The Nabataeans were one among several nomadic tribes which roamed the Arabian Desert, moving with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water. These nomads became familiar with their area as seasons passed, and they struggled to survive during bad years when seasonal rainfall diminished. Although the Nabataeans were initially embedded in Aramaic culture, modern scholars reject theories about their having Aramean roots. Instead, historical, religious and linguistic evidence identifies them as a northern Arabian tribe.
The precise origin of this specific tribe of Arab nomads remains uncertain. One hypothesis locates their original homeland in today's Yemen, in the south-west of the Arabian peninsula; however, their deities, language and script share nothing with those of southern Arabia. Another hypothesis argues that they came from the eastern coast of the Peninsula. The suggestion that they came from Hejaz area is considered by Michele Murray to be more convincing, as they share many deities with the ancient people there, and "nbtw", the root consonant of the tribe's name, is found in the early Semitic languages of Hejaz.
Similarities between late Nabataean Arabic dialect and the ones found in Mesopotamia during the Neo-Assyrian period, and the fact that the Assyrians listed a group with the name of "Nabatu" as one of several rebellious Arab tribes in the region, suggests a connection between the two. The Nabataeans might have originated from there and migrated west between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE into northwestern Arabia and much of what is now modern-day Jordan.
Nabataeans have been falsely associated with other groups of people. A people called the "Nabaiti" who were defeated by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and described as living "in a far off desert where there are no wild animals and not even the birds build their nests", were associated by some with the Nabataeans due to the temptation to link their similar names and images. One claim by Jane Taylor alleges a misconception in their identification with the Nebaioth of the Hebrew Bible, the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son.
Unlike the rest of the Arabian tribes, the Nabataeans later emerged as vital players in the region
The brief Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews that began in 586 BCE opened a minor power vacuum in Judah (prior to the Judaeans' return under the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, who reigned 559-530 BCE). As Edomites moved into open Judaean grazing lands, Nabataean inscriptions began to appear in Edomite territory. The first definite appearance dates from 312/311 BCE, when they were attacked at Sela or perhaps at Petra without success by Antigonus I's officer Athenaeus in the course of the Third War of the Diadochi; at that time Hieronymus of Cardia, a Seleucid officer, mentioned the Nabataeans in a battle report. About 50 BCE, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus cited Hieronymus in his report, and added the following: "Just as the Seleucids had tried to subdue them, so the Romans made several attempts to get their hands on that lucrative trade."
during their times of prosperity. However, they later faded and were forgotten.
The Nabataeans had already some trace of Aramaic culture when they first appear in history. They wrote a letter to Antigonus in Syriac letters, and Aramaic continued as the language of their coins and inscriptions when the tribe grew into a kingdom and profited by the decay of the Seleucids to extend its borders northward over the more fertile country east of the Jordan river. They occupied Hauran, and in about 85 BCE their king Aretas III became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were ethnically Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence. Starcky identifies the Nabatu of southern Arabia (Pre-Khalan migration) as their ancestors. However, different groups amongst the Nabataeans wrote their names in slightly different ways; consequently archaeologists are reluctant to say that they all belonged to the same tribe, or that any one group represents the original Nabataeans.