The world’s oldest known natural pearl was recently discovered at excavations at an archaological dig located on the privately-owned Marawah Island, located 62 miles west of the capital city – just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, UAE. The gem made its debut on October 30 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a division of the famous Paris museum, as part of a special exhibition.
The ‘Abu Dhabi Pearl’ has been carbon-dated to the Neolithic period to 5800-5600 BCE, and archaeologists at the site – which was first discovered in 1992 – have unearthed other important finds there, including an imported ceramic vase, flint arrowheads and shell and stone beads.
The pearl is a significant find because it provides evidence that pearls and oysters were used in the UAE nearly 8,000 years ago. The discovery represents one of the earliest known pearling sites in the world, and ancient knowledge of pearl beds and their locations combined with expert seafaring meant the region was an important economic center to the ancient world. The “Abu Dhabi Pearl” is older than two other significant pearl discoveries – one uncovered at a Neolithic site in Umm al-Quwain and the other at a Neolithic cemetery in Sharjah.
The site at Marawah Island includes many collapsed stone structures and numerous painted plaster fragments from different vessels which represent some of the earliest known decorative art found in the UAE. The island is rich with other archeological sites, and in 2004, a 7,500-year-old skeleton was found there among the ruins of Neolithic buildings, along with 200 flint tools. Beginning in 2020, a major new excavation will take place at the site.
Archaeologists believe that pearls from the Marawah region were highly valued for jewelry and traded throughout the region for decorative ceramics and other goods with merchants from Mesopotamia. One spokesperson for Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism noted the Venetian jewel merchant Gasparo Balbi, once mentioned the islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi as a source of pearls during the 16th century, and pearls were important to the economy of the region until the 1930s.
According to a press release, “The discovery of the oldest pearl in the world in Abu Dhabi makes it clear that so much of our recent economic and cultural history has deep roots that stretch back to the dawn of prehistory,” said Mohamed Al-Muabarak, the chairman of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The exhibition, called “10,000 Years of Luxury,” will be on display until February 18, 2020.