The Archaeology Fund

Present and Past Ranges of Incense




South Arabia

Myths and Legends

Research Questions

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 The incense succulents Boswellia sacra and Commiphera sp. (Frankincense and Myrrh) today reflect a Tertiary East African origin. Within Arabia these plants are largely restricted currently within a small ecological area in Western Oman, Eastern Yemen and the island of Socotra. There distribution is largely determined by the Southwest Monsoon, geomorphological landscape and soil substrate. Geographically speaking they range from Jebel Samhan to the east as far as west as Habban in Yemen. There northern distribution is severely restricted just, just north of the Widyan district leading into the Rub Al-Khali. The most productive incense regions in the Horn of Africa occur primarily in Northern Somalia.

 By 6000 BC in the Early Holocene the Southwest Monsoon ranged as far north as the Great Nafud of Arabia. To what extent frankincense and myrrh were a significant component of the Early Holocene landscape has yet to be determined. Pollen studies in the Nafud have suggested the presence of a significant myrrh component. Naturally if the projected northern range of these incense plants included Central Arabia, then such trading entrepots as Abqaiq in Northeastern Saudi Arabia would have profited from their proximate location. Archaeological data clearly suggests that the Mesopotamian term Dilmun from the Ubaid period to the end of the Early Dynastic referred to the Eastern Arabian mainland. As the Southwest Monson waned in importance and retreated over the last three millennia to its present position, Dilmun came to mean only the island of Bahrain. It could be suggested that the northern range of incense products also declined radically to their present position, this being the case, the earlier land trade routes gradually replaced by more efficient maritime passages.

Karl Butzer also suggests that the ITC (as an indicator of summer monsoonal rains) in the early Holocene lay far to the north of its present position.

Sanlaville compares the ITC in the Late Pleistocene, Early Holocene, and the present.

The distribution of frankincense and myrrh (as part of the larger Sudanian flora) can best be seen within the context of surface sea temperature, the summer monsoon upwelling, and local geomorphology.

The distribution of such succulents as frankincense (and myrrh) has been plotted by a number of authorities. There may be significant variation based on which species are being counted and how far back in time the calculations are made.

The Neolithic and Bronze Age trade routes across the peninsula can be hypothesized based on the archaeological evidence and the later historic Iron Age and Islamic period routes (see above). (after Zarins 1999 and 2001).

Neolithic sites of Arabia dated to the period 6000-3500 BC. Note the concentration of sites in the great sand deserts of the Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali) and the northern Nafud. Many northeastern Arabian sites are related to the Mesopotamian Ubaid tradition (6000-3900 B.C.)

The Ice Age period lake at Jubba, found in the southern Nafud of Saudi Arabia, has been protected from the encroaching sands of the Nafud by massive sandstone outcrops. It is on these that the breath-taking rock art has been found. The lake itself still produces water from springs and wells. C-14 dating of selected sediments from the fossil lake has confirmed a sixth millennium B.C. occupation along the lake fringes. Earlier dates stretch back into the Late Pleistocene.