Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia
The RASA (Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia) Project is an interdisciplinary archaeology-paleoecology research effort exploring early human occupation and activities in the southern mountains of Yemen (Hadramawt Governate) during the early through middle-late Holocene (9000-2500 years ago). During this time, climate change caused regional environmental changes, the local effects of which would have significantly affected human decisions about foraging, farming, and herding. The team has sought data on the timing, processes, and influences on the adoption of domesticated plants and animals into indigenous foraging systems in southern Arabia.
The RASA Project (Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia) New Publication!
by Joy McCorriston, Ohio State University
McCorriston, Joy and Michael J. Harrower, eds. 2020 A Landscape History of Hadramawt: The Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia (RASA) Project 1998-2008. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.
“News travels fast and far over the desert: word of our arrival had preceded us.” So opens the first chapter and the narrative stitch of a new, comprehensive, and final publication of the twelve-year archaeological-paleoecological fieldwork by an AIYS-sponsored American-Yemeni(-French) team in Hadramawt. Director Joy McCorriston first arrived in Yemen (1986) with Edward Keall’s ROM-Zabid Project. She well remembers sleeping in a stooped alcove in Selma Radi’s Qa’ home; a first maghreb prayer in the Old City with Dan Varisco; and a first bowl of boiling fūl served in wire-wrapped soapstone. Vignettes of her team’s experience in Yemen pepper this scientific account of the research project and its results.
In the 1990’s southern Yemen became more accessible for archaeological researchers. McCorriston’s team partnered early with Yemeni scholars trained by the Soviet-Yemen expedition (Wadi Daw’an) and collaborated with French prehistorians. Their collective perspectives and efforts are reflected in a volume that includes their voices and draws upon the rich experience of living among and depending on bedouin herders in Wādī Sanā and the petroleum producers at Nexen’s Central Processing Facility.
This is not ethnography. A full and conclusive scientific report on the RASA Project, this volume in 19 chapters lays out the broader problematics, methods, results, and research conclusions. A first section describes the methods, including the patient incredulity of French and Yemenis watching Americans doggedly plod where there should be no sites and the shared exuberance in finding the unexpected. Among the results are French contributions of exquisite stone tool drawings and analyses that define prehistoric cultures of Southern Arabia. Yemeni ethnographer ‘Abd al-’Aziz Bin ‘Aqil contributed a forward and co-authored a chapter on the graffiti he documented in the field.
The volume reports on the earliest Arabian site with domesticated animals; the extraordinary find of a 6500-year-old massive sacrifice and feast; the first water management technologies; a landscape in which tombs, statuettes, and carved stelae networked mobile people through imagery and ancestors; and a final section that contributes a solid chronological framework for future research. A final chapter returns to narrative, with the dramatic story that closed off further fieldwork and a summary of the major conclusions. The RASA Project upended some ideas about Arabian prehistory. RASA showed that local people adopted some domesticates but not others, and they invented technologies and practices to sustain a culturally distinct mobile lifestyle even as they maintained broad external networks.
Although the RASA Project culminates with this publication, its influence continues. In 2020, team member Rémy Crassard authored a high-profile paper in PLOS 1 on the unique Neolithic tool-making techniques in Wādī Sanā and Dhofar, Oman. Kenneth Cole of the RASA team co-authored a manuscript (in review) on Wādī Sanā pollen with paleoecologist Sarah Ivory who is pioneering the search for Arabian hyrax middens in adjacent Dhofar. Tara Steimer is now a world expert on stone monuments, and Kimberly Williams channeled a season in Yemen to a bioarchaeology career in Oman. Jennifer Everhart received a PhD in faunal analysis and runs a training laboratory. Although she never visited Yemen, Abigail Buffington completed a (2019) PhD dissertation on Wādī Sanā phytoliths and authored a startling discovery (another manuscript in review). And not least, Michael Harrower co-authored the RASA report while directing two field projects in Oman and Ethiopia, following the path he charted as a graduate student in Yemen.
1996: Council for American Overseas Research Centers, the University of Minnesota;
1998: AIYS, the University of Minnesota, and the National Science Foundation;
2000: the National Science Foundation, the Ohio State University, Foundation for Exploration and Research on Cultural Origins;
2002-2006: AIYS, the National Science Foundation, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
Generous logistical support in Hadramawt provided by Nexen Inc.
Major earlier publications:
• McCorriston, J., E. Oches, D. Walter, & K. Cole (forthcoming) "Holocene Paleoecology and Prehistory in Highland Southern Arabia." Paléorient Vol. 28, No. 1 (2002), pp. 61-88.
• Harrower, M., J. McCorriston & E. Oches, 2002. "Mapping the Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia: The Application of Remote Sensing (RS), Global Positioning System." Prospection 9: 35-42.
• McCorriston, J. & E. Oches, 2001. "Two Ancient Checkdams from Southern Arabia." Antiquity 75:575-6.
• McCorriston, J., 2000. "Early Settlement in Hadramawt: Preliminary Report on Prehistoric Occupation at Shi'b Munayder." Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11:129-153.
• McCorriston, J., 2001, Ancient Agricultural Practices in Hadramawt: New Insights from the RASA Project. The Place of Ancient Agricultural Practices and Techniques in Yemen Today: Problems and Perspectives. Sana'a 18-20, June 2000.
• McCorriston, J., 2000, "RASA 98 -- Roots of Agriculture in South Arabia" University of Minnesota Archaeological Expedition in Yemen, February-March 1998. Yemen Update 41 (1999) 2-6.
• Walter, D., J. McCorriston & E. Oches, 2000. "Shumlya GBS-An Arabian Bifacial Tradition Assemblage from Hadramawt Province, Yemen." Neolithics 00/3:12-14.
foreground to rear: Ramzy Ladeh, Mohammed Sinnah, excavating the Kheshiya Cattle Skull Ring (Chapter 10-11), Abdulla Saram in rear and a woman from the Al-Aliy bedouin group herding distant goats
right to left: Nisha Patel, Michael Harrower, and Tara Steimer preparing the day's survey in Wadi Sana
'Abd al-‘Aziz Bin 'Aqil and Joy McCorriston
conferring in Wadi Sana
Remy Crassard and Nassr Al-Aliy at
Manayzah Rockshelter in Wadi Sana
'Ubaid Al-Aliy of the Humum bedouin