History of Ancient Civilisations in and around the Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert took shape some 7 million years ago. The movement of tectonic plates that created the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps also sparked the drying of the Sahara some 7 million years ago.

People lived on the edge of the desert thousands of years ago, since the end of the last glacial period. The Sahara was then a much wetter place than it is today. Over 30,000 petroglyphs of river animals such as crocodiles survive, with half found in the Tassili n’Ajjer in southeast Algeria. Fossils of dinosaurs, including Afrovenator, Jobaria and Ouranosaurus, have also been found here. The modern Sahara, though, is not lush in vegetation, except in the Nile Valley, at a few oases, and in the northern highlands, where Mediterranean plants such as the olive tree are found to grow. It was long believed that the region had been this way since about 1600 BCE, after shifts in the Earth’s axis increased temperatures and decreased precipitation, which led to the abrupt desertification of North Africa about 5,400 years ago.

Let us find out more 5 Ancient Civilisations which sustained and prospered in and around the great Sahara Desert.

  1. Kiffians

The Kiffian culture is a prehistoric industry, or domain, that existed between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago in the Sahara, during the Neolithic Subpluvial. Human remains from this culture were found in 2000 at a site known as Gobero, located in Niger in the Ténéré Desert. The site is known as the largest and earliest grave of Stone Age people in the Sahara desert. The Kiffians were skilled hunters. Bones of many large savannah animals that were discovered in the same area suggest that they lived on the shores of a lake that was present during the Holocene Wet Phase, a period when the Sahara was verdant and wet. The Kiffian people were tall, standing over six feet in height. Traces of the Kiffian culture do not exist after 8,000 years ago, as the Sahara went through a dry period for the next thousand years. After this time, the Tenerian culture colonized the area.

2. Tenerians

The Tenerians were considerably shorter in height and less robust than the earlier Kiffians. Craniometric analysis also indicates that they were osteologically distinct. The Kiffian skulls are akin to those of the Late Pleistocene Iberomaurusians, early Holocene Capsians, and mid-Holocene Mechta groups, whereas the Tenerian crania are more like those of Mediterranean groups. Graves show that the Tenerians observed spiritual traditions, as they were buried with artefacts such as jewellery made of hippo tusks and clay pots. The most interesting find is a triple burial, dated to 5300 years ago, of an adult female and two children, estimated through their teeth as being five and eight years old, hugging each other. Pollen residue indicates they were buried on a bed of flowers. The three are assumed to have died within 24 hours of each other, but as their skeletons hold no apparent trauma (they did not die violently) and they have been buried so elaborately – unlikely if they had died of a plague – the cause of their deaths is a mystery.

3. Tashwinat Mummy

Uan Muhuggiag (an archaeological site in Libya) appears to have been inhabited from at least the 6th millennium BCE to about 2700 BCE, although not necessarily continuously. The most noteworthy find at Uan Muhuggiag is the well-preserved mummy of a young boy of approximately ​2 1⁄2 years old. The child was in a fetal position, then embalmed, then placed in a sack made of antelope skin, which was insulated by a layer of leaves. The boy’s organs were removed, as evidenced by incisions in his stomach and thorax, and an organic preservative was inserted to stop his body from decomposing. An ostrich eggshell necklace was also found around his neck. Radiocarbon dating determined the age of the mummy to be approximately 5600 years old, which makes it about 1000 years older than the earliest previously recorded mummy in ancient Egypt.

4. Egypt

By 6000 BCE predynastic Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle and constructing large buildings. Subsistence in organized and permanent settlements in predynastic Egypt by the middle of the 6th millennium BCE centered predominantly on cereal and animal agriculture: cattle, goats, pigs and sheep. Metal objects replaced prior ones of stone. Tanning of animal skins, pottery and weaving were commonplace in this era also. There are indications of seasonal or only temporary occupation of the Al Fayyum in the 6th millennium BCE, with food activities centering on fishing, hunting and food-gathering.

By 3400 BCE, the Sahara was as dry as it is today, due to reduced precipitation and higher temperatures resulting from a shift in the Earth’s orbit. As a result of this aridification, it became a largely impenetrable barrier to humans, with the remaining settlements mainly being concentrated around the numerous oases that dot the landscape. Little trade or commerce is known to have passed through the interior in subsequent periods, the only major exception being the Nile Valley.

5. Greek

By 500 BCE, Greeks arrived in the desert. Greek traders spread along the eastern coast of the desert, establishing trading colonies along the Red Sea. The Carthaginians explored the Atlantic coast of the desert, but the turbulence of the waters and the lack of markets caused a lack of presence further south than modern Morocco. Centralized states thus surrounded the desert on the north and east; it remained outside the control of these states. Raids from the nomadic Berber people of the desert were of constant concern to those living on the edge of the desert.

Source: Wikipedia, Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23020-9.

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