The case for and against cattle domestication and sorghum cultivation at Nabta Playa

First of all a link to a Fred Wendorf paper on Nabta PLaya.

Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory

Nabta Playabasin offers an unprecedented longitudinal view on the emergence, consolidation and complexification on human–livestock relationships, from the early stage of the Early Holocene (c. 11,000 cal. B.P.) to 6000 B.P. The problem of cattle domestication in Northeastern Africa is considered and hopefully ‘‘solved’’ in the light of new mtDNA evidence which suggest an early late Pleistocene split between African, Asian, and Eurasian wild Bospopulations. The paper presents a contextualized analysis of almost all the components of archaeological investigation, including climatic change, culture history of Early to Mid-Holocene Nabta-Playans, the development of social differentiation, and probably ranking with ‘‘labor-consuming’’ megalithic features with the emergence of characteristic features of pastoralideology and religions. As far as the emergence and adoption of new food ways are concerned, the cultural development outlined with the Nabta Playa  archaeological record is important for the understanding of the Holocene prehistory of Africa as a whole.


One of the most interesting bits (my POV) from this paper was the presence of legumes at about 10,000 BC.

One of these sites yielded charred seeds of wild millet and two varieties of legumes (Wasylikowa, report to F. Wendorf 1996)

It also has a reference to possible early domesticated sorghum. Although again the case is bit weak. There’s more reference to it here. The seeds don’t appear to resemble any kind of cultivated sorghum though. They did seem to be harvesting and storing them in large amounts; some of the houses had storage pits for the grains.

Preliminary chemicalanalyses by infrared spectroscopy of the lipids in the archaeological sorghum show closer resemblance to some modern domestic sorghum than to wild varieties (Wasylikowa et al. 1993)

In a later publication (97)  Wasylikowa describes the Sorghum as more likely to be wild, after another study of the seeds showed them to be typically wild seeds. 

Smaller grain size and the lack of any spikelets containing attached branchlets of the inflorescence or rachis fragments suggest that the material harvested and eaten at the Nabta Playa site were of a wild type.

This sorghum doesn’t seem to ‘spread out’, as farmers tend to expand massively into their hunter gatherer neighbours very rapidly. The expansion of domesticated sorgum doesn’t seem to begin until the expansion  of the domesticated donkey, which parallels it’s spread into Asia quite well, and the donkey seems to have been domesticated about 6,000 BP.

It also mentions the barley from this site, once thought to be an ancient domesticate, but now known to be a neolithic contaminant.

The barley recovered from this site during the 1977 excavations (Hadidi in Wendorf and Schild 1980: 347) is regarded as intrusive.

And the first appearance of goats and sheep.

Around 8000 cal B.P. there was an important new addition to the food economy of the Middle Neolithic. Domestic caprovids, either sheep or goat, or both, were introduced from Southwest Asia, probably by way of the Nile Valley (although the oldest radiocarbon dates now available for the Neolithic along the Nile are about 500 years later)

Since the only legumes I know of come from Anatolia, I shall dig a bit deeper into this. This could possibly be a breadcrumb for my ‘proto-Neolithic’ expansion from the near east, circa 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. The paper has made me warm a bit more to pastoralism there in the Holocene, although I’m not sure that it went beyond providing water to keep the cattle around. The claims for dairying are a bit dubious IMO. There’s a link here to a Wendorf item on the Saharan cattle. I think analysing lipids on the surviving pottery from the era might be a good way forward in this case. There have done some kind of analysis along these lines already (sorghum lipids) but there was no sign of milk fats -I’m sure Wendorf would have mentioned them  if they had been found. If there were dairy fats in the pots that would be a different story, a wild cow isn’t going to let a human near her udders. One of my main objections to the very early pastoralism at Nabta PLaya is that it should have seen a population expansion from the area, and to date no sign of that is to be found.

Also, to quote another source…

Grigson’s study concluded cattle from all periods at Nabta Playa were morphologically wild (2000).

Smith’s study: morphologically wild prior to and including the El Nabta/Al Jerar Maximum (7050 – 6150 BC), but domesticated from the Ru’at El Ghanam phase (5900 – 5500 BC) onward

From the Wendorf item on cattle domestication, it states that domesticated sheep, goats etc are all included in the proto Sahelian, but (as he says above) they all arrive with the early neolithic from the near East about 8,000 years ago along with agriculture (they have been shown to be native Asian domesticates, not African, and the date is more like 7,500 years), so the 9,000 year time depth given for proto Sahelian seems unlikely, 7,500 years or younger would make more sense. These Sahelian words appear to be words of Neolithic and not older origin. You’d also expect the domesticated cattle dates in Mali and Mauritania to be a lot older than 4,200 years if the Sahara was the source of very early domesticated cattle.

Another issue is how long it takes animals to show physical signs of domestication. The domestication of Asian cattle now seeming about 11,000 years old) didn’t show any real changes until about 9,500 years ago, a similar situation is seen with domesticated donkeys-they show signs of load bearing and heavy labour for about 1000 years  before they begin to change physically. This would suggest some leeway in the morphologically studies of the cattle. However, there should still have been physically differentiated domesticated African cattle existing right across the Nile region and the Sahara/East Africa by about 7,5000 BP; domesticates spread out quickly, as does pastoralism/agriculture, and there is no sign of fully domesticated cattle at so early a date in Africa. If there were, they should be definably different to the Asian domesticates (through drift) by the time the sheep, goats, and cereals arrive from Asia. So far, domesticated cattle track the arrival of the rest of the neolithic, evidence for domestication in Nabta is still negligible.

Linguistic evidence

The Proto-Northern Sudanic language contains root words such as “to drive,” “cow, “grain,””ear of grain,” and “grindstone.” Any of these might apply to food production, but another root word meaning “to milk” is cetainly the most convincing evidence of incipient pastoralism. There are also root words for “temporary shelter” and “to make a pot.” In the succeeding Proto-Saharo-Sahelian language, there are root words for “to cultivate”, “to prepare field”, to “clear” (of weeds), and “cultivated field.” this is the first unambiguous linguistic evidence of cultivation. There are also words for “thornbush cattle pen,” “fence,” “yard,” “grannary,” as well as “to herd” and “cattle.” In the following Proto-Sahelian period, there are root words for “goat,” “sheep,” “ram,” and “lamb,” indicating the presence of small livestock. There are root words for “cow,” “bull,” “ox,” and “young cow” or “heifer” and, indeed, a variety of terms relating to cultivation and permanent houses

The word for grindstone could date back to about 25k ago, so it’s not likely to be associated with agriculture, and wild grains were being eaten in the area for a very long time, as were cattle. As for the word ‘to milk’, it’s suggestive but again not exactly solid. Pottery in the Sahara does go back that far though, and the main word for pot seems to have derived from water pot, which is interesting. There are cached book links here and here that go into this in more depth, but as they’ve already make a miscalculation for the age of proto Sahelian judging by the inclusion of sheep and goats which dates it securely to the arrivval of the neolithic-as sheep and goats are not native to Africa and only appear when the domesticates are being herded in from Asia. Non- pastoral people in the Sahara were penning and keeping wild animals (Barbary sheep at Uan Afada); so assuming terms that describe fencing in animals must be from domestication is a fallacy. In essence the presence of the words goat and sheep in proto Sahelian, that can only date to the Neolithic, torpedoes a lot of the linguistics argument, and means proto Sahelian probably has a date of 7,500 BP or slightly younger. This would bring proto Sahara Sahelian within the range of the Neolithic as well, as it’s only slightly older (estimated). A link to the Nilo Saharan Language family family tree. In fact, I’d suggest the presence of agricultural terms dates the arrival of the Neolithic, rather than showing agriculture there at an earlier date. This also casts some major doubt on Ehrets dates for proto Sudanic if it’s estimated by the same method.

This linguistic information would really depend on the dating of the age of proto Sudanic. One inaccuracy I’ve spotted in these links is that Proto Indo European is down as 6,000 years old; it’s now estimated at more like 9,000 years, seems to come from Turkey and is a very good match for the start date and location of the Neolithic expansion. There’s another link that discusses the claimed domestication.

So,  predating the Asian domestication seems unlikely (since it now dates pretty reliable back to 11,000 Bp, the same as sheep and goats), and in a lot of African sites domesticated cattle bones don’t show up until sheep, goats and grain do. It’s not convincing for a very early domestication in the Sahara, although there does seem to have been a specific domestication of African cattle at some point, similar to the domestication of the Zebu In Pakistan. My theory is that the Asian cattle just weren’t up to the local climate and parasites and tended to die in droves, making a local domestications necessary. I’d suggest African cattle domestication probably dates to the Neolithic, sometime between 8,000 and 6,000 BP, and so does sorghum.

4 responses to “The case for and against cattle domestication and sorghum cultivation at Nabta Playa

  1. One inaccuracy I’ve spotted in these links is that Proto Indo European is down as 6,000 years old; it’s now estimated at more like 9,000 years, seems to come from Turkey and is a very good match for the start date and location of the Neolithic expansion.

    That theory is weak. In fact very very weak. Anyone who has studied in some detail the archaeology of Europe (and Asia) cannot claim that Indoeuropeans had any apparent connection with early Neolithic.

    Not just European Neolithic had at least two main different complexes but the known languages that could date to that period, like Iberian, Tartessian, Eteocretan and maybe even Etruscan and Basque are not Indoeuropean at all. In fact the oldest known language of Anatolia itself (Hattic) is also pre-Indoeuropean (might be related to NW Caucasian languages).

    On the other side, the more classical Kurgan theory still stands very strong, with the Kurgan archaeological trail directly leading to historical and proto-historical Indoeuropeans everywhere: in Central and Northern Europe, in Greece and the eastern Balcans, in Central and South Asia…

    Different linguistic analysis suggest somewhat different genealogical trees for IE and even somewhat different dates. But there is hardly any more slippery and science with more long-lasting controversies than linguistics. Some elements appear consistent like the antiquity of Tocharian and Hittite branches or the major dividing line between the Eastern (Asian) and Western (European) IE subfamiles. But otherwise it’s all very confuse and contradictory.

    Anyhow proto-IEs were in the Samara valley area at least from 10,000 BCE but their expansion did not begin until c. 3500 BCE, when they appear in Ukraine and the Don basin in a mixed context (Seredny-Stog II), soon after developing their caracteristic monumental burial style (kurgan, aka tummulus, aka mound).

    • Quite a few people place PIE at that time and place now. I think there’s a direct parallel to the spread of Bantu languages.
      Also the swastika is seen in Harrapan seals, which suggests a spread with farming to me.

      At a loss to explain why North Africa is AA speaking instead though, although there seem to have been a few ethnic groups in Anatolia in the Mesolithic.

  2. Quite a few people place PIE at that time and place now.

    More like Renfrew and, sure, a bunch of followers who would like to idealize their IE ancestry/ethnic identity by projecting this on the more sympathetic Anatolian/Balcanic farmers than in the rather brutish Kurgan hordes of the steppes. But IE culture/mythology is clearly one of warriors, not peaceful farmer communities. There are many other reasons and I have discussed them often in several places. In all cases it was quite evident that the Kurgan model is very very solid, while Renfrew’s hypothesis is just a romantic fantasy.

    Also the swastika is seen in Harrapan seals, which suggests a spread with farming to me.

    The svastika is hardly any IE symbol in fact. Actually it was/is very common in very disparate contexts, from Native America to the Basque Country, passing by, East Asia, Dravidian India and North Africa. Some IE areas also use/d it but not the steppary ones.

    From memory, I read once that a svastika is found in a Gravettian context in Eastern Europe but also it appears in Samarra pottery (proto-Sumerian) – this one for sure. The svastika and the cross appear to be really old icons that would seem related to astronomy/astrology and the cosmology involved in them. They are not IE, even if some IE cultures used them (western Europe, Iran, to some extent Indo-Aryans).

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