Archaeological evidence indicates that from at least the eighth
millennium B.C. Libya's coastal plain shared in a Neolithic culture,
skilled in the domestication of cattle and cultivation of crops,
that was common to the whole Mediterranean littoral. To the south,
in what is now the Sahara Desert, nomadic hunters and herders
roamed a vast, well-watered savanna that abounded in game and
provided pastures for their stock. Their culture flourished until
the region began to desiccate after 2000 B.C. Scattering before
the encroaching desert and invading horsemen, the savanna people
migrated into the Sudan
(see Glossary) or were absorbed by the Berbers.
The origin of the Berbers is a mystery, the investigation of
which has produced an abundance of educated speculation but no
solution. Archaeological and linguistic evidence strongly suggests
southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the
Berbers may have begun their migration into North Africa early
in the third millennium B.C. Over the succeeding centuries they
extended their range from Egypt to the Niger Basin. Caucasians
of predominantly Mediterranean stock, the Berbers present a broad
range of physical types and speak a variety of mutually unintelligible
dialects that belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. They
never developed a sense of nationhood and have historically identified
themselves in terms of their tribe, clan, and family. Collectively,
Berbers refer to themselves simply as imazighan, to which
has been attributed the meaning "free men."
Inscriptions found in Egypt dating from the Old Kingdom (ca.
2700-2200 B.C.) are the earliest known recorded testimony of the
Berber migration and also the earliest written documentation of
Libyan history. At least as early as this period, troublesome
Berber tribes, one of which was identified in Egyptian records
as the Levu (or "Libyans"), were raiding eastward as far as the
Nile Delta and attempting to settle there. During the Middle Kingdom
(ca. 2200-1700 B.C.) the Egyptian pharaohs succeeded in imposing
their overlordship on these eastern Berbers and extracted tribute
from them. Many Berbers served in the army of the pharaohs, and
some rose to positions of importance in the Egyptian state. One
such Berber officer seized control of Egypt in about 950 B.C.
and, as Shishonk I, ruled as pharaoh. His successors of the twentysecond
and twenty-third dynasties--the so-called Libyan dynasties (ca.
945-730 B.C.)--are also believed to have been Berbers.
Data as of 1987