Tunisia: "A Country That Works"; Tunisia in History; the Country Which Gave Its Name to a Continent

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Tunisia: "A Country That Works"; Tunisia in History; the Country Which Gave Its Name to a Continent


Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


TUNISIA: "A COUNTRY THAT WORKS"; Tunisia in History; The Country Which Gave Its Name to a Continent

When it was called Carthage, Tunisia was the first African country to make major conquests in Europe. A Carthaginian general, Hannibal, launched his army in Spain, marched through France, and conquered much of Italy, actually laying siege to Rome. However, changes of fortune shifted the battle back to Africa where, finally, Roman armies ended two centuries of intermittent warfare with the Carthaginians by destroying their capital, now a suburb of the modern Tunisian capital.

Then Tunisia became the Roman "Province of Africa," which was Arabized to "Ifriquiya." As time went on, the name gradually was applied to all of the continent to the south. This is perhaps appropriate because today more is known about the long and illustrious history of Tunisia than that of any other part of Africa except Egypt.

Tunisia in the Stone Age

Since human beings originated in Africa, it comes as no surprise that archeologists have turned up extensive evidence that Tunisia had human inhabitants long before modern human beings evolved. Crude chipped stones found in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia seem to indicate that all three were occupied by Homo habilis more than two million years ago.

Stone tools of Homo erectus, perhaps a descendent of Homo habilis but one who roamed far beyond Africa, also have been found in at least five sites in Tunisia. The sites range from 700,000 to 100,000 years ago and mark some periods when the level of the Mediterranean Sea was so low that humans may have been able to walk from Tunisia to Sicily, and Tunisia's present coastal sites were far inland. During parts of this long interval Tunisia had a hot and humid climate and was heavily forested.

The country's next occupants were the Neanderthals, who still lived from hunting, fishing and gathering but who had evolved burial practices that indicated a belief in an afterlife. Stone tools of their Mousterian culture have been found in at least 10 sites in Tunisia's south and west. In El Guettar, about 12 miles east of Gafsa, a presumed "monument to the spirit of the spring" has been dated by some authorities to that remote culture.

By the end of the middle Paleolithic period about 35,000 years ago, stone tools indicate the existence in the northern and central coastal areas of Tunisia of the Aterian civilization. Small flint tools of around 20,000 B.C. are attributed to a new culture that became the precursor to North Africa's Ibero-Maurusian culture that existed from 18,000 to 8,000 B.C.

Tunisia's inhabitants then were Homo sapiens, modern human beings, who lived in caves in a colder and more humid climate. Their bones and thousands of stone tools have been found in sites along Tunisia's rocky northern coast, since many coastal sites of the period in the south and east have been covered by a rising sea level.

Archeologists have distinguished a distinct Capsian civilization that existed from 7,000 to 4,500 B.C. in Tunisia. It takes its name from Capsa, the former name for the modern site of Gafsa. At the time, the present Sahara desert regions were a fertile savannah area, well-watered and with abundant game. The Capsians left heaps of shells near their dwellings, indicating that snails were an important part of their diet. They also left not only stone tools but necklaces made of ostrich egg shells and stylized women's heads carved from limestone.

In this neolithic or new stone age, in which domestic animals and agriculture first appeared, Tunisia was heavily settled. Among its occupants were fisherman and also, apparently, sailors and traders, since ornaments of obsidian from southern Italy have been found at sites of the period.

Arrival of the Berbers

After 4,500 B.C., the climate turned drier and the desert began to encroach on the once-fertile plains. The people who had lived in the area of the present Sahara presumably migrated north, where they were absorbed by the Berber inhabitants, themselves an ethnic amalgam of new immigrants and peoples who had previously lived in North Africa and nearby areas on both sides of the Mediterranean.

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