View of Takarkori shelter from the west. © Savino di Lernia, 2020

Early humans feasted on fish in the Sahara Desert 10,000 years ago

Archaeologists excavated bones of fish, toads, frogs, crocodiles and birds from the Tadrart Acacus mountains in the Saharan Desert.

  • Ancient humans in what is now the Sahara Desert would have lived in humid conditions with large bodies of water
  • Archaeologists excavate the remains of more than 17,000 fish and other aquatic animals.
  • The large volume of fish bones suggests they played a significant role in the Holocene-human diet.
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An investigation into the animal remains in the Sahara Desert has revealed that humans living there 10,000 years ago were eating fish for their supper.

Researchers from the Natural History Museum in Belgium and the Sapienza University of Rome excavated a total of 17,551 bones, including those of fish, toads or frogs, crocodiles and birds.

Archaeologists have previously found evidence that for much of the early Holocene period (around 10,200 to 8,000 years ago) the Tadrart Acacus mountains in the Saharan Desert was humid with many permanent bodies of water.

“It is hard to say how much water was there,” said Prof Savino di Lernia, the lead author of the study along with Prof Wim Van Neer. “During the early Holocene there were permanent water bodies with plenty of fish, but things changed around 5,900 years ago, with the onset of present desert conditions.”

Humans were known to have settled there during the early Holocene, as archaeologists see stone structures and fireplaces in the area.

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The team focussed on excavating parts of the Takarkori rock shelter, one of many shelters in the Tadrart Acacus mountains, to identify and date animal remains there.

Almost 80 per cent of the those found were fish, two-thirds of which were members of the Clariidae genus of catfish. The others were of the genus Tilapia.

“We were expecting to find fish remains in the mountains,” said Prof di Lernia. “Albeit very rare, fish remains are still present in some environmental refugia across the Sahara. What is surprising is the amount of fish [found here] and their role in the diet of early Holocene humans.”

The study found that the amount of fish consumed by the human settlers decreased over time, as the inhabitants turned to food sources from hunting and livestock.

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However, Prof di Lernia was surprised by the number of fish remains still dating from times when the humans were known to be pastoral.

Reader Q&A: How long can a structure last in a desert before being swamped by sand?

Asked by: Melanie Garder, London

Buildings don’t actually sink into the sand, they are covered as it’s blown sideways by the wind. Without any plants to hold the sand in place, it is blown into horseshoe-shaped dunes, called barchans. Each grain gets blown from the bottom of the dune up to the crest and then tumbles down the steeper slope on the leeward side. This means that the barchan as a whole gradually creeps downwind at about 15m per year.

In Tunisia, the set of Anakin Skywalker’s home, used for Star Wars Episode 1, is currently being engulfed. In another five or six years it will be completely covered.

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