Desert Fish on the Menu in the Sahara 10,000 Years Ago

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excavations at Takarkori (c) The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University of Rome
20/02/2020
Desert Fish on the Menu in the Sahara 10,000 Years Ago
post by
Siska Van Parys

Fish was 10,000 years ago the main source of food for hunter-gatherers in the Libyan Sahara, which at that time was still teeming with lakes and rivers. In the archaeological site Takarkori, researchers found thousands of fossil fish bones, with traces of cutting and burning. Over time, however, meat became more and more important as a result of the increasing drought.

Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, the Sahara was not a desert, but a varied landscape with lakes, rivers and savannah-like plains, inhabited by many animal species. Humans also found a home there, first as hunter-gatherers, later as herders. The Tadrart Acacus Mountains in southwest Libya bear witness to this rich past: in this region not only fossil remains of flora and fauna were found, but also cultural artefacts and rock art.

Excavations at Takarkori, carried out by the Sapienza University of Rome, have uncovered large quantities of animal remains. "By identifying and dating the animal remains, we were able to document shifts in fauna over time," says Wim Van Neer (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences), the lead researcher.

A fish a day

The researchers found a total of more than 17,000 animal remains. Of these, almost 80 percent were fish remains, compared to only 19 percent mammalian remains and 1 percent bird, reptile, shellfish and amphibian remains. Many animal remains showed signs of cutting and burning, which shows that they served as human food. The two fish species, identified as catfish and tilapia, were found in huge numbers and provide additional evidence that the area was home to numerous lakes and rivers capable of maintaining a large biomass of fish.

Shift to meat

Over time, however, the proportion of fish remains declined considerably, from 90 percent of all remains 10,200-8,000 years ago to only 40 percent of all remains 5900-4650 years ago. The proportion of mammal remains, on the other hand, increased strongly, which illustrates that the inhabitants of Takarkori gradually focused more on hunting and, later on, animal husbandry.

The authors also found that the number of tilapias was decreasing faster than the number of catfish. The latter have additional respiratory organs that allow them to breathe in shallow, oxygen-deficient and warm water - additional evidence that the area became less favourable to fish as the drought increased.

Man in a changing climate

The study also reveals the ancient hydrographic network of the Sahara and its connection to the Nile, providing crucial information on the dramatic climate changes that have led to the formation of the world's largest hot desert. Takarkori has once again proven to be a real treasure for African archaeology and beyond: a fundamental place to reconstruct the complex dynamics between ancient human groups and their environment in a changing climate.

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

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