Domesticated animals across the Sahara, North Africa and Nile.

There are claims that the Africans domesticated cattle first, which seems unlikely as the DNA from African cattle is pretty much restricted to sub Saharan Africa, with minority contribution in Northern Africa and a little in Portugal , whereas it would have been all over the place if it had been first. Interesting bits in bold. I’ve added this item because the appearance of the sheep and goats helps to trace the arrival of the Neolithic revolution into Africa.

Taken from ‘The antiquity of man’.

Extracts from:

Are the early Holocene cattle in the Eastern Sahara domestic or wild?
Fred Wendorf & Romuald Schild (Evolutionary Anthropology 3(4), 1994)

In the early Holocene, the Eastern Sahara had more rainfall, probably between 100 and 200 mm per year in its Egyptian area The rain probably fell during the summer. This inference is drawn from the fact that the plant remains in the early Holocene archeological sites are the same as those growing today several hundred kilometers to the south, on the northern margin of the Sahel and the adjacent Sahara, which are in a summer rain-fall regime. The quantity of rainfall was sufficient for seasonal pools or playas to form in large depressions. There may also have been permanent water about 250 km farther south at Sehima, and there certainly were permanent lakes near Merga in northern Sudan about 500 km south of the Egyptian border. Nevertheless, the Eastern Sahara was, at best, a marginal and highly unstable environment with frequent droughts and episodes of hyper-aridity. The Eastern Sahara in Egypt was not an environment that could have supported wild cattle nor one where the earliest domestication of cattle would have been like likely to occur. Cattle need to drink every day or at least every other day and there was no permanent water anywhere in the area.

Early Neolithic

Radiocarbon dates indicate that the early Holocene rains began sometime before 10,000 B.P., perhaps as early as 11,000 or 12,000 B.P. However, there is no evidence of human presence before 9,500 B.P. except for a radiocarbon date of around 10,000 years ago from a hearth west of Dakhla. The earliest sites with large bovid remains are imbedded in playa sediments that overlay several meters of still older Holocene playa deposits.

All of these sites contain well-made, bladelet-based lithic assemblages. Straight-backed pointed bladelets, perforators, and large endscrapers made on reused Middle Paleolithic artifacts are the characteristic tools. A few grinding stones and rare sherds of pottery also occur. The pottery is well made; the pieces are decorated over their entire exterior surfaces with deep impressions formed with a comb or wand in what is sometimes referred to as the Early Khartoum style.

These assemblages have been classified as the El Adam type of the Early Neolithic. Several radiocarbon dates place the complex between 9,500 and 8,900 B.P. There is no evidence that there were wells during this period. It is assumed, then, that these sites represent occupations that took place after the summer rains and before the driest time of the year when surface water was no anger available. Three of these sites, E-77-7, E-79-8, and E-80-4, all having only El Adam archeology and all located between km and 250 km west of Abu Simbel, have yielded, through excavation, more than 20 bones and teeth of large bovids that have been identified as Bos. These occurred along with several hundred bones of gazelle (Gazella dorcas and G. dama) and hare (Lepus capensis); a few bones of jackal (Canis aureus), turtle (Testudo sp.); and birds (Otis tarda and Anas querquedula); the large shell of a bivalve (Aspatharia rubens), probably of Nilotic origin; and various snail shells (Bulinus truncatus and Zoorecus insularis).

After a period of aridity around 8,800 years ago, when the desert may have been abandoned, the area was re-occupied by groups with a lithic tool-kit that emphasized elongated scalene triangles. The grinding stones, scrapers, and rare pieces of pottery that are present characterize the El Ghorab type of Early Neolithic and have been dated between 8,600 and 8,200 B.P. Oval slab-lined houses occur during this phase. all of them located in the lower pans of natural drainage basins. However, there are no known wells, suggesting that the desert still was not occupied during the driest part of the year. Faunal remains are poorly preserved in these sites and. indeed, only one bone of a large bovid was recovered from the four sites with fauna. in these sites the Dorcas gazelle is the most numerous, followed by hare, together with single bones of wild cat (Felis silvestris), porcupine (Hystrix cristata), desert hedge-hog (Paraechinus aethiopicus) an amphibian, and a bird.

Another brief period of aridity between 8.200 and 8,100 B.P. coincides with the end of the El Ghorab type of Early Neolithic in the desert. With the return of greater rainfall between about 8,0100 B.P., a new variety of Early Neolithic, the El Nabta type, appeared in the area. El Nabta. sites are often larger than the previous Early Neolithic sites and usually have several large, deep wells, some with adjacent shallow basins that might have been used to water stock. A variety of lithic and bone tools occur in these sites, including stemmed points with pointed and retouched bases, perforators, burins, scrapers. notched pieces, bone points, and scalene triangles measuring about one centimeter. Grinding stones and sherds of pottery are more numerous than in the earlier sites, but still are not abundant. Their deeply impressed designs are similar to those on objects recovered from sites of the El Adam and El Ghorab types of Early Neolithic. Occasional pieces have “dotted wavy line” decoration.

Radiocarbon dates place the El Nabta sites between 8,100 and 7,900 B.P. One of these, E-75-6, is much larger than the others and consists of a series of shallow, oval hut floors at–ranged in two, possibly three, parallel lines. Beside each house was one or more bell-shaped storage pits; nearby were several deep (2.5 m) and shallow (1.5 m) water-wells. This site, located near the bottom of a large basin, was flooded by the summer rains. The houses were repeatedly used, probably during harvests in fall and winter Several thousand remains of edible plants have been recovered from these house floors. They include seeds, fruits, and tubers representing 44 different kinds of plants, including sorghum and millets. All of the plants are morphologically wild, but chemical analysis by infrared spectroscopy of the lipids in the sorghum indicates that this plant may have been cultivated. Of the four El Nabta sites that have yielded fauna, two contained bones of a large bovid identified as Bos. The faunal samples from the other two sites are very small.

Middle Neolithic

Another brief period of aridity separated the El Nabta Early Neolithic from the succeeding Middle Neolithic, which is marked by the much greater abundance of pottery. In addition, each piece of pottery is decorated over its entire exterior surface with closely packed comb- or paddle-impressed designs. Some of the pots are large, and analysis of the clays indicates that they were made locally. There were also some changes in lithic tools. More of them were made of local rocks, but there was sufficient continuity in lithic typology to suggest that the preceding Nabta population was also involved.

Radiocarbon dates indicated an age for the Middle Neolithic between 7,700 and 6,500 B.P. The sites from the early part of this period range from one-or-two house homesteads in some of the smaller playas to multi-house villages in the larger basins. There is also one very large settlement along the beach line of the largest playa in the area, as well as, small camps on the sandsheets and the plateaus beyond the basins. This variation in site size has been interpreted as reflecting a seasonally responsive settlement system in which the population dispersed into small villages in the lower pans of the basins during most of the year, particularly the dry season, then, during the wet season, aggregated into a large community along the edge of the high-water stand of the largest playa.

Various house types are represented in the villages: some are circular and semi-subterranean (30 to 40 cm deep), some slab-lined, and others appear to have had walls of sticks and clay (wattle and daub). All of the sites have large, deep walk-in wells and storage pits. Except for the small camps, most of the sites appear to have been reused many times, with new house floors placed on top of the silt deposited during the preceding flood.

Excavations at five Middle Neolithic sites have yielded more than 50 bones from large bovids. Most of these bones came from the large “aggregation” site (E-75-8) at the margin of the largest playa in the area and from the early Middle Neolithic site E-77-l, dated before 7,000 B.P., which is located on a dune adjacent to another large playa. Each of the other three Middle Neolithic sites yielded only one to three large bovid bones.

Around 7,000 B.P., the remains of small livestock (sheep or goats) appear in several Middle Neolithic sites at Nabta. Because there are no progenitors for sheep or goats in Africa, these caprovines were almost certainly introduced from southwest Asia.

The faunal remains in many of these sites are extensive, including not only the same species recovered from the Early Neolithic sites, but also lizards (Lacertilia sp.) ground squirrel (Euxerus erythropus), field rat (Aricanthis nioloticus), hyena (Hyaena hyaena), and sand fox (Vulpes rueppelii). One bone is from either orstx (Oryx dammah) or addax (Addax nasosulcatus), The most nurmerous remains are those of hare and the Dorcas gazelle. Nevertheless, the paucity of the fauna and the absence, except for cattle and small livestock, of animals that require permanent water suggests a rather poor environment, most likely comparable to the northernmost Sahel today with about 200 mm of rain or less annually.

The Middle Neolithic was brought to an end by another major but brief period of aridity slightly before 6,500 B.P., when the water table fell several meters and the floors of many basins were deflated and reshaped, The area probably was abandoned at this time.

Late Neolithic

With the increase in rainfall that began around 6,500 years ago. human groups again appeared in the area, but this time with ceramic and lithic traditions that differed from those of the preceding Middle Neolithic. This new complex, identified as Late Neolithic, is distinguished by pottery that is polished and sometimes smudged on the interiors. This pottery resembles that found in the slightly later (about 5,400 or, possibly, 6,300 B.P.) Baderian sites in the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt. [12, 13] It seems likely that an as yet undiscovered early pre-Badarian Neolithic was present in that area and either stimulated or was the source of the Late Neolithic pottery in the Sahara. It is unlikely, however, that this hypothetical early Nilotic Neolithic will date much earlier than 6,500 B.P. There are terminal Paleolithic sites along the Nile that are dated to around 7,000 B.P. and it is highly improbable that two such different life-ways could co-exist exist for long in the closely constrained environment of the Nile Valley.

Late Neolithic sites in the Egyptian Sahara consist mostly of numerous hearths representing many separate episodes of occupation. The hearths are long and oval, dug slightly into the surface of the ground, and filled with charcoal and fire-cracked rocks. No houses are known. Most of the sites are dry-season camps located in the lower parts of basins that were flooded by the seasonal rains. Many of the sites are associated with several large, deep wells.

Many of the Late Neolithic tools are made on “side-blow flakes” that have been retouched into denticulates and notched pieces There are also a few bifacial arrowheads, often with tapering stems, or, rarely with concave bases similar to those found in the Fayum Neolithic where they date between 6,400 and 5,7OO years ago.The end of the Late Neolithic in the Eastern Sahara is not well established.The period may have tasted until around 5,300 B.P. when this part of the Sahara was abandoned.

Due to poor preservation faunal re-mains in Late Neolithic sites are not as abundant as those from the Middle Neolithic. However, the Late and Middle Neolithic samples generally include the same animals suggesting that the environment was also generally similar during these periods. Although large bovids are also present in three Late Nealithic sites, and more frequently than in the faunal assemblages of the preceding period, they still are a minor component of the sample.

The Late Neolithic Nabta is marked by interesting signs of increased social complexity, including several alignments of updght slabs (2 x 3 m) imbedded in, and sometimes almost covered by, the playa sediments. Circles of smaller uptight stabs may calendrical devices. Stone-covered tumuli are also present; two of the smaller ones contain cow burials, one in a prepared and sealed pit. none of the more than 30 large tumuli thus far located, which are by large, roughly shaped blocks of stone, has been excavated.

Even the earliest of these early Holocene Eastern Sahara sites have been attributed to cattle pastoralists. It is presumed that these Early Neolithic groups came into the desert from an as yet unidentified area where wild cattle were present and the initial steps toward their domestication been taken.

This area may have been the Nile Valley between the First and Second Cataracts, where wild cattle were present. Moreover, lithic industries were closely similar to those in the earliest Saharan sites. It has been suggested that cattle may have facilitated human use of the Sahara by providing a mobile, dependable, and renewable source of food in the font of milk and blood. The use of cattle as a renewable resource rather than for meat is seen as a possible explanation for the paucity of cattle remains in most of the Saharan sites. Such use in a desert, where other foods were so limited, may have initiated the modern East African pattern of cattle pastonlism in which cattle are important as a symbol of prestige, are primarily used for milk and blood, and rarely are killed for meat.

It is assumed, because of the apparrent absence of wells at the earliest sites, that the first pastoralists used the desert only after the summer rains, when water was still present in the larger drainage basins. After 8,000 years ago, when large, deep wells were dug, the pastoralists probably resided in the desert year-round.

Evidence from other parts of North Africa

The antiquity of the known domestic cattle elsewhere in North Africa does not offer much encouragement with regard to the presence of early domestic cattle in the Eastern Sahara. Gautier recently summarized the available data, noting that domestic cattle were present in coastal Mauritania and Mali around 4,200 years ago and at Capeletti in the mountains of northern Algeria about 6,500 years ago. At about that same time, they may have been present in the Coastal Neolithic of the Maghreb. Farther south in the Central Sahara, domestic cattle were present at Meniet and Erg d’Admco, both of which date around 5,400 years ago, and at Adrar Rous, where a complete skeleton of a domestic cow is dated 5,760 +/- 500 years B.P ].

Domestic cattle have been found in western Libya at Ti-n-torha North and Uan Muhuggiag, where the lowest level with domestic cattle and small livestock (sheep and goats) dated at 7,438 t 1,200 B.P. At Uan Muhuggiag, there is also a skull of a domestic cow dated 5,950 +/- 120 years. In northern Chad at Gabrong and in the Serir Tibesti, cattle and small livestock were certainly present by 6,000 B.P. and may have been there as early as 7,500 B.P. We are skeptical, however, about the presence of livestock at Uan Muhuggiag and the Serir Tibesti before 7,OO0 B.P., when small livestock first appear in the Eastern Sahara, if we must assume that these animals reached the central Sahara by way of Egypt and the Nile Valley. This also casts doubt on the 7,500 B.P. dates for cattle in these sites.

The earliest domestic cattle in the lower Nile Valley have been found at Merimda, in levels that have several radiocarbon dates ranging between 6,000 and 5,400 B.P. and in the Fayum Neolithic, which dates from 6,400 to 5, 400 B.P. These sites also have domes-tic pigs and either sheep or goats. In Upper Egypt, the earliest confirmed domestic cattle are in the Predynastic site of El Khattara, dated at 5,300 B.P. However, domestic cattle were almost certainly present in the earliest Badarian Neolithic, which dates before 5,400 B.P. and possibly were there as early as 6,300 B.P. Farther south, in Sudan near Khartoum, the first do-mestic cattle and small livestock oc-curred together in the Khartoum Neolithic, which began around 6,000 B.P.

It is probably significant that none of the early Holocene faunal assemblages in the Nile Valley from the Fayum south to Khartoum that date between 9,000 and 7,000 H.P contains the remains of cattle that have been identified as domestic It is this ab-sence of any evidence of recognizable incipient cattle domestication in the Nile Valley or elsewhere in North Africa that cautions us to consider carefully the evidence of early domestic cattle in the Eastern Sahara.

Other opinions

Numerous scholars, including Clutton-Brock, Robertshaw, Muzolini, and Smith, have debated about whether the large bovids are cattle or buffalo and stated that if they are cattle, they probably were wild.

It has also been suggested, because the large bovid bones are so rare, that the Bos were possibly intrusive and not associated with the dated occupations where they occurred That argument is not convincing The occupations at many of the sites with large bovids were limited to only one type of Early Neolithic. Moreover, the bovids were recovered from excavations at 15 Neo-lithic sites dating before 6,500 years ago and, in fact, were found at every site that yielded more than 41 speci-mens of identifiable faunal remains. Unfortunately, it is not possible to date these large bovid hones directly. Several attempts have been made and each was unsuccessful. Apparently. collagen is not preserved in bones found in hyper-arid environments. It should also be noted that the large bovid hones are not fossilized, and thus are not geological intrusions. Also, there are no large bovids living in the Eastern Sahara today nor have there been for several thousands of years.

It has been suggested that the faunal samples from the archeological sites do not reflect the range of animals that existed in that environment. However, Gautier has identified a long list of animals from these sites and, except for gazelles and hares, none is common. Beyond that, all are small and desert-adjusted. These faunal samples probably reflect the expected range of animals living in the desert at that time.

Smith made the most detailed criticism of Gautier’s hypothesis about domestic cattle, basing his objections on two major points. The first is environmental. He noted that Churcher identified wild cattle, African buffalo, hartebeests zebras, and gazelles from an “Early Neolithic” context at Dakhleh Oasis, 300 km north of Bir Kiseiba. If this is a true Early Neolithic faunal assemblage, however, the area would have required a much wetter environment than is indicated by the geological evidence. In fact, this Dakhleh assemblage in-cludes species that require much more moisture than do the species that were in the Nile Valley at this time. This suggests that the environment at Dakhleh was richer and more hospitable than that along the Nile, which is highly unlikely, to say the least. Also, Equus, even in the Late Paleolithic, seems to have been confined to the Red Sea Hills and the east bank of the Nile. [39] The Dakhleh fauna closely resembles that found with lacustrine deposits in the Eastern Sahara and dating to the Last Inter-glacial, while they are associated with Middle Paleolithic artifacts. It seems likely that this Dakhleh fauna was de-rived born deposits of the Middle Pa-leolithic and was somehow mixed with Neolithic artifacts. Churcher (personal communication) accepts this as a possible explanation.

Smith also noted that the Eastern Sahara faunal assemblages do not include the addax, which is still found today in the Central Sahara, or the onyx, giraffe, rhinoceros, or elephant he would expect to see in even the driest environments. There are, of course, two bones of either addax or onyx in the collections. Also, giraffes survived until recently in areas of the Gilf Kebir where there was water. There is, however, no evidence of giraffe on the plains of the Eastern Sahara after the lakes of the Last Interglacial became dry between 70,000 and 65,000 years ago. Occasional elephant teeth and a partial skull have been found in the Neolithic sites, but the elephant skull is more mineralized than are the bones of other fauna recovered from the same site. That skull, as well as the elephant teeth found in other sites, are regarded as Middle Paleolithic or earlier fossils collected by Neolithic people. In our view, the Eastern Sahara was simply too dry for these larger mam-mals, all of which, except the elephant, require nearby water. (The elephant is known to range consider-able distances away from water)

Smith’s other argument is osteological. He noted that Gautier was very cautious in his identifications, using circumstantial evidence to establish the identity of species. Smith observed that large bovid remains from the Eastern Sahara are within the size range of wild cattle in both Europe and North Africa, but that some are larger than known do-mestic cattle. He suggested that these large bovids could just as well be African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) or giant buffalo (Pelorovis antiquus). Both possibilities, however, can be rejected on osteometric and morphological grounds. The entire collection was carefully re-examined to resolve this particular question and the initial identification of the hones as those of Bus was confirmed.

It seems possible that we have not been adequately clear in our discus-sion of the sedimentary and other geological data that support the argument that there was no permanent water in this part of the Sahara. Perhaps, also, our critics’ personal experience in the Sahara has been limited to its more tropical and luxurious areas where permanent lakes existed in the Early Holocene. If so, this may have left them with a dis-torted view of the environment in the Eastern Sahara, where there are nu-merous deflated basins. In the center of many of these basins are extensive remnants of typical playa clays, which grade to silts and sands toward their margins. Diatomites, freshwater limestones, and other organogenic evidence of permanent water do not occur. There are no aquatic species of invertebrates and none of the fauna except large bovids requires permanent water. It is for these reasons that we reject the hypothesis that cattle were an integral part of the natural, wild fauna of the Eastern Sahara in the early Holocene. In this area under these conditions, cattle had to have been under human control, and thus at least incipiently domestic. The cattle had to have been moved from one grazing area and water hole to another and then, when the drainage basins became dry returned to a place with permanent water.

Wild cattle were numerous in the Nile Valley at this time. It might be hypothesized that after the summer rains the cattle ranged westward on their own to graze and the new grass then returned to the valley before the dry season. Although it is possible that this could have happened at Nabta, which is only 100 km from the Nile, it is extremely unlikely to have occurred at Bir Kiseiba, about 250 km west of the Nile. Also, this hypothesis makes little ecological sense. If large cattle went far out into the desert, why didn’t medium-size animals do the same? This is a particularly important question with regard to the hartebeest, which is also common in the Nile Valley and is better adapted to aridity than are cattle.

We have also considered the possibility that the cattle bones are remnants of food brought to the desert from the Nile Valley by groups of hunters. However, this is unlikely, for almost all of the bones recovered are lower limb elements, which have little or no meat and frequently are discarded at killing and butchery sites.


How can we accommodate the conflicting evidence regarding cattle pastoralists during the early Holocene in the Eastern Sahara? In particular, how can we propose that the first steps toward cattle domestication began in the Nile Valley, perhaps during the Late Pleistocene, when there is so little faunal evidence to support that hypothesis? The answer may lie in the identification of the cattle remains found in the Late Paleolithic sites in Sudanese and Egyptian Nubia. It has been suggested that it would be very difficult to separate the bones of the incipiently domestic cattle from those of wild cattle. When the first cattle were discovered in the Eastern Sahara, Gautier rechecked the Bos remains that had been found in all of the Late Paleolithic Nilotic sites. He gave particular attention to those from the Qadan site at Tushka, dated 14, 500 B.P., where cattle skulls were used as head markers for several human burials, and those from the Ark-inian site with a 14C date around 10,500 B.P. The Arkinian site was of special interest because the little lithic assemblage from there closely resembles the assemblages from the earliest El Nabta type Neolithic in the Eastern Sahara. Gautier found that the cattle in both the Qadan and Arkinian sites fell in two size groups one of which he considered to be males, the other females both groups were identified as being wild Bos primigenius.

Recently, however, work in a killing and butchery site near Esna, Egypt, dated 19,100 B.P., yielded the remains of six very large Bos, much larger than any other previously recovered in the Nile Valley. Indeed, these Bos are even larger than those from much older Middle Paleolithic sites. On the basis of this discovery, Gautier has suggested that Bos primigenius bulls in the Nile Valley may well have been much larger than was previously believed, and that the larger Bos from the Qadan and Arkinian sites were female wild Bos. If so, the smaller animals in those assemblages may have been these ones that were in an early stage of domestication. Morphologically, the Eastern Sahara cattle would then be well within the range of these incipiently domestic cattle. The additional work planned at the Esna butchery site may clarify this hypothesis.

By employing the method of “strong inferences,” which involves formulating alternative hypotheses, testing them to exclude one or more, arid adopting those that remain, we have concluded that domestic cattle probably were present in the Eastern Sahara as early as 9,000 years ago and, perhaps earlier. At the same time, we recognize that there is no such thing as proof and that science advances only by disproofs. Future evidence may suggest a better hypothesis or indeed, this controversy may be conclusively resolved if DNA testing now under way determines that the Bos remains found in African and Southwest Asian archeological sites belong to the same closely related gene pool or that they represent two populations that have been separated for many thousands of years. Until then, Gautier’s hypothesis of domestic cattle in the Eastern Sahara during the Early Holocene remains reasonable, if insecure

I have to say I disagree with them, on two grounds. DNA distribution of African cattle is pretty limited, and the main basis for their case four is that very big cattle bones have been found at another site. If cattle bones from the area generally showed that the wild cattle were big, but one group found near humans were small, I’d  buy it. This could easily be the remains of an extinct subspecies, or they were just selecting the biggest bulls they could find for some ritual purpose. And why were the cattle that came before smaller? the linguistic arguments (on original) were pretty thin too.

Case for the early domestication of African cattle… pretty thin, but not impossible. Maybe they could compare their DNA diversity to the other two kind to compare them!

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