Ancient Humans in the Sahara Desert Were Feasting on Fish 10,000 Years Ago

Researchers have found a vast number of animal remains—including those of fish—at a site in the Sahara Desert, casting new light on the ancient peoples who used to live there.

Recent investigations at the Takarkori rock shelter in southwestern Libya's Acacus Mountains revealed nearly 18,000 individual specimens, almost 80 percent of which were fish—such as catfish and tilapia—according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The remains have been dated to between 10,200 and 4,650 years ago, covering much of the early middle and Holocene period—the current geological epoch. The rest of the remains consisted of mammals (around 19 percent,) while the team also found a small quantity of bird, reptile, mollusk and amphibian remains.

The researchers say that the animal remains were human food waste given that they displayed cut marks and signs of burning. This has implications for our understanding of the people who used to live in the area, indicating that fish was an important food.

"The key findings are no doubt the fish remains. Although not uncommon in early Holocene contexts across North Africa, the quantity of fish we have found and studied are unprecedented in the central Sahara," Savino di Lernia, from the Sapienza University of Rome and University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, told Newsweek. "The study adds fresh information about climate change as well as cultural adaptations. It is particularly intriguing that fish was common also in the diet of early herders."

"I believe that the quantity of fish remains in the earliest layers of occupation is really stunning. I particularly liked the fact that early herders were quite good fishers, and fish was an important staple food," he said.

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Today, the environment of the Acacus Mountains is windy, hot and extremely dry. But the fossil record here indicates that for large parts of the early and middle Holocene, the region—like other areas of the Central Sahara—was humid and rich in water, as well as plants and animals. During this period, the area was also home to prehistoric humans who left behind several notable rock art sites.

Takarkori shelter
A view of the Takarkori rock shelter from the west. Savino di Lernia

But over thousands of years, the area became increasingly dry and, thus, less capable of sustaining standing bodies of water that are home to fish. This change in the climate is reflected in the study results. Around 90 percent of all the animal remains dated to between 10,200 to 8,000 years ago were fish. However, this figure decreases to 40 percent for those dated to between 5,900 and 4,650 years ago.

This changing environment forced the hunter-gatherers who once relied on the fish to adapt and alter their diet, with the researchers documenting a shift towards eating more mammals over time.

According to the authors, the results provide, "crucial information on the dramatic climate changes that led to the formation of the largest hot desert in the world."

"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," they said in a statement.

Ancient Humans in the Sahara Desert Were Feasting on Fish 10,000 Years Ago | Tech & Science