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D - 52: Horses from the Green Sahara

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Intended to write about the Tunisian cuisine today. But given that I have not been there for 47 years, I only have a faint recollection of the country. We also were on a student budget with all what it entails: sleeping rough, eating from street vendors, buying the cheapest wine possible and most importantly, never spending more than USD 10.- per day. Not the ideal base for writing a blog on food.

Did not travel with my guitar but probably could have improved my daily budget by playing my favourite James Taylor song “You’ve got a friend”

But gladly we have the internet today. To my surprise, my memory was a little inaccurate. I thought to remember Mezze and other Levant food brought over by Phoenicians, Arabs and Turks. But that is not what I found. The essence of Tunisian Cuisine is based on food from the Berbers, a people with roots in pre-antiquity, who lived in North Africa long before the Phoenicians arrived.

I would have to talk a bit about the Berber, the pastoral tribes which still play a dominant role in Morocco, Algeria and other Maghreb states and where they came from. My gardener in France, Ahmed, is from a Berber family. As is his wife Naima who grew up as a shepherd looking after her family’s flock in the mountains behind Oran. Where came these people from? What is the origin of their pastoral culture?

The Green Sahara existing from 13’000 BC to 3’000 BC

The Sahara was moist for many thousand years. When it dried up and became the desert, we know today, the Berber moved into to the Atlas Mountains. During the winter, these mountains get rain from the Westerlies whilst the monsoon which brought precipitations to the Sahara retreated south.

At the same time, the pastoralists in the eastern Sahara moved to the Nile Valley where they built the impressive Egyptian civilizations. A faint echo to their pastoral past is the goddess Hathor with her cows’ ears – she was linked to sky, sun, afterlife, motherhood, material goods, music, dance and many more. But this is the subject of another blog.

For about 10’000 years, the monsoon rains covered most of the Sahara and kept it moist and fertile. The monsoons also dropped much more water over East Africa. As a direct consequence, the Nile was higher and wilder. The annual flooding exceeded today’s levels by 5 – 8 meters. The Nile was so violent that it was too dangerous for people to settle close to its shores. Due to the higher water level, the Nile also flooded the Fayum Depression which became a giant lake. Many of the Nile’s side valleys were active contributors to the mighty river. Even Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley emptied into the Nile.

The Sahara itself was full of lakes and rivers. Only a few survived like Lake Chad with less than 10% of the original size. Mighty rivers like the Tamanrasset which originated in the Moroccan Atlas and emptied into the Atlantic at the Bay or Arguin in Mauretania disappeared entirely. Technology makes their rediscovery possible, however.

Sahara precipitations and vegetation today

Sahara precipitations and vegetation during the Holocene (after the last ice age)

If you want to get an idea how the Sahara looked at that time you do need not look further than the East African Highlands. Large savannas covered the land, big game was abundant and the rich fauna attracted humans from the south and the north. There is a lot of evidence of their live style from cave paintings which survived in the arid climate to this day. Over time, these hunter-gatherers domesticated sheep, goats and cattle and became pastoralists. In recent years, archeologist found entire villages and cemeteries around dried up lakes. Am sure there will be many more discoveries in the years to come.

How the Green Sahara might have looked like

Hunters on their domesticated horses – cave painting in Chad’s Ennedi Massif 10’000 BC

The humid period would not last forever. It is a function of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The elliptical orbit of our planet changes over time. When the Earth is closest to the sun (perihelion) during the summer solstice, the amount of sunshine we receive increases by about 8%. This heats up the equatorial weather system, makes the monsoons bigger and wetter and drives them further north. As the perihelion moves towards fall, the process reverses and the monsoons resume their normal pattern. Dryness returns.

We know that the ancestors of today’s Berbers lived around southern Algeria, Libya, Northern Niger, Mali and Mauretania. As the climate became arid, the lakes evaporated and the rivers run dry, they moved with their herds to the Atlas Mountains where they continued a semi-nomadic lifestyle. With the Berber came their horses. When the Phoenicians encountered them in the 9th century BC, they had a lot of respect for the Berber cavalry. It is a little know secret but Carthage paid in its early days tribute to the Berber to be safe from cavalry raids.

Tomorrow’s blog is about Berber culture.

More Reading:

If you are interested in reading more about the Green Sahara, read the article "Dynamics of Green Sahara Periods and Their Role in Hominin Evolution" from Juan Larrasoana and Andrew Roberts, October 2013. I got most of my information from them. Here is the link:

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Wow! Such a cool photo!! 👍🏻😎

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