Archaeologists found the 8,000-year-old pearl in 2017 while conducting excavations at Marawah Island, which is located off the west coast of the United Arab Emirates. The ancient village includes some of the oldest stone houses discovered on the Arabian Gulf; large amounts of turtle, dolphin, dugong and fish bones found at the site indicate its inhabitants were very familiar with the sea surrounding them.
In a video posted on Twitter, Abdulla Khalfan Al-Kaabi, director of the city’s Department of Culture and Tourism’s Archaeological Survey Unit, says, “The presence of pearls at archaeological sites is evidence that the pearl trade existed from at least as far back as the Neolithic period.”
As Al-Kaabi explains, the petite pearl’s discovery (it measures less than a third of a centimeter in size, according to CNN’s Jessie Yeung) suggests the people of Marawah engaged in pearl diving and may have traded the gemstones with nearby civilizations. A Mesopotamian pot found at the site further supports the idea that the islanders engaged in regional trade.
The Neolithic pearl—radio carbon dated to between 5800 and 5600 B.C.—represents an elusive link with the UAE’s past. Per a DCT press release, Venetian jewel merchant Gasparo Balbi cited the islands surrounding Abu Dhabi, capital of the modern UAE, as a source of pearls in a 16th-century account. And during the 19th century, much of the city’s wealth stemmed from the pearl trade. By the early 20th century, however, Japanese oyster farmers had overtaken the industry, developing new methods of cultivation that ensured the procurement of what Yeung describes as “perfectly round, immaculate pearls.”
Researchers have long been unsure exactly how long ago Abu Dhabi’s residents started diving for these seaside treasures. That’s why the tiny pink pearl was such a surprise: “We didn’t expect to find it,” Al-Kaabi tells the National’s John Dennehy. “We knew it was a pearl but we didn’t know the date. We were so excited when we heard the results and we felt something we cannot really describe.”
The discovery also represents a point of pride for the nation.
“The Abu Dhabi Pearl is a stunning find, testimony to the ancient origins of our engagement with the sea,” Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, says in the statement. “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.”
Prior to the new find, the world’s oldest known pearl dated to 5500 B.C. Unearthed in the country’s Umm Al Quwain emirate in 2012, the pearl was found in a grave at a Neolithic site’s necropolis. Similar burials across the region suggest pearls were typically placed on deceased individuals’ upper lips.
As the National’s Dennehy reports, a new round of excavations will begin at Marawah in 2020. Until then, visitors can see the pearl at the Louvre Abu-Dhabi, where it will be on view alongside some 350 artifacts—including a 15th-century mamluk carpet from Egypt, vintage couture, and modern designs from fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Chanel—that explore the history and meaning of luxury goods from antiquity to modern times.