Prehistoric North Africa
The Prehistory of North Africa spans the period of earliest human presence in the region to the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt in c. 3100 BC. North Africa is defined by the United Nations to consist of the seven countries or territories situated between the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. Geographically, it can also be held to include the Saharan portions of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. As modern humans are generally believed to originate in Africa, prehistoric North Africa may hold important clues in understanding the evolution and spread of Homo sapiens.
Saharan Climate and Human Migration
Human habitation in North Africa has been greatly influenced by the climate of the Sahara, which has undergone enormous variations between wet and dry over the last few hundred thousand years. This is due to a 41000-year cycle in which the tilt of the earth changes between 22° and 24.5°. At present (2000 AD), we are in a dry period, but it is expected that the Sahara will become green again in 15000 years (17000 AD).
During the last glacial period, the Sahara was much larger than it is today, extending south beyond its current boundaries. The end of the glacial period brought more rain to the Sahara, from about 8000 BC to 6000 BC, perhaps because of low pressure areas over the collapsing ice sheets to the north. Once the ice sheets were gone, the northern Sahara dried out. In the southern Sahara, the drying trend was initially counteracted by the monsoon, which brought rain further north than it does today. By around 4200 BC, however, the monsoon retreated south to approximately where it is today, leading to the gradual desertification of the Sahara. The Sahara is now as dry as it was about 13,000 years ago.
These conditions are responsible for what has been called the Sahara pump theory. During periods of a wet or "Green Sahara", the Sahara becomes a savanna grassland and various flora and fauna become more common. Following inter-pluvial arid periods, the Sahara area then reverts to desert conditions and the flora and fauna are forced to retreat northwards to the Atlas Mountains, southwards into West Africa, or eastwards into the Nile Valley. This separates populations of some of the species in areas with different climates, forcing them to adapt, possibly giving rise to allopatric speciation.
- Homo erectus (ssp. ergaster) into Southeast and East Asia
- Homo heidelbergensis into the Middle East and Western Europe
- Homo sapiens sapiens "Out of Africa theory"
- The spread of Afro-Asiatic languages (Berber and Egyptian to North Africa and Semitic to the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East).
Early and middle Paleolithic
The earliest inhabitants of central North Africa have left behind significant remains: early remnants of hominid occupation in North Africa, for example, were found in Ain el Hanech, near Saïda (c. 200,000 BCE); in fact, more recent investigations have found signs of Oldowan technology there, and indicate a date of up to 1.8 million BC. Some studies have placed the earliest settlement of homo sapiens in North Africa to around 160,000 years ago According to some sources,[who?] North Africa was the site of the highest state of development of Middle Paleolithic flake-tool techniques. Tools of this era, starting about 130,000 BCE, are called Aterian(after the site Bir el Ater, south of Annaba) and are marked by a high standard of workmanship, great variety, and specialization.
Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic
The earliest blade industries in North Africa belong to the Iberomaurusian or Oranian (after a site near Oran). This lithic industry appears to have spread throughout the coastal regions of North Africa between 15,000 and 10,000 BC. Between about 9000 and 5000 BC, the Capsian culture made its appearance showing signs to belong to the Neolithic and began influencing the IberoMaurusian, and after about 3000 BC the remains of just one human culture can be found throughout the former region. Neolithic society (marked by animal domestication and subsistence agriculture) spread in the Saharan and Mediterranean North Africa after the Levante between 6000 and 2000 BC. This type of economy, so richly depicted in the Tassili n'Ajjer cave paintings, predominated in North Africa until the classical period.
The cave paintings found at Tassili n'Ajjer, to the north of Tamanrasset, Algeria, and at other locations depict vibrant and vivid scenes of everyday life in central North Africa during the Neolithic Subpluvial period (about 8000 to 4000 BC). They were executed by a hunting people in the Capsian period of the Neolithic age who lived in a savanna region teeming with giant buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, animals that no longer exist in the now-desert area. The pictures provide the most complete record of a prehistoric African culture. Various populations of pastoralists have left paintings of abundant wildlife, domesticated animals, chariots, and a complex culture that dates back to at least 10,000 BC in Northern Niger and neighboring parts of Algeria and Libya.
In 2013, Iberomaurusian skeletons from the prehistoric sites of Taforalt and Afalou in the Maghreb were analyzed for ancient DNA. All of the specimens belonged to maternal clades associated with either North Africa or the northern and southern Mediterranean littoral, indicating gene flow between these areas since the Epipaleolithic. The ancient Taforalt individuals carried the mtDNA haplogroups U6, H, JT and V, which points to population continuity in the region dating from the Iberomaurusian period.
Neolithic and Bronze Age
Some parts of North Africa began to participate in the Neolithic revolution in the 6th millennium BC, just before the rapid desertification of the Sahara around 3500 B.C. due to a tilt in the Earth's orbit.
Clement and fertile conditions during the Neolithic Subpluvial supported increased human settlement of the Nile Valley in Egypt, as well as neolithic societies in Sudan and throughout the present-day Sahara. Cultures producing rock art (notably that at Tassili n'Ajjer in southeastern Algeria) flourished during this period. In Prehistoric Egypt, Neolithic settlements appear from about 6000 BC. Oher regions in Africa independently developed agriculture at about the same time: the Ethiopian highlands, the Sahel, and West Africa.
By the Iron Age, the historic record demonstrated the existence of the Berbers in North Africa from at least 10,000 B.C. While Egypt and Sudan had entered historicity since the Bronze Age, the Maghreb remained in the prehistoric period longer. Some Phoenician and Greek colonies were established along the Mediterranean coast during the 7th century BC.
- Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures
- Prehistoric Egypt
- African archaeology
- Ancient Libya
- According to UN country classification here: http://millenniumindicators.un.org/unsd/methods/m49/m49regin.htm. The disputed territory of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) is mostly administered by Morocco; the Polisario Front claims the territory in militating for the establishment of an independent republic, and exercises limited control over rump border territories.
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- Hsain Ilahiane, Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen)(2006), p. 112, http://books.google.com/books?isbn=0810864908