Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ancient Crossings

Swimming Cow (link)

I will admit to having a swimming ice age cow theory:  my theory that predomestic swimming bovines crossed the Strait of Sicily during the Last Glacial Maximum (here). Yes, it is possible that those T1 cattle crossed the Strait of Sicily during the Neolithic by boat, but the early rock art drawings in places such as Qurta and the swimming cows of Lake Chad suggest otherwise.  Additionally, the distribution of T1 cattle in Italy and North Africa suggest the Strait of Sicily as the crossing point.

Leaving for the moment, the swimming cow theory, the Henn et al 2012 paper supports the idea of a human (not cow) Back-to-Africa migration from Europe more than twelve thousand years ago.  For various technical reasons, the authors are not able to pin point the nexus of this migration as Gibraltar or the Strait of Sicily.

This paper also unfortunatlely claims that they "estimate that a migration of western African origin into Morocco began about 40 generations ago (approximately 1,200 ya); a migration of individuals with Nilotic ancestry into Egypt occurred about 25 generations ago (approximately 750 ya)" and that these "sub-Saharan ancestries appear to be a recent introduction into North African populations, dating to about 1,200 years ago in southern Morocco and about 750 years ago into Egypt, possibly reflecting the patterns of the trans-Saharan slave trade that occurred during this period."  The problem is with the word began.  These statements would leave one with the impression that there was no gene flow between the people of Africa and the people of European origin until at least 1,200 years ago.  Needless to say, this notion is very implausible.  In spite of that flawed conclusion, again, I do think that the authors are onto something regarding there being an ancient European contribution to the ancestry of North Africans. 

Many have been following the discussion of the more recent paper on Neanderthal admixture in North Africans (Sánchez-Quinto).  Again, there are some technical weaknesses in this paper which have been discussed by John Hawks (The North African Neandertal descendants) and also by Joshua Gatera (here) in the comments.  What is most interesting to me in this discussion is that, as John Hawks points out, "When they sorted out parts of the genome in Tunisians that ADMIXTURE determines to be most likely from pre-Neolithic North Africans, they found these parts of the genome had more Neandertal ancestry than typical of the CEU sample of northern European ancestry. Is it possible that ancient North Africans had more Neandertal similarity than today's Europeans? ".  In a word, yes.  One possibility is that, as the higher level of Neanderthal admixture in Tuscans suggests, a nexus of Neanderthal admixture was in Italy.   Again, John Hawks discussed this on his blog back in February (here).  So did Ice age Italians carry this higher level of Neandertal to Tunisia when they crossed at the Strait of Sicily?   No one has yet taken DNA from the different populations of archaic Neanderthals and compared them to the traces of Neanderthal DNA in different populations of modern humans.  As yet, there is not a definitive answer as to the source of Neanderthal ancestry in North Africans.

Migrations across the Mediterranean would not have been one-way-heading-south tickets.  People from North Africa likely also crossed back into Europe whenever the sea level was low enough both at Gibraltar and at the Strait of Sicily.  That was apparent to me the moment I started looking at the E Y-chromosome haplogroup distribution which I wrote about in Gazelle Hunters and in the Mediterranean Coastline During the LGM.  The Atlas mountains, the Saharan megalake corridor, Gibraltar and the Straight of Sicily must have provided intermittent byways to Europe.  The Levant was not the only ticket north.

So what was the driving force behind these Mediterranean crossings?  The distribution speaks to hunting of ungulates.  The distribution of Ounanian Point hunters, as discussed by Drake et al (2010), bears a surprising congruence to the distribution of the E Y-chromosome haplogroup.  What is more, the preponderance of ancient rock art drawing of gazelles, antelopes and bovines in the Atlas Mountains and North Africa also follows this distribution (Le Quellec, 1993).  The abundance of rupricapra, bos primigenius, capra ibex, cervus elaphus and other now extinct antelopes and gazelles on both sides of the Strait of Sicily would have drawn hunters across the Straits in both directions.

As the sea level rose after the glacial maximum, populations on both sides were gradually cut off from their nexus of expansion. Over time, the "arrivals" on either side begin to fuse with the locals. Regarding the Ounanian culture that developed in North Africa after the Ice Age, Drake expounds: "We hypothesize that the other economic revolution that occurred in the Sahara at approximately the same time was the southward spread of the bow and arrow. North African hunters would have observed the new abundance of large and unfamiliar land mammals to the south, notably the elephant and the giraffe. In a dispersal inverse to that of the Nilo-Saharans [expanding from the southeast during the Holocene Climatic Optimum], they would have been attracted southward to hunt these animals with the bow and arrow. The "Ounanian" of Northern Mali, Southern Algeria, Niger, and central Egypt at ca. 10 ka is partly defined by a distinctive type of arrow point. These arrowheads are found in much of the southern Sahara and are generally considered to have spread from Northwest Africa. This view is supported by the affinity of this industry with the Epipalaelithic that also appears to have colonized the Sahara from the north. No Ounanian points occur in West Africa before 10ka, suggesting the movement of a technology across the desert from the north to south around this time."

One of many remaining questions regarding movements between Western Europe and North Africa is the means by which both animals, humans and plants came to cross Gibraltar and the Straight of Sicily. Gibraltar is a narrow crossing, but the possibility of the Strait of Sicily as a crossing point requires some consideration. The channel has depths below 200 meters, and as the sea level at the last glacial maximum never fell below 120 meters, no land isthmus could ever have existed. However, recent studies of the Marbled White butterfly (Habel et al, 2011), linaria (Fernández-Mazuecos, Vargas, 2011), and maniola jurtina (Dapport et al, 2011) indicate that some plants and butterflies sporadically were able to cross the Strait of Sicily during the last glacial maximum. To date, no studies on mammals definitively indicate a crossing of the Strait of Sicily prior to the Neolithic and during the LGM. 

Further studies of ancient and modern plant, mammal and insect DNA will be needed to illucidate the picture of these ancient mariners. Swimming ice age cows across the Strait of Sicily? It certainly would explain the odd phylogenic distribution of those T1 cattle. Perhaps the surprising finding of high levels of "Neanderthal" in both Tuscans and Tunisians also speaks to this ancient crossing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

About those Saharan Reindeer . . .

Karkur Talh bovids (Courtesy Fliegel Jezerniczky Expeditions (link))

Without trying to draw any conclusions, I will say that the above rock art drawing has had me thinking for a while.  The antlers on two of the above animals don't match any bovids I know of in Africa today.  The closest animal I can think of is a reindeer.

Given what we now know about Saharan megalakes and their connection to Karkur Talh, I am wondering if these could have perhaps been wondering bovids from Icy Europe.  I really don't have any other explanation.  The artists of these rock art drawings seem to have been very accurate in their realizations and the antlers on these animals do somewhat resemble those of a South Georgian reindeer.  As South Georgian reindeer are not from South Georgia, but from Norway, this engraving hints at an Ice Age exodus from Europe, and to the very different environment of the Sahara 10,000 years ago.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Comparative phylogeography of African savannah ungulates

E. D. Lorenzen, R. Heller, H. R. Siegismund
Molecular Ecology, Volume 21, Issue 15, pages 3656-3670, August 2012
(Link) (open access)

"Although species distributions change through time owing to local extirpations, replacements and the colonization of new areas, we can use the current distribution of genetic lineages to infer the putative geographic location of past refugia. The concordance among phylogeographic patterns observed across the ungulate assemblage strongly suggests the presence of Pleistocene refugia in West and Southern Africa and a mosaic of refugia in East Africa."

The Tenerian and the vanishing of the "green Sahara"

A 2011 post on the Aggsbach's Paleolithic Blog discusses the lithic chronology of the Sahara since the Epipaleolithic.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ancient watercourses and biogeography of the Sahara explain the peopling of the desert

Figure 3 from the paper:  Saharan palaeohydrology overlaid with the spatial distribution of Ouranian and barbed bone points and Nilo-Saharan languages.

Nick A. Drake, Roger M. Blench, Simon J. Armitage, Charlie S. Bristow, and Kevin H. White
(full text link)

"Evidence increasingly suggests that sub-Saharan Africa is at the center of human evolution and understanding routes of dispersal “out of Africa” is thus becoming increasingly important. The Sahara Desert is considered by many to be an obstacle to these dispersals and a Nile corridor route has been proposed to cross it. Here we provide evidence that the Sahara was not an effective barrier and indicate how both animals and humans populated it during past humid phases."

Modern Human Desert Adaptations: A Libyan Perspective on the Aterian Complex

E. A. A. Garcea
in MODERN ORIGINS: Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology, 2012, Part 2, 127-142
(Amazon link)
(Springer link)

Abstract:  "The present Libyan territory extends over a large area that goes from the Mediterranean coast to the Saharan Desert. Aterian sites were found in the central Saharan mountain range of the Tadrart Acacus, the eastern Saharan massif of the Jebel Uweinat, the Maghrebi extension of the Jebel Gharbi, as well as the lowlands of Lake Shati in the central part of the country. Recent research in the Tadrart Acacus and the Jebel Gharbi has provided radiometric dates, geoarchaeological stratigraphic sequences, and lithic assemblages that call for a revision of the chronological, environmental, and functional interpretation of the Aterian Industrial Complex. In Libya, two distinct Aterian variants, one to the northwest (Jebel Gharbi), the other to the southwest (Tadrart Acacus and Messak Settafet) of the country, display specific chronological developments and site settings related to different paleoenvironmental conditions that allow one to trace geographic boundaries, with different latitudinal and altitudinal adaptational patterns. Their differences concur to show that Aterian groups developed different skills and tools to adapt to different dry environments that inevitably conditioned their behavior and settlement systems. This paper reviews the recent evidence from the Libyan Aterian sites and those that immediately preceded and followed, discusses both the general perspective and the regional variants within the Aterian, and addresses the question of the spread of anatomically modern humans in North Africa."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

West Africa sidebar added

Over the last several years, I've written a number of posts on West Africa.  In order to facilitate reading of these articles, I've added a West Africa sidebar in the right hand margin of this blog.  The articles can be roughly grouped into general information and papers on West African prehistory, cattle in West Africa, Lake Chad, Akan language and culture, and papers on the genetics of Ghana, Cameroon and the Cross River region.  Admittedly, much has not been covered.  I hope to add to this series in the future.

Middle Stone Age human occupation in the Messak

Note:  The full text of this important paper is unfortunately not yet available.

"Giant" lineal Levallois core from Messak Settafet


Middle Stone Age human occupation and dispersals in the Messak plateau (SW Libya, central Sahara)

Emanuele Cancellieri, Savino di Lernia
Quatenary International 2012


Abstract:  Research conducted since the 1990s in SW Libya has provided wide-ranging data on the Pleistocene archaeology of this vast region, which principally relies on surface scatters of lithic artefacts, a series of soundings and two MSA/Aterian dated sites. The Middle Stone Age of the region is thought to date from roughly MIS 6/5 to approximately 60 ka (the latest dated Aterian occurrence). Its distribution varies from sand seas to mountain ranges, with different states of preservation and archaeological visibility. This paper presents data from the last surveys (2010–2011) carried out on 46 transects across the Messak massif. One component of the research strategy was specifically designed to handle the impressive Pleistocene record through sampling a series of spots placed at fixed distances along predetermined survey strips. Field documentation of the techno-typological traits allowed the creation of a territorial data-set used to infer patterns of raw material exploitation, technological variability and the significance of the principal chrono-cultural markers. Quartzarenite, the most available and used raw material, is a diffusely distributed resource. This should have played a role in patterns of land use and mobility and, ultimately, in the composition of archaeological assemblages, mostly characterised by complete reduction sequences. Variability in the application of the Levallois method highlights widespread adoption of recurrent and lineal schemes. Among the latter, point production is extremely rare. The retouched blanks inventory is dominated by scrapers and notches, whereas more specialised tool classes (i.e., tanged pieces, points, foliates) are less common. The dimensions of a small sample of Aterian artefacts provisionally signal a higher degree of homogeneity among pointed tanged specimens than other types. Despite the overwhelming presence of roughly labelled MSA contexts, these show little evidence of a MSA stricto sensu chrono-cultural signature, among which scanty but precise elements are comparable with the sub-Saharan and Nile valley early Middle Stone Age, reinforcing the picture of multiple dispersals across the Sahara and North Africa around MIS 6/5. The evolution of MSA occupation and its cultural trajectories is difficult to assess, while the last phases, represented here by the Aterian, can be framed in hyperarid MIS 4 – after the dates from Acacus – and likely represent the adaptation of residual groups almost confined to mountain environments.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Messak Project

Note: There are many beautiful rock art photos and maps in this paper.  I highly recommend linking to the original of this paper in order to enjoy its graphical content.  The format is a web page, not pdf, so it should be accessible to anyone reading this.

Detail of rock art scene, Messak Settafet


Cultural and Natural Preservation and Sustainable Tourism (south-western Libya)

Marina Gallinaro, Christine Gauthier, Yves Gauthier, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, Saad Abdel Aziz, Stefano Biagetti, Luigi Boitani, Emanuele Cancellieri, Lucia Cavorsi, Isabella Massamba N'Siala, Andrea Monaco, Alessandro Vanzetti, Andrea Zerboni & Savino di Lernia



"The Messak Project started in summer 2010 as a joint project of the Libyan Department of Archaeology and the Italian-Libyan Archaeological Mission in the Acacus and Messak of Sapienza University of Rome, a three-year programme of heritage research and management of the Messak plateaux in south-western Libya. At the end of February 2011, in the final stages of the first season, the civil uprising interrupted the research and determined the termination of the project. After eight months of conflict, there is growing concern from the international scientific community about the state of the Libyan cultural heritage and its role in the future of the country ( In this respect, we believe that communication of the preliminary results of the project can contribute to keep focusing attention on the Libyan situation, and to emphasise the wealth and outstanding value of the cultural heritage in a remote but crucial area for the country."


"Data on c. 9000 archaeological entities, half of which are unpublished sites from the past 30 years of research, were entered into a geo-database, creating the first geo-archaeological map of the region (Figures 5 and 6). This gave a wider view of the location of archaeological evidence and revealed the presence of sites in a great variety of settings. The development of statistically based predictive models will enhance the understanding of occupation dynamics in the region in different periods. The types of sites and their periods of occupation vary greatly. While most data refer to the Holocene, Pleistocene evidence is undeniably remarkable (Figure 7), also featuring some unexpected ancient records relative to the earliest phases of the Early Stone Age. Other data refer to the frequentation of the plateaux over the last two millennia (e.g. tifinagh inscriptions, caravan routes or nomad campsites)."

"One of the main outcomes of the Messak Project is the map of damage sustained (Figures 8 and 9). The extent of damage caused to each archaeological and rock art site was assessed and all recent activities caused by human agency (such as car tracks, roads, oil research facilities and infrastructures) were recorded. This resulted in a thematic map synthesising the state of the environmental and cultural heritage as at February 2011 and a map of the potential risk to the natural and archaeological heritage (Figures 10 and 11). These maps provide a new tool for planning conservation strategies of the heritage of the Messak region. Evidence of different types and levels of damage and risk for archaeological and rock art sites, as well as for the wadis, forms the basis for the selection of restoration priorities and the definition of areas requiring special protection measures."

The date and context of rock art in the Sahara

Note:  This important paper describes recent methodologies used to date rock art sites in the Messak Settafet, Libya (See map "Lake Megafezzan" in the right sidebar for the location of the Messak Settafet.)

Messak Settafet Pastoral Neolithic Rock Art

The date and context of neolithic rock art in the Sahara:  engravings and ceremonial monuments from Messak Settafet (south-west Libya)

Savino di Lernia, Marina Gallinaro
Antiquity Volume: 84  Number: 326  Page: 954-975

(Link) original paper
(Link) free text (figures not available)

Discussion:  Refining rock art chronology of the Messak

"On the basis of these first indications, we can argue that the practice of deliberately decorating rock panels for cattle burials (inside monuments or in their immediate vicinity) was well established at the height of Middle Pastoral Neolithic cultures--archaeologically bracketed between 6100 and 5100 BP (e.g. di Lernia 2002). The interval 5500-5100 appears to be particularly important, since all elements represented in Pastoral style are either directly associated with the dated monuments or are older than the age of the monument itself."

"If we were to consider the mid sixth millennium BP as the focal stage for the Pastoral style associated with ceremonial monuments, then we could extend, on stylistic grounds, the chronology obtained from these stone monuments to panels located nearby and, more generally, to the rock art of the Messak which shows this particular style. We should note that many of the art works found in ceremonial monuments--placed there either intentionally as grave goods (the engraved tethering stone of Site 07/39-C1/2) or simply used as building materials (Site 556 & 07/39-C4/1)--show naturalistic traits, typical of the Messak school (cf. Le Quellec) or Pastoral style (cf. Mori). This style (which has several internal variations probably mirroring specific groups' traditions) is the most widely represented in the region of the Messak: we cannot give a precise figure--we are talking about thousands of engraved panels and a systematic database is still lacking--but we could suggest that most of the Messak rock art was probably created during the Middle Pastoral Neolithic."


"The new evidence from the Messak therefore offers another aspect of the multifaceted Middle Pastoral Neolithic--the existence of ceremonial sites featuring engravings and the furnishing of the surrounding landscape with hundreds of decorated panels. For the time being, we suggest that these contexts, where animals were ritually slaughtered, hosted ceremonies attended by hundreds of people (given the large quantity of available meat), as also hypothesised for sites in Egypt and Niger (Applegate et al. 2001: 487; di Lernia 2006)."

"The harsh and rugged Messak plateau was a hostile environment even during the 'wet' Middle Pastoral Neolithic, as indicated by the very scarce settlement remains, suggesting either a low density or a light and very mobile settlement pattern.  By contrast, rock art sites, ceremonial sites, funerary contexts and quartzite quarries dominated the landscape use of the region. Ongoing laboratory studies and future fieldwork will hopefully provide decisive evidence for understanding the nature of the relationships between these specific segments of the Messak archaeological record."

"For the time being, the rock art of the region has at last been assigned to its proper archaeological context, firmly dated and associated with specific rituals."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A propos de quelques gravures rupestres de l'Ajal (Fezzan septentrional, Libye)

Note:  This paper,  covering the Tazina style rock art of the El-Ajal region of Libya, located on what was once the shores of Lake Megafezzan, is authored by the well known rock art expert Jean-Loïc Le Quellec.  The paper contains several beautiful photos demonstrating the naturalistic Tazina style. 

Jean-Loïc Le Quellec
Persée, Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 1993, vol. 90, issue 5, pp. 368-376.

"Par ailleurs, même si les auteurs n'ont pas toujours précisé les critères qu'ils utilisaient, le décompte des gravures sahariennes et nord-africaines actuellement publiées et considérées comme étant du style de Tazina permet de remarquer que 58% d'entre elles se trouvent dans l'Atlas saharien, ou 60% sont constituées de Gazelles ou d'Antilopes, suivies de 12% de Bovinés, aucune des autres espèces ne dépassant 7% (Eléphants, Pelorovis antiquus, Autruches, Equidés, Canidés, Félidés, Ovidés, Suidé).  Au Sahara, près de la moitié sont des Girafes, mais sur la totalité de l'ensemble (Atlas et Sahara), on compte encore 52% de Gazelles et Antilopes, puis 20% de Girafes, et 10% de Bovinés, aucune autre espèce n'atteignant même 5%."

English translation:  "Although authors do not always precisely define their criteria of classification, the breakdown of Saharan and North African engravings which are published and considered to be in the Tazina style permit one to remark that 58% of them are in the Atlas Mountains and of these, 60% constitute gazelles or antelopes, followed by 12% bovines, with the remaining 7% comprised of other species (elephants, pelorovis antiquus, ostriches, equides, canines, felines, caprines and wild pigs.)  In the Sahara, nearly half of the animals are giraffes, but in the total taken together (Atlas Mountains and the Sahara), gazelles and antilopes account for 52%, giraffes 20%, bovines 10% and the other species less than 5%."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lake Megafezzan

From Tehemu (Link)

"Recent archaeological research revealed the existence of several fresh-water lakes, known as palaeolakes, in ancient Fezzan, Libya. Some of these lakes were located in the southern regions of Wadi Irawan, Wadi al-Ajal and the Ubari Sand Sea. The archaeological finds from the area include dark layers of organic matters, shells, hand axes and other Palaeolithic and Neolithic implements and tools which strongly suggested ancient human activity in Fezzan. These lakes were part of a larger network of lakes which have included the legendary nearby Lake Tritonis and Lake Chad among numerous other smaller lakes."

"Precise dating of the lakes is yet to be confirmed, but current studies, conducted by the Fezzan Project, suggest Pleistocene and Holocene human presence. However, results from Wadi al-Ajal's playas (: which are mud flats with rough surface, cracks and salt encrustation, like the Playa of Germa which represent the lakes just before drying out) indicate these lakes to have disappeared around 3000 years ago."

Multiple phases of North African humidity recorded in lacustrine sediments from the Fazzan Basin, Libyan Sahara

Fig. 1. Location of the sample sites used in this study. The four sample localities are numbered: (1) Wadi ash Shati massive limestones; (2) Wadi ash Shati inter-bedded sandstones and limestone; (3) Wadi ash Shati coquinas and (4) The Wadi el-Ajal lake sediments and shoreline.

S. J. Armitage, N. A. Drake, S. Stokes, A. El-Hawat, M. J. Salem, K. White, P. Turner, S. J. McLaren

Abstract:  "The Fazzan Basin of south-west Libya is at present arid with less than 20 mm of rainfall per annum. However, regionally extensive limestones, lacustrine sands and coquina (fossiliferous carbonate rock) deposits show that the Fazzan Basin previously contained a large palaeolake, indicating that the climate in the past was more humid. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating techniques have been applied to key lacustrine deposits within the basin in an attempt to provide an internally consistent chronology for this humidity record. Results indicate that palaeolake sediments within the Fazzan Basin record a very long history of palaeohydrological change, ranging from present day arid conditions to humidity capable of sustaining a lake with an approximate area of 76,250 km2. The existence of humid periods in mid oxygen isotope stage 5 and the early Holocene is confirmed. An older lacustrine event, tentatively correlated to oxygen isotope stage 11, is also recognized. In addition, evidence is presented for at least two humid phases beyond the age range over which the conventional OSL dating technique is applicable. This study demonstrates that OSL dating of palaeolake sediments within the Fazzan Basin offers the potential to provide a detailed record of North African humidity spanning several glacial–interglacial cycles."

Saharan Megalakes

Saharan Megalakes (link)

Nick Drake, researcher at the University of Kings College, London "is currently concentrating on past human occupation and climate change in the Sahara concentrating on the evidence provided by lacustrine sediments deposited by giant palaeolakes once located in the large closed basins of the Fezzan (Libya), the Chotts (Tunisia) and the Bodele (Chad). This research is coordinated by the Sahara Megalakes Project."

"These Saharan megalakes provide information for furthering our understanding not only of the palaeoclimate of the Sahara but also African biogeography and palaeoanthropology. The Sahara Desert currently provides a formidable barrier to animal and hominid migration from central/southern Africa to Arabia and the Levant. However, there is abundant evidence that on several occasions in the past, creatures which evolved in central/southern Africa were able to populate adjacent landmasses, indicating that this barrier did not always operate in the past. Understanding the long term climatic evolution of the Sahara region is therefore a particularly important question for biogeography and palaeoanthropology. By chance, the catchements of the three megalakes (Lake Megachad, Lake Megafezzan and the Chotts Megalake) link to form a corridor across the Sahara. Thus the palaeolake sediments they preserve can be used to determine whether there was previously a corridor of humidity across the Sahara by looking for evidence of synchronous lacustrine activity in all three basins."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A request regarding blogger comments

I'd like to allow people to comment freely on this site.  However, I ask that comments use scientific language as much as possible.  Please avoid using terms such as genetically pristine, pure and race.  The common term is now genetically isolated. Also, words such as Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid are no longer in common usage.  Please use European, Asian, Central Asian, East Asian, African, or even better, West African, Nilo-Saharan, San, etc., as the case may be.  Perhaps it is my bias, but as far as I am concerned, there is only one human race.  In fact, many mammals and birds display qualities of empathy, intuition, rationalism, and humanity and our concept of ourselves as uniquely possessing these qualities is increasingly in question.  Thank you!

Tadrart Acacus UNESCO Web Site

Map showing location of Tadrart Acacus, courtesy African World Heritage Sites (link)

UNESCO Tadrart Acacus (link)

"On the borders of Tassili N'Ajjer in Algeria, also a World Heritage site, this rocky massif has thousands of cave paintings in very different styles, dating from 12,000 B.C. to A.D. 100. They reflect marked changes in the fauna and flora, and also the different ways of life of the populations that succeeded one another in this region of the Sahara."

Chronological phases of Tadrart Acacus rock art are:

the naturalistic phase (14,000-10,000 BP) (AARS link)
the round-head phase (10,000-6,000 BP) (AARS link)
the pastoral phase (6,000-3,500 BP) (AARS link)
the horse phase (3,500-2,000 BP) (AARS link) and
the camel phase (2,000BP to present) (AARS link)


A Date for Dairying in the Green Sahara (link)

Start of a new series on North Africa

I've been meaning, for a while, to post something on the genetic prehistory and rock art of North Africa.  Now seems as good a time as any to make an excursion from the Nile, Sudan and Egypt westward to the Tassili N'ajjer, Messak Settafet, Tadrart Acacus and other points of North Africa.  I'll still be posting on Domestication on the Nile as new material becomes available.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Questions on the Prehistory of Nilo-Saharans

Karkur Talh in Southwestern Egypt

Over the Summer, I received an email from "Asten", in which he described to me his experience with some surprising preconceptions out there in blog land about the origin of Nilo-Saharan speakers.  It's obviously Fall now, but I haven't had a chance to get back to this blog until now.  In any case, Asten's comments provide much food for thought regarding the prehistory of Nilo-Saharans and what genetic research may as yet lend to the topic:

Asten >  I have noticed the lack of blogging content about Nilo-Saharan and Nilo Saharan speakers.  The background of my conclusion starts somewhat like this - Initially I had been reading a lot about E1b1~ lineages.  I focused on the ancestral lineages in East Africa, this lead me to study the dna of East African Afroasiatic speakers.  Much of these topics peaked with the publications by Cruciani and Tishkoff.  In studying Horn African groups there is a noticeable trend indicating their languages Cushitic/Omotic have a more northern source as Proto-AA is supposed to have coalesced somewhere around the Sudanese/Egyptian Red Sea coast.  Also some of the most important Male lineages : E-M78 and its V32 and V22 subclades are thought to have back-migrated from this general area.  These facts then led me to study more on Egypt.  As we know Egypt has a wealth of physical remains and culture to study.  One thing I noticed though, when studying Nile Valley topics is  some of the data, particularlry the early data in both Sudan and Egypt led not to Afrasians but to Nilo-Saharan speakers.

Marnie > It's odd that there is not more follow up on the Cruciani and Tishkoff papers regarding Nilo-Saharans.  There have been a number of very good genetic papers in the last few years on West Africa.  Ethiopian groups, including a few Nilo-Sahara speakers, were covered in the June paper on Ethiopian genetic diversity (link). There is also an interesting recent paper on the Maasai (link).  Many of the papers on Africa of the last year or so have focused on the ultra hot topic of human origins (link) and in so doing, have studied the San, Hadza and Sandawe.  However, to my knowledge, there has not been a paper to specifically follow up on the Nilo-Saharan studies of the 2009 Tishkoff paper "The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans" (link).

Asten > It seemed as if I was stumbling on to something that was not to widely discussed on the web but was noted quite frequently in books.  Now I have brought up some of these topics on a few message boards and people think I am talking about fringe theories.  After much research I am of the opinion that Nilo-Saharan has an origin more northern than the Middle Nile.  Possible somewhere as far North as Southern Egypt.  Many maps by different linguists show the distribution of Nilo-Saharan being much wider and more northern than they are today:

(Marnie's note > The above map is from Chistopher Ehret's chapter in the Africa:  Food, Metal and Towns book (see sidebar).)

(Marnie's note > The above map is from Roger's Blench's chapter in the Africa:  Food, Metal and Towns book.)

Marnie > Note that there is a difference in the Ehret and Blench maps.  However, recent research is beginning to support the Ehret map.

Asten > When on the topic of cattle domestication, I notice again most publications seemed to hint at this being the ancient practice of Nilo-Saharan speakers both in the Nile Valley, the Sahara as well as the western Deserts of Egypt.  Some authors say the pysical remains of the population should be identified as some type of Proto-Nilotic or Nilo-Saharans.  Many sites of cattle early domestication (and early pottery) are at the same latitude as Southern and Middle Egypt.  I don't know what this says as far as Origin but I do think this should be more taken into consideration as far as commenting on the historical distribution.

Marnie > There is a lot of evidence that Southern Egypt during the Holocene Climatic Optimum was populated by Nilo-Saharan speakers or perhaps by both Nilo-Saharan speakers and Cushitic/Omotic speakers.  The work of Christopher Ehret does point to the presence of  Nilo-Saharans at the southern edge of Egypt.  The work of Tishkoff et al (link) indicates a long pattern of intermarriage between some Cushitic/Omotic speakers with Nilo-Saharans. If you look at the rock art of Karkur Tahl, in the dessert at the very southwestern edge of  Egypt, you see drawings of people who share characteristics, hunting styles, weapons and dress with groups who today live further south and are both Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic/Omotic speakers.  The linguistic evidence also supports the notion that proto-Nilo-Saharans and/or proto-Cushitic/Omotic speakers crossed into Southern Egypt during the Holocene Climatic Optimum (link).  The definitive answer as to whether the occupants of sites such as Karkur Tahl were proto-Nilo Saharan and/or proto-Cushitic/Omotic speakers remains an open question.

Marnie > As far as fringe theories go, there has been much opposition to the work of Chris Ehret, some of which has been discussed on this blog.  Here, for instance.  However, in spite of the objections to his work, Ehret's linguistic research has been supported by the Tishkoff genetic research and by recent rock art finds at Karkur Tahl . . . fringe theorists notwithstanding.

Asten > When it comes to DNA it could be a bit more iffy.  Of course we cannot take the DNA of Modern nor ancient individuals and know what language they spoke.  What we can do is show which speakers have a similar Y, mtdna, or autosomal profile to the individuals in question.  I do not know if you are familiar with the JAMA Study on the 18th Dynasty?  The full text is here:

Marnie > I'm not familiar with this study, but I will have a look.

Asten > DNA Tribes took that available STR information and ran it through their population databased and the results are here:

Asten > Most people take this with a grain of salt as the STR's used are low (8).  After a long discussion I am convinced some of the matches are inidcative of Nilo-Saharan ancestry - Particularly the "Great Lakes" scores. Another thing that supports it is the distribution of A3b2, a very common lineage in Nilo-Saharan speakers. This was a surprising find for me ealier this year:

Marnie >  Asten, thanks very much for the links to these stunning papers on the genetics of the Egyptian Amarna Pharaohs.  Hopefully, there will be more research soon to unravel the identity of the innovative and courageous peoples who pushed into the Sahara as the first rains began to fall over 10,000 years ago.  The Nilo-Saharans, venturing forth from their stronghold near Atbara, were surely one group of these intrepid people.

Update (October 16th, 2012):  In this discussion about Nilo-Saharan genetics, it should be pointed out that the Dinka, a Nilo-Saharan people who today live in the Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan, were included as a population in the recent paper "The genetic prehistory of southern Africa", Pickrell et al (link).  The Dinka are a Nilo-Saharan people and are shown in this paper on the Treemix diagram, Figure 3.  This Treemix diagram supports the hypothesis of some linguists that the Dinka, as a proxy for Nilo-Saharans, have as their close relative, the Yorubans (a proxy for most West Africans.)   No doubt, the Pickrell team will soon have a closer look at the relationship between West Africans and Nilo-Saharans, and also, the possible associations between these two groups to Eurasians, North Africans and other East African groups.

Related Posts:

Mentuhotep II Expedition to Jebel Uweinat (link)
Assessing Gilf Kebir Cultural Transmission (link)
Origins of Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic Speakers (link)
The Transition to Food Production (link)
Tishkoff on the Origins of Pastoralism in Africa (link)
Locating Early Nilo-Saharan Societies (link)
The onset of food production among Proto-Northern Sudanic speakers (link)
Early, possibly predomestication divergence of N'dama cattle (link)
Kerma et les débuts du Néolithique Africain (link)
The Saharo-Sahelian Peoples and the Beginnings of Crop Cultivation (link)
Chris Ehret Book:  The Civilizations of Africa (link)
Karkur Talh:  An Ancient Cattle Trail (link)

Related Papers:

The genetic prehistory of southern Africa (link)

The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans (link)

Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun's Family (link)
(with related DNA tribes matching for similar modern populations (link))

Genetic Patterns of Y-chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Variation, with Implications to the Peopling of the Sudan (link)

Ethiopian Genetic Diversity Reveals Linguistic Stratification and ... (link)
(includes genetic analysis of  Nilo-Saharan, Omotic and Cushitic speakers)

Working toward a synthesis of archaeology, linguistic, and genetic ... (link)
(mentions the relationship between Nilo-Saharan speakers and Niger-Kordofanian speakers)

Kerma et les débuts du Néolithique Africain (link)
(discusses the debut of the Neolithic in Nubia)

Early, possibly predomestication divergence of N'dama cattle (link)
(autosomal study of cattle that indicates the genetic divergence of N'dama cattle from other Taurine breeds.)

Assessing Gilf Kebir Cultural Transmission (link)
(discusses Gilf Kebir Rock art with respect to its connection with Nile societies at the end of the Holocene Climatic Optimum.)

Karkur Talh:  An Ancient Cattle Trail (link)
(examines different rock art styles along a cattle trail at Karkur Talh)