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Sahara Territory



:: SAHARA ETHNOGRAPHY ::

The Sahara takes its name from the arabic word sahra meaning desert. The touareg name the desert with the word tenere or its plural form tinariwen. Despite being an inhospitable place to inhabit, at the present the Sahara desert has around 35 million inhabitants. This count excludes the people inhabiting the valley of the Nile in Egypt, since this area could be considered as a particular microclimate. To include the population living on this area would probably double the count.

The Sahara is a predominantly arid region that historically, during certain climate conditions, witnessed periods of wetter climate. These wetter periods appear ciclycally between the habitual periods of desertic climate. The last wetter period, known as Neolithic Subpluvial, started approximately in 8000 BC when the european ice sheets started melting and remained until 6000 BC in northern Sahara, while in southern Sahara the wetter climate lasted more time because of the monsoon rainfall that started to move to northern latitudes in those times. When the monsoon rainfall returned to its original latitude around 4000 BC, the southern Sahara started to desecate as well.

During this wetter period, many human groups established along the Sahara territory. The first prehistoric inhabitants were hunters and collectors, progressively evolving towards farming and trading activities as civilization flourished.

Manifestations of rock art and archaeological remains are spread along the entire Sahara, mainly in the mountainous massifs, but also in extremely arid areas such as the Erg of Tenere. This region, now invaded by tall sand dunes, was in an ancient time covered with grass and partially flooded with the waters of the now rachitic Lake Chad. As the Sahara progressively dried, human groups abandoned their settlements, some moving to less arid mountainous regions and others leaving the Sahara territory to occupy peripheral regions that are still fertile at the present.

In the deserted Sahara, the low level of humidity allowed the numerous rock paintings to endure, while the absence of humus allowed many archaelogical remains like grinding stones and ceramics to remain intact in the surface, after thousands of years. Of the entire range of rock engravings and paintings known to exist in the Sahara, the most renowned and numerous are the ones located in the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau, in south-eastern Algeria.

The most ancient representations of rock art found along the Sahara could be dated around 9000 BC, consisting in carved petroglyphs, that depict extinted animals, such as the giant buffalo called bubalus, animals that moved to the southern lands when the Sahara started to desertize, such as buffalos, giraffes, hippos, elephants and lyons, and animals that still live in the Sahara, but in reduced numbers, such as antelopes. Around 8000 BC these engravings started to be replaced by paintings, made by communities of hunters and collectors. In this time also appeared the first grinding stones and ceramics.

In Tassili-n-Ajjer, the most ancient scenes depict dark skinned hunters, that harass giraffes, rhinos and elephants with spears and arrows. Also are represented big humanoid figures, probably gods. In more recent scenes, are depicted domestic activities; banquets, wedding, hut building and diverse labours are drawn with more realism and detail than in the previous stage of this art.
Around 6000 BC a probable period of drought lead to domestication. From this stage, these negroid peoples represent now in their paintings scenes of short-horned cattle.

Between 5000 and 4000 BC this race was replaced by a more pale race that came from the east, possibly from the present Ethiopia. These new peoples introduced long-horned cattle and depicted in their paintings hunting and herding scenes, mountain sheep, giraffes and antelopes. The rupestrian art created by these peoples represents the highest point of this art in the Sahara.

Around 2000 BC the desertization made this people to move progressively towards the south, where they would remain until present days, as the cattle herder tribes that inhabit the Sahel. From this period on, the rupestrian art depicts the use of horses and two-wheeled chariots, that would be more adequate for the rugged terrain of the Sahara, lacking roads, than four-wheeled chariots. These chariots would be used to carry trade goods on the first times of the transaharan trade routes, but also war chariots and soldiers dressed with robes are depicted in the caves of Tassili-n-Ajjer. The origin of these soldiers remains a mystery. Some people say that these would be related with the Egyptian Empire, whose founders, following this theory, would be inhabiting Tassili-n-Ajjer before emigrating and finally settling along the Nile. Another hypothesis would be that these scenes could represent slave hunters from the neighboring Empire of Garama. Ancient sources state that these garamantes hunted "ethiopian troglodytes" or "cave dwellers" from four-horse chariots.

Around 100 BC the desertization of the Sahara was complete as it is today, and from this time on the rock art became more austere. In this last stage of the saharan rupestrian art, for the first time the camel appears, replacing the horse, which could not endure the hard conditions of the desert, and also appears in the rock walls the primitive tifinagh characters of the touareg alphabet. Since then, only silence would accompany these paintings during two thousand years, preserved by the shady and dry ambience inside the abandoned caves where they remained, until the day on which a french soldier would put his eyes on them.

The images below show a prehistoric grinding stone that remained in the surface of the desert during thousands of years and a cave painting that shows negroid hunters with bows and arrows. These elements are from Tassili-n-Ajjer, in south-eastern Algeria.

A prehistoric grinding stone at Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria. A cave painting at Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria.

The images below show a engraving of a cow from Tadrart Akakus, libyan mountains next to Tassili-n-Ajjer, and some petroglyphs that show giraffes and riders made in the rocks at the Air mountains in Niger.

A engraving of a cow at Tadrart Akakus, Libya. Some petroglyphs in the rocks at the Air massif, Niger.



From the many ethnicities and tribal societies present along the Sahara desert and the southern Sahel, some stand out because of their historical importance or bigger population. The ancestral peoples of the Sahara share a common tradition of a nomadic life of herding, with the exception of nubians, that have been sedentary agricultors in the banks of the Upper Nile probably since agriculture was introduced in Africa, several thousands of years ago. In addition to this it should be noted that while the peoples of the Sahara used the camel caravans in their trade routes, in Egypt the Nile was the only trade route and therefore the transports were carried by boats. The arabic invasion of northern Africa on the VII century progressively converted all the peoples in the Sahara to the islamic religion.

A berber woman from northern Africa.The berbers (left image) are historically the native inhabitants of northern Africa; they refer themselves as the amazigh people. The arabic invasion caused a portion of them to move from the mediterranean coast to the inner, deserted lands of the Sahara, where they spread. Berbers occupy today an extent portion of northern Africa, mainly the region known as the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), but also Libya, north-western Egypt, Mauritania, Mali and Niger; they are certainly the most extent ethnic group in northern Africa.

A cultural subgroup within the berbers are the famous touareg (below, left image) or targui, in the singular form, named so by the arabs, though they would prefer to call themselves as the Kel Tamasheq (the people that speak the tamasheq). To be considered as a targui is not a matter of race, but a matter of culture; touareg individuals frequently are a result of miscegenation, so they are not a racial group, but a cultural group, linked primarily by their language tamasheq and its alphabet tifinagh. Despite their fame, the touareg represent a small portion of the population in the Sahara; they are most numerous in western Niger and northern Mali, while lesser numbers inhabit southern Algeria and south-western Libya, and some others are present also in Burkina Faso, out of the Sahara.

The touareg have their counterpart on the toubou people (below, right image). These two peoples share a similar way of life, based in nomadic herding and trading and their ancestral rivality is probably a matter of competition on the trade control in the Sahara. The majority of toubous inhabit the desertic northern half of Chad, while lesser numbers live in eastern Niger, south-eastern Libya, south-western Egypt and the sudanese Darfur. Being rivals, the toubou and touareg peoples do not share territory; their influence areas are divided in a north-south line that crosses the Tenere and the Fezzan. If there is any contact between these two tribes, it occurs in the oases of the Tenere, where the touareg control the caravans and the toubou gather salt and dates.

The toubou people is one of unknown origin and inhabits the Sahara since remote times. They are individualist and temperamental, warrior peoples that have a great physical resistance and are considered as the best adapted to the desert climate. In the old times, when green tea was not known in the Sahara, even their women would carry a sword, not satisfied with carrying their traditional daggers. In toubou society, women enjoy a certain degree of freedom and some privileges, and men would not dare to interfere in their businesses and much less in their quarrels...

A touareg man from central Sahara. A toubou man from central Sahara.

Left image: a nubian woman from Egypt. The nubians were rivals of the egyptians already in the first times of the civilization in Africa. Thousands of years ago, these two peoples stand out from the rest of the africans, that formed tribal societies. Along the valley of the Nile, they created powerful empires, administrative societies defended by regular armies, that built durable stone monuments and were governed by complex legislations, empires that traded during centuries with european and asiatic empires. On the History, however, the nubian kingdoms didn't achieved the fame of the Egyptian Empire; their farther location from the Mediterranean Sea affected the development of their civilization.

Right image: the peuls are another people of unknown origin. They inhabit the western Sahel (Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania) and other countries out of the Sahara. Traditionally, they have been nomadic herders of goats and cattle and their ancestors probably lived in the Central Sahara during the Neolithic. It now seems established that during the Neolithic the saharan population was dominated by black-skinned peoples, traces of whom can be found in places like Adrar in Mauritania and Tassili-n-Ajjer in Algeria. Following the progressive desertization of the Sahara, the white-skinned berber peoples from the north moved southwards into the desert, which caused clashes between these two racial groups.

A nubian woman from Egypt. A peul woman from Niger.

Sahara Geography



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