Tadrart Acacus, Libya
Extraordinary images of animals and people from a time when the Sahara was greener and more like a savannah have been left behind. Engravings of hippos and crocodiles are offered as evidence of a wetter climate. Most of the Saharan rock is found in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Niger and to a lesser extent Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and some of the Sahel countries. Particularly rich areas include the Air mountains in Niger, the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau in southeastern Algeria, and the Fezzan region of southwest Libya. Some of the art found in the Sahara region is strikingly similar to rock art found in southern Africa. Scholars debate whether it has links to European prehistoric cave art or is independent of that. [Source: David Coulson, National Geographic, June 1999; Henri Lhote, National Geographic, August 1987]

Among the animals depicted in ancient Saharan rock art are gazelles, elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, wild Barbary sheep, antelope, giraffes, and prehistoric wild oxen ( Babalus antiquus ). Surprisingly there aren’t any lions. The earliest art appeared about 12,000 years ago. The art from 12,000 years ago to 9,000 years ago is called Babulus period art after the wild oxen. Most of images from this period are of large animals hunted by humans.

The earliest evidence of war comes from a grave in the Nile Valley in Sudan. Discovered in the mid-1960s and dated to be between 12,000 and 14,000 years old, the grave contains 58 skeletons, 24 of which were found near projectiles regarded as weapons. The victims died at a time the Nile was flooding, causing a severe ecological crisis.

The site, known as Site 117, is located at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan. The victims included men, women and children who died violently. Some were found with spear points in near the head and chest that strongly suggest they were not offering but weapons used to kill the victims. There is also evidence of clubbing---crushed bones an the like. Since there were so many bodies, one archaeologist surmised, "It looks like organized, systematic warfare." [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

See Bronze Age, Early Man (Warfare, Sahara Paintings), Arab History

Green Sahara

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Tadrart Acacus, Libya
During the last 300,000 years there have been major periods of alternating wet and dry climates in the Sahara which in many cases were linked to the Ice Age eras when huge glaciers covered much of Europe and North America. Wet periods in the Sahara often occurred when the ice ages were waning. The last major rainy period in the Sahara lasted from about 12,000, when the last Ice Age began to wan in Europe, to 7,000 years ago. Temperatures and rainfall peaked around 9,000 years ago during the so-called Holocene Optimum.

Scientists believed the ice ages and the climate changes in the Sahara were produced by events triggered by changes in the Earth's orbits and rotations based on the fact the timing of the climate changes have correlated with the changes in the Earth’s tilt and rotation. Sometimes when the Earth approached close to the sun or the tilt of the Earth exposed the Northern Hemisphere to more sunlight the African monsoon shifted northward or the Mediterranean winds to shift south.

As the Ice Age in Europe ended more water evaporated from the Atlantic filling clouds and and more moisture was brought to North Africa as monsoon winds from Africa shifted north and Mediterranean westerly winds south because of the cooler temperatures in Europe. This caused the rains that nourished western Africa and the Mediterranean region to move into the Sahara in North Africa.

During wet periods in the Sahara oak and cedar trees grew in the highlands and the Sahara itself was a savannah grassland with acacia trees and hackberry trees and shallow lakes and braided rivers. Rock and cave paintings from that time depict abundant wildlife---including elephants and giraffes that lived in the savannahs and hippopotami and crocodiles that lived in the rivers and lakes--- and people, who hunted with bows and arrows, herded animals, collected wild grains and fished.

Remnants from the wet periods discovered by scientists include ostrich egg shells, high water marks around lakes that are presently dried up, swamp sediments, pollen from trees and grass and bones of elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, lions, fish, rhinoceros, frogs and crocodiles. Prehistoric inhabitants of Egypt may have raised ostriches. Large numbers of ostrich egg shells have been at excavations at a 9,000-year-old site at Farafra Oasis.

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Buried ancient Sahara river near Safsaf Oasis

Sahara Becomes a Desert

Beginning around 7,000 years the Sahara began changing from a savannah to a desert. The climates changes in the Sahara occurred in two episodes---the first 6,700 to 5,500 years ago and the second 4,000 to 3,600 years ago. These changed are may have occurred when the African monsoons and Mediterranean winds returned to their normal locations.

As the Sahara region dried out grasslands and lakes disappeared. Desiccation occurred relatively quickly, over a few hundred years. Desertification processes were accelerated as vegetation, which helped generate rain, was lost, causing even less rain, and the soil lost its ability to hold moisture when it did rain. Light-colored land without plants reflects rather than absorbs sunlight, producing less warm, moist cloud-forming updrafts, causing even less rain. When it did rain the water washed away or evaporated quickly. The result: desert.

By 2000 B.C. the Sahara was as dry as it is now. The last lake dried up around 1000 B.C. The people that lived in the region were forced to leave and migrate south to find food and water. Some scientist believe some of these people settled on the Nile and became the ancient Egyptians.

Some scientists are currently studying whether global warming could cause the Sahara to bloom again. The current thinking seems to be that yes this is possible but greenhouse gas levels have to increase to a much higher rate than they are at today.

20120206-Sahara rive SafsafOasis_SAR_comparison.jpg
Buried ancient Sahara river near Safsaf Oasis

Roundhead Period of Saharan Rock Art

The first human figures in Saharan art were depicted around 9,000 ears ago. This marks the beginning of the Round Head period which overlaps with the late Babalus period and the early Pastoral period. Human figures from this period tend to have rounded heads and featureless faces. The figures range in size from a few centimeters to five meters in height.

Roundhead Period people are shown standing among cattle, hunting with bows, and dancing with masks on their heads. There are many images of running archers in which the strings of their bows and the leg muscles are visible. Pieces that seem to represent some kind of shamanistic experience depict round-headed people floating towards a figure that seems to be a shaman. There are also scenes of everyday life such as people washing the hair. Images of boats have been found in the Nile Valley and the Red Sea hills.

An 8,000-year-old rock paintings in the Tassil-n-Ajjer in Algeria depicts dancers and musicians. One of the instruments pictured is still played thousands of miles south in the Kalihari. Seven-thousand-year-old cave painting in the Sahara seem to depict bows being used as musical instrument. Bushmen today make haunting music with bow instruments that are placed in the mouth. Sound is produced by tapping a sinew string with a reed. One painting from Tassili-n-Ajjer dubbed the elephant dance depicts a line of figures connected by a rope or cord. They men wear hip-high white leggings, reminiscent of grass costumes worn in West Africa, and appear to be engaged in some ritual or ceremony.

20120206-Tadrart Acacus Libya.jpg

Pastoral Period of Saharan Rock Art

Around 7,000 years ago domesticated animals began appearing in Saharan rock art. This marked the beginning of the Pastoral Period. The works from this period have a more naturalistic style and depict scenes from everyday life. They are presumed to have been made by herders. The works have more details and appear to express concerns about composition. Rock art specialist Alex Campbell told National Geographic that paintings form this period “started to show man as above nature, rather than as part of nature, seeking its help.”

Images from the Pastoral Period seem to suggest that black people lived in the Sahara at that time. Black people, some of whom wear garments and adornments and have hairdos like some current tribal groups in Africa, are often shown among herds of cattle . Some show men riding n bulls. There are also scenes of couples making love and women carrying children on their backs.

One image from Tassili-n-Ajjer seems to depict help from the spirit world being sought with animal magic. A member of the Fulani tribe that still conduct similar rituals told National Geographic: “The spirit of the earth assumes the shape of the snake goddess, Tyanaba, protector of cattle. Curved lines represent the serpent as she encircles a sacred bull. A man, second from the right joins four women....At the far right, the “mistress of milk” reclines to chant to the earth. She implores that the goddess lift the bulls’ bewitchment---perhaps an illness---and ensure propagation of the herd. The woman third from the left listens for the earth’s response.”

Among the early depictions of war is a battle scene, in a rock painting in Tassili n’Ajjer. dated to between 4300 and 2500 B.C., with groups of men firing bows and arrows at each other. In the image a group on the right stand ready to fire their bows as a group on the left begins an assault.

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Gravure Rupestre, Algeria

Horse and Camel Period of Saharan Rock Art

The arrival of the horse in the region around 1650 B.C. inaugurated the Horse period. The arrival of the camel around 200 B.C. inaugurated the Camel period and is seen as indicator that Sahara was drying out and becoming the Sahara as we know it and a desert so dry it could no longer support horses.

Images from the Horse period include hunters in chariots, carrying weapons in one hand and holding reigns in the other hand, being chased by a dog. Some scholars regard these hunters as a the People of the Sea, a mysterious group with bronze weapons and armor that unsuccessfully attacked Egypt before retreating into the desert where they assimilated with the indigenous Garamantes, later described by Herodotus as “very powerful people” who rode four-horse chariots and chased black cave dwellers “like the screeching of bats.”

Many images from the Camel period have a childlike quality. The camels in these images are sometimes ridden by riders who ride on saddles covered by a linen framework called a basour that provided the riders with some sun protection.

People Who Made the Saharan Rock Art

Tadrart Acacus Libya
Little is known about the artists that created the Saharan art work. They may be ancestors of people that still roam the desert or they may be ancestors of people that live today in the Sahel or areas further south in Africa. The long hairdos of some rock art figures found in Libya are similar to those of the modern Wodaadbe people of Niger. Body decorations found on rock art images in Chad resemble body art that found in the Surma of southern Ethiopia today.

When the Sahara dried out the people that lived there migrated southward. Rock art found in southern Africa that is similar to that found in the Sahara is thought to have been introduced there by herdsman originally from North Africa who migrated southward over the generations until they reached southern Africa.

Bushmen paintings in southern Africa and the Bushmen themselves have been studied for insight into the art and artists.

Proto Ancient Egypt

Evidence of village life in the Nile Delta has been dated to 5000 B.C. Excavations in Hierakonpolis have indicated that agriculture may have begun in the Nile Valley as early as 5000 B.C. The origin of these early farmers is not known. They are believed to have originated from within Africa rather than to have migrated from Asia. Research of this period has reveled evidence of wheat farming, weaving and metalwork. Grave goods in early tombs indicate social stratification.

Small communities developed along the Nile. They unified into two small kingdoms: one around the Nile Delta called Lower Egypt, with its capital at Buto in the northern delta, and one along the Nile Valley (south of the delta) called Upper Egypt, which extended to the First Cataract of the Nile. Buto, Naqada (near Luxor) and Hierakonpolis (near Aswan) at the First Cataract were important trade and population centers.

Some historians date the origin of ancient Egyptian civilization to 4000 B.C., when carefully- prepared burials of bulls, jackals and crocodiles appeared near the Nile. Arts and crafts from this period include pottery with geometric designs, molded hippopotamuses and crocodiles, and painted motifs of dances, ostriches and boats. Changes in pottery styles have helped archaeologists date the oldest sites.

Scorpion King

Scorpion King
Stories about a Scorpion king are found in ancient Egyptian literature. It was long thought that they were just myths but in recent years some evidence has appeared that has raised the possibility that the Scorpion King may have been a real person who played a critical role in establishing the ancient Egyptian civilization.

In 1995, John Coleman Darnell, a Yale Egyptologist, and his students discovered 18-x-20-inch tableau, dated to 3250 B.C., on a limestone cliff at a site called Gebel Tjauti, about 20 miles northwest of Luxor, that contains some line drawings of animals that are believed to be a record of the exploits of an Egyptian ruler. Because an image of a scorpion is present links to the Scorpion king were made. Some have even gone as far as calling the tableau “world’s oldest historical record” and claim the images are early hieroglyphics and are examples of the world’s oldest writing.

The tableau, probably incised with flint tools, has images of a scorpion, a falcon, large antelope, a bird, a serpent, a figure carrying a staff, a sedan chair, a bull’s head, a captor and captive. No one knows what the images mean. The link to the Scorpion King are based on the fact that the scorpion is near the falcon and falcons in ancient Egypt were associated with the god Horus and the pharaohs.

Televison show: The Real Scorpion King , first shown on the History Channel.

King Narmer and the Narmer Pallette

King Narmer on the Narmer Pallette
The civilization of ancient Pharonic Egypt was created when Lower (northern) Egypt and Upper (southern) Egypt were united in 3200 B.C. by King Narmer, a ruler from Upper Egypt. He is thought to be have been based in Hierakonpolis (60 miles south of Luxor), where Narmer's palette and other artefacts associated with him have been unearthed.

Narmer's palette (now in the Egyptian Museum) is one of the most famous early Egyptian pieces. On one side Narmer wears the white crown of Upper Egypt and is shown clubbing a foe on the head to commemorate a victory while the falcon god Horus looks on and presents the king with captives from the land of the papyrus plant (Lower Egypt). On the other side of his name the cow goddess Bat provides her personal protection.

The other side of Narmer's palette shows Namer wearing the white crown of Lower Egypt, leading a victory parade to view decapitated prisoners. The king is accompanied by his sandal bearer and a man wearing an animal skin thought to be a vizier or his son. Before them, raised from tall poles are standards that represent aspects of the kingship. The identity of the prisoners is a matter of debate. Their hands are trussed and their genitals have placed on their severed head, an act though to represent humiliation and strike fear. Below the enemies are two lions with snake-like necks. These are thought to symbolize the unity created under the king’s power.

Narmer’s treatment of enemies endured for the next 3,500 years as a symbol of pharaonic power. Almost 2,000 years after Narmer, Ramses II is shown humiliating an enemy: holding the hair of submissive victim and looking as if he is about to scalp him like a North American Indian. [Source: History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Menes, Early Pharaohs and the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

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Narmer Palette 3100 B.C.
The Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.) of ancient Egypt was when society, law and religion were developed. It began with the reign of Menes and included Dynasties 1, 2 and 3, with 16 principal rulers. The form of government, architecture and hieroglyphic writing---that lasted through 30 dynasties and 2,500 years--- developed in the late Proto Ancient Egypt period and Early Dynastic Period.

Abydos, known as Abdju in ancient times, is where the first pharaohs were buried between 2900 and 2700 B.C. It is also where hieroglyphic writing developed and the cult of the boat burials was born. Archaeologists have found a stelae of 1st dynasty queen dated to 2900 B.C. and court members of the of the first ruler of the 1st dynasty, Aha, and tags made of bones dated to 3200 B.C. with some of the oldest writing. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005]

Menes, the first pharaoh, was crowned in 3,100 B.C. He unified Upper and Lower Egypt and is credited with creating the first nation-state and centralized government . Before the establishment of a unified Egyptian state, Egypt was made up of confederations of agricultural villages of various sizes along the Nile.

Little is known about Menes successors, except that they sat at the top of a highly stratified society, they built many temples, completed public works projects and they were viewed as descendants as of the Gods. King Aha “The Fighter” (2900 B.C.) unified warring kingdoms and built the capital of Memphis. He ruled for 62 years, His reign came to an end one story goes when he was trampled to death by a rampaging hippopotamus. Aha was succeeded by Djoer and Qaa.

According to legend the first Egyptian king was the god Osiris. Seven hundred years after the first dynasty, members of the Middle Kingdom returned to Abydos to look for Osiris’s grave and designated Djoer’s tomb as being it. A large Temple honoring Osiris was built and Abydos became a major pilgrimage center. A large festival was held there.

Memphis and Abydos

Osireion at Abydos
Memphis (18 miles southwest of Cairo) is oldest capital of ancient Egypt. Founded around 3000 B.C. by King Menes on land reclaimed from the Nile, it was selected as a site for the capital because it was located between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt at a place where the Nile Valley narrows to less than a mile across, and travel between the northern and southern Egypt could be controlled.

Memphis was the capital for much of ancient Egypt’s history. For a long time it was the administrative capital of the ancient Egyptian empire while Thebes was the religious center. The Pharaohs spent much of his time in Memphis and visited Thebes only during special religious ceremonies.

Abydos (75 miles south of Assyut) contains 5000-year-old graves of some of Egypt’s first pharaohs and was the home of Orisis, the god of the afterlife. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the head of Orisis was buried here after he was killed by his brother Seth. In ancient times there were a number of buildings here connected with the Orisis cult and a large festival was held in which a image of Orisis was carried from an important temple honoring him to his tomb in the desert and incorporated ritual re-enactments of the myth of Orisis, Seth and Isis. The cult itself endured well into the Roman era.

Abydos, known as Abdju in ancient times, is where the first pharaohs were buried between 2900 and 2700 B.C. It is also where hieroglyphic writing developed and the cult of the boat burials was born. The only funerary enclosure that remains from the most ancient times is the massive 4,600-year-old Shunet al-Zebib, built by the 2nd-dynasty king Khasekhemwy. The three-story walls enclose neatly two acres. Other enclosures were likely destroyed by kings that came afterwards,

Burial Customs in the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

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mastaba tomb
The burial complexes of the first pharaohs in Abydos consisted of two structures: 1) ceremonial enclosures near the Nile flood plain and tombs about a mile away in the desert to the west---the realm of the dead. The enclosures were surrounded with brick walls and contained a large plaza. Inside was a small chapel. The tombs were in a necropolis. The one belonging to King Aha had three chambers and was stocked with oxen meat, water birds, cheese, dried figs, bread and many vessels of beer and wine for the afterlife journey. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005]

Some of the mud-bricked graves in Abydos contained 5000-year-old planked boats---the oldest of their kind ever found. The boats were intended not only to carry the dead but also their supplies and possession into the next world. Inside the enclosure of one 1st dynasty king fourteen wooden boats, some a long as 75 feet, were discovered. They were placed in the grave and covered with mud bricks and plaster. Boats remained an important symbol of the afterlife for dynasties that followed. [Ibid]

The enclosures and tombs were generally built when the pharaohs were alive after they destroyed the enclosures of their predecessors. People that participated in burial processions for early kings---based on inscribed images---included priests in white flowing robes, royal family members, vizeri, treasurers, administrators, and trade and tax officials. Outside the enclosure of one king, archaeologists found the remains of 10 sacrificed donkeys. They were all old and showed signs of hard work. [Ibid]

Human Sacrifices in the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

Chephren Cemetery seen
from the Second Pyramid
Around the funeral enclosures of kings were a number of subsidiary graves. Outside the enclosure of King Aha, for example, six people were buried with food and wine for the journey to the afterlife. One was a child of four or five buried with a bracelet made from ivory and lapis beads. Outside his tomb 35 more people are buried in graves next to several sacrificed lions. Some have suggested that these graves belonged to people who were sacrificed, perhaps poisoned. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005]

Matthew Adams of the University of Pennsylvania told National Geographic: “The graves were dug and lined with bricks, then roofed with wood and capped with mud brick masonry. Above the masonry cap, a plaster floor extended from the enclosure and covered all the graves.” The conclusion that one draws from this is that all the people were buried at the same time. It seems unlikely that they all died of natural causes at the same time, or their bodies were stored and then buried. This suggests that there is a strong possibility that they were all sacrificed at the same time---at around the time of King Aha’s funeral. [Ibid]

Brenda Baker, a physical anthropologist at Arizona State, looked at all the skeletons that had been found around Aha’s tomb and enclosure. She told National Geographic she found no evidence of trauma. “The method of their demise is a mystery. My guess is they were drugged.” Another possibility is that were strangled. Some blood has been found in the enamel of the teeth (when someone is strangled blood cells burst inside the teeth). [Ibid]

Interest in human sacrifice appears to have been a passing fashion, There were 41 subsidiary grave at Aha’s tomb and enclosure, 569 around the tomb and enclosure of his successor Djoer but only 30 beised the tom (is enclosure has not been located) of Djoer’s successor, Qaa. By the 2nd dynasty around 2800 B.C. the practice stopped. A few years later the first pyramids were built. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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