I Am Jeff Rose
Photograph by Dr. Yamandu Hilbert
I’m Dr. Jeff Rose, and I specialize in Paleolithic archaeology, stone tool technology, and modern human origins. Since 2009, I've directed an archaeological field project in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. Due to its steep mountain escarpment, which blocks humidity from the Indian Ocean, Dhofar has a tropical microclimate comprised of East African flora and fauna and mild and rainy summers. Along its mountain slopes are cloud forests of tree species fed by moisture in the air—including, most famously, the species that produces frankincense.
The interior of Dhofar is a deeply incised limestone plateau called the Nejd, whose steep canyons were once carved by perennial rivers. To date, my team has mapped over 700 archaeological find spots (Lower Paleolithic, Iron Age, and everything in between) around these river valleys. The high density of sites and evidence for repeated phases of occupation underscore the importance of Dhofar as a population refugium throughout human history.
People I Meet
Photograph by Jeff Rose
The modern population of Dhofar is made up, in part, of indigenous Bedouin groups who speak different dialects of an ancient Semitic language that predates Arabic and Aramaic (biblical Hebrew). These peoples include Shahri farmers and cattle herders in the mountains, Botahari coastal fishermen, and Mahri camel and goat herders living in the deep canyons of the Nejd plateau. According to local tradition, the Mahri claim to have a linguistic and historical relationship with ancient Hebrew tribes. Genetic sampling of mitochondrial DNA on these local Dhofari groups reveals some of the oldest lineages in Arabia, reaching back more than 15,000 years to the end of the last ice age.
Food I Eat
Photograph by Christian Goupi, age fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo
As simple pastoralists and farmers, the local Bedouin have a diet that consists of rice, bread, milk (camel and cow), dates, and meat. Lots and lots of meat. Meals are served on the floor, with the entire group huddled around a single large serving tray heaped with grilled goat, chicken, beef, and/or camel meat on a bed of rice. In local tradition, once a host has shared food and drink with a guest, they are officially under household protection. There’s no silverware—they use their right hand to form balls of rice and meat, which is then nimbly placed in the mouth by using the thumb as a kind of shovel. I’ve found this to be an acquired skill that requires quite a bit of agility to not damage the structural integrity of the rice ball in the process of getting it into your mouth. Thankfully, graciousness and generosity are two core values of Bedouin society, which means they’ll usually give you a spoon.
Photograph by Dr. Yamandu Hilbert
There aren’t a lot of options for recreation out in the desert. When our team isn’t out surveying for new sites or digging up rock shelters, we’re back in camp analyzing the mountains of stone tools that have been collected. In the evenings, one of the other guys and I usually go up to the roof to do yoga, which gives a much needed break from the Stone Age and helps stretch out all those sore muscles from climbing hills and digging all day. If we time it just right, we finish class right as the sunset call to prayer is going off in the local mosque—a magical moment.
We try to take one day off a week, which is usually spent down on the coast gorging ourselves on fish, body surfing the perfect waves of the Arabian Sea, and lounging around the pristine white beaches of Dhofar’s capital city, Salalah. Every visit to the coast requires a stop at one of the many coconut vendors lining the sides of the road by the beach. In temperatures that are usually well above 100ºF, there is nothing quite like ice-cold coconut water straight from the source. Every trip to Salalah ends with a team visit to the only bar within a thousand-mile radius, aptly called the Oasis.
Where I Stay
Photograph by Jeff Rose
Home base for my project is a dusty truck stop up on the Nejd plateau called Thumrait. There are grocery stores and equipment shops, a tire repair, mechanics—everything we need to keep the expedition running. The local welder even sharpens our picks and shovels for us! I rent out a large apartment suite above the gas station, where the team stays for about six weeks every winter. The accommodations are pretty gross: Between the flourishing cockroach population, piles of dirty rocks everywhere (representing hundreds of thousands of years of human history), and the stinky archaeologists eating canned tuna and sardines day in and day out, by the end of the season our flat is not a pretty site.
Regardless, Thumrait has a charm that is hard to put into words. It’s like a postapocalyptic wasteland, with old behemoth Soviet trucks lying gutted in junkyards, while monstrous trailers go by carrying oil rigs and other oversize industrial equipment. Thumrait’s real appeal is the sound of the wind whipping across the plateau in the evening and the orange, otherworldly landscape as the setting sun illuminates dust clouds kicked up by trucks driving past. The only thing missing is a gunslinger and a man in black.
What I See
Photograph by Norbert Probst, imageBROKER/Corbis
The region of Dhofar is home to several distinct ecosystems. The coastal plain is tropical, resembling the lush green shores of East Africa, with fields of mango, banana, and coconut trees. Atop the mountains that rise up behind the coastal plain is a high grassland that's used for cattle grazing. The last remaining species of Arabian leopard survives in Dhofar’s steep mountain canyons. Moving northward, the landscape levels off onto the Nejd plateau, inhabited by Bedouin and oil companies.
In addition to camel and goat herding, the Bedouin hunt the gazelle that live around the seasonal river channels. Wild ostrich and Arabian oryx once prospered here as well, but both species were made extinct shortly after the introduction of the car and rifle. North beyond the plateau is the great Rub al Khali desert, one of the largest sand seas in the world. According to Mahri tradition, the ancient name for this desert was Al Ahqaf, meaning “the wall.” The locals say, “Where there is no water, there is no life—that is the Rub al Khali.”
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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