Fish in the Sahara? Yes – 10,000 Years Ago

(CN) – Scientists have uncovered a great deal of animal remains in the Takarkori rock shelter in southwestern Libya, providing important information about the human inhabitants from the Holocene period who lived in what is now the Sahara Desert.

Among these animals found, catfish and tilapia are the most abundant and show some new aspects of these early humans’ lives, according to a study published Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The Takarkori rock shelter in the Sahara Desert, modern-day Libya. (Van Neer et al., PLOS ONE)

Authors Wim Van Neer from the Natural History Museum in Belgium and Savino di Lernia of Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, as well as their colleagues, led this research in the Sahara.

This region has been under excavation since the early 1990s and is renowned as a key spot for evidence of early human occupation. Over the past decades, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct details about the early humans who lived here 10,000 years ago thanks to various remains and artifacts uncovered from these sites. Much of this evidence has been found in open-air sites scattered across the mountains, but more significant finds have been discovered preserved in rock shelters and caves.

Today, the Saharan Tadrart Acacus mountains are incredibly dry, hot and windy, but they were not always this way. Satellite images and past studies have found the Sahara once contain vast networks of rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water.

According to the fossil records from these mountains, for much of the early and middle Holocene time period (10,200 to 4,650 years ago) the climate of this region was humid and contained rich amounts of water and plant life. Records also show evidence of several human settlements and diverse wildlife.

These researchers found that rock shelters within the Tadrart Acacus range hold not only well preserved floral and faunal remains, but also significant cultural artifacts and rock art courtesy of early Holocene occupants of these shelters. The rock art is one of the most fascinating finds from this excavation, and includes thousands of paintings dating as far back as 12,000 B.C. They depict incredible images that tell stories about the changes in wildlife and civilization over time.

For their study, the authors collaborated with the Libyan Department of Antiquities in the process of excavating parts of the Takarkori rock shelter to find, identify, and date animal remains found at this site to better understand the environmental changes. They also worked together to investigate the alternating shifts in abundance and type of the discovered animal remains over time.

Among the finds from their excavation, which numbered 17,551 faunal remains, fish remains made up almost 80% (another 19% were mammal remains, with bird, reptile, mollusk, and amphibian remains the last 1.3%). All the fish, identified at Takarkori as catfish and tilapia, and most of the other animal remains were determined to be human food refuse, due to the fact that they had cut marks and traces of burning on them.

While dating the remains, the researchers found the amount of fish decreased over time as the number of mammal remains increased, from 90% of all remains 10,200-8,000 years ago to only 40% of all remains 5,900-4,650 years ago. This trend suggests the human inhabitants of Takarkori shifted their focus from fishing to hunting or raising livestock.

The authors also discovered the proportion of tilapia decreased more significantly over time. This may have been because catfish have accessory breathing organs, which allows them to breathe air and survive in the shallow, high-temperature waters of the region. This contributes further to the evidence that the area’s climate changed, becoming less favorable to fish as the aridity increased.

“This study reveals the ancient hydrographic network of the Sahara and its interconnection with the Nile, providing crucial information on the dramatic climate changes that led to the formation of the largest hot desert in the world,” the authors wrote in their study. “Takarkori rock shelter has once again proved 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.”

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