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Zarins is ethnically Latvian, but was born in Germany at the end of the Second World War. His parents emigrated to the United States soon after he was born. He graduated from high school in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1963 and earned a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Nebraska in 1967. He served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam before completing his Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Archaeology at the University of Chicago in 1974. He then served as archaeological adviser to the Department of Antiquities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia before coming to Missouri State in 1978.
He discussed Ubar in a 1996 NOVA interview saying "There's a lot of confusion about that word. If you look at the classical texts and the Arab historical sources, Ubar refers to a region and a group of people, not to a specific town. People always overlook that. It's very clear on Ptolemy's second century map of the area. It says in big letters "Iobaritae" And in his text that accompanied the maps, he's very clear about that. It was only the late medieval version of One Thousand and One Nights, in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, that romanticised Ubar and turned it into a city, rather than a region or a people."
In 2007, following further research and excavation, a paper partly authored by him offered a different view of the meaning of the name "Ubar":
- Rather than being a city, interpretation of the evidence suggested that "Ubar" was more likely to have been a region—the "Land of the Iobaritae" identified by Ptolemy. The decline of the region was probably due to a reduction in the frankincense trade caused by the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, which did not require incense in the same quantities for its rituals. Also, it became difficult to find local labour to collect the resin. Climatic changes led to desiccation of the area, and sea transport became a more reliable way of transporting goods.
Zarins has published many articles on a number of topics concerning the archaeology of the Near East, which include the domestication of the horse, early pastoral nomadism, and the obsidian, indigo, and frankincense trades. He received an Excellence in Research Award from Missouri State in 1988. He has proposed that the Semitic languages arose as a result of a circum Arabian nomadic pastoral complex, which developed in the period of the desiccation of climates at the end of the pre-pottery phase in the Ancient Near East.
Zarins argued that the Garden of Eden was situated at the head of the Persian Gulf, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers run into the sea, from his research on this area using information from many different sources, including LANDSAT images from space. In this theory, the Bible's Gihon River would correspond with the Karun River in Iran, and the Pishon River would correspond to the Wadi Batin river system that once drained the now dry, but once quite fertile central part of the Arabian Peninsula. His suggestion about the Pishon River is supported by James A. Sauer (1945–1999) formerly of the American Center of Oriental Research although strongly criticized by the archaeological community.
- Interview with Dr J. Zarins, Nova Online, Sept. 1996
- Blom, R., Crippen, R., Elachi, C., Clapp, N., Hedges, G., Zarins, J., "Southern Arabian Desert Trade Routes, Frankincense, Myrrh, and the Ubar Legend" in Remote Sensing in Archaeology, Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology (2007).
- Lawton, John (May–June 1983). "Oman: Frankincense". Aramco World. 34 (3): 26–27. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
- James A. Sauer, "The River Runs Dry," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, July/August 1996, pp. 52–54, 57, 64