PREHISTORY OF CENTRAL NORTH AFRICA
Neolithic cave paintings found in Tassil-n-Ajjer (Plateau
of the Chasms) region of the Sahara
Courtesy LaVerle Berry
The cave paintings found at Tassili-n-Ajjer, north of Tamanrasset,
and at other locations depict vibrant and vivid scenes of everyday
life in the central Maghrib between about 8000 B.C. and 4000 B.C.
They were executed by a hunting people in the Capsian period of
the Neolithic age who lived in a savanna region teeming with giant
buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, animals that
no longer exist in the now-desert area. The pictures provide the
most complete record of a prehistoric African culture.
Earlier inhabitants of the central Maghrib have left behind equally
significant remains. Early remnants of hominid occupation in North
Africa, for example, were found in Ain el Hanech, near Saïda (ca.
200,000 B.C.). Later, Neanderthal tool makers produced hand axes
in the Levalloisian and Mousterian styles (ca. 43,000 B.C.) similar
to those in the Levant. According to some sources, North Africa
was the site of the highest state of development of Middle Paleolithic
flake-tool techniques. Tools of this era, starting about 30,000
B.C., are called Aterian (after the site Bir el Ater, south of
Annaba) and are marked by a high standard of workmanship, great
variety, and specialization.
The earliest blade industries in North Africa are called Ibero-Maurusian
or Oranian (after a site near Oran). The industry appears to have
spread throughout the coastal regions of the Maghrib between 15,000
and 10,000 B.C. Between about 9000 and 5000 B.C., the Capsian
culture began influencing the IberoMaurusian , and after about
3000 B.C. the remains of just one human type can be found throughout
the region. Neolithic civilization (marked by animal domestication
and subsistence agriculture) developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean
Maghrib between 6000 and 2000 B.C. This type of economy, so richly
depicted in the Tassili-n-Ajjer cave paintings, predominated in
the Maghrib until the classical period.
The amalgam of peoples of North Africa coalesced eventually into
a distinct native population that came to be called Berbers. Distinguished
primarily by cultural and linguistic attributes, the Berbers lacked
a written language and hence tended to be overlooked or marginalized
in historical accounts. Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Arab Muslim
chroniclers typically depicted the Berbers as "barbaric" enemies,
troublesome nomads, or ignorant peasants. They were, however,
to play a major role in the area's history.
Data as of December 1993