National Museum, currently under construction on Saadiyat Island.

One of the most anticipated discoveries presented by the men included a fossilized crocodile skull that Dr. Beech claims to have found several years ago in Gerain Al Aysh. As Dr. Beech explains:

“When we found it in the desert it was almost complete but we couldn’t quite believe it because it was in a horizontal position and as we cleaned the ground around the fossil it was almost as if the crocodile was rising up out of the desert.”

In turn, Dr. Al Bloushi prepared to present findings of a 65 million year old fossilized rudist, a bivalve sea creature. Fossils such as this found in the Unite Arab Emirates tell the story of a time when the region was still covered by the Tethys Ocean, way before the continents that we recognize today came into existence.

Perhaps even more important, however, the geologist planned to discuss the Baynunah formation, stretching for nearly 250 kilometres along the coastline of Abu Dhabi and noted as one of the most unique and important areas for fossils that tell the story of seven million years of history. It is here that Leech writes fossils have been found of age-old antelopes, now extinct elephants and ancient gazelles plus Hipparions, a three-toed, primitive horse. Other fossilized animal evidence in the area includes hyenas, sabre-toothed cats and large crocodiles.

It is said that the Baynunah sands were formed by a river system that once stretched from the interior to the coast. The author notes the landscape would have looked similar to the Tanzania and Kenya of today. As Dr. Beech adds:

“The main thing about these fossils is that the Abu Dhabi specimens are the only vertebrate fossils known in the whole of Arabia between about 1 million years ago and the beginning of the Pleistocene 2.5 million years ago.”

In 2009 a primate cheek tooth was discovered in the area, linked to an early member of the Cercopithecini tribe, the only evidence of its kind ever found outside of Africa. Additionally, researchers have also uncovered fossils of a gerbil and teeth belonging to a long-extinct cane rate.

Perhaps one of the most impressive finds, though, has been animal tracks discovered at Mleisa 1, offering the opportunity to glimpse animal behaviour from millions of years ago. By digitally putting a series of aerial photographs together researchers discovered the habits of what they assume were primitive, four-tusked elephants, determining a large group of females and small elephants walked as a herd while one male elephant walked in another direction.

As the researchers mark the importance of the fossils and the sites they also urge that the Abu Dhabi of the future takes steps to preserve finds such as this, while at the same time allowing for continued research in the area, noting that perhaps even more species will be uncovered there in the near future.

The planned museum, scheduled for completion later this year, is expected to house various pieces that help tell the history of the region while explaining more about the culture, economics and society. It will be a great holiday opportunity for history lovers and kids interested in Geology and Archaeology.

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