The Archaeology of Western Sahara: Results of Environmental and Archaeological Reconnaissance

By Brooks, Nick; Clarke, Joanne et al. | Antiquity, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Western Sahara: Results of Environmental and Archaeological Reconnaissance


Brooks, Nick, Clarke, Joanne, Garfi, Salvatore, Pirie, Anne, Antiquity


Introduction

Western Sahara is a disputed, non-self-governing territory bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. The majority of the land is currently controlled by Morocco, while the remainder is administered by the Polisario independence movement. As a result of the territorial dispute between the two parties, little archaeological research has been carried out in recent years (Soler et al. 1999; Soler Subils 2004; De Buruaga Blazquez 2006; Soler Subils et al. 2006). The region is, in fact, so under-studied that it registers as devoid of sites in a recent map showing the location and chronological distribution of North African later prehistoric sites (Figure 1) (cf. Jousse 2004: Figure 5).

Since 2002, four seasons of archaeological and environmental reconnaissance survey, two seasons of excavation, and one post-excavation season have been undertaken by the University of East Anglia in the northern and southern regions of the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara (Brooks et al. 2003, 2006). The purpose of these field seasons has been to assess the potential for detailed archaeological and environmental work in this important region of the Sahara and to generate some preliminary results, while the long-term aims of the project are to develop a better understanding of the relationships between environmental and cultural changes within the broader context of Saharan archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research. The focus of much of the work to date has been in the vicinity of the Wadi Tifariti, some 30km north of the east-west oriented border with Mauritania at c. 26[degrees]17'N, 10[degrees]36'W (see Figures 1 and 2).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Located between the Saharan interior, the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic coast, and in a zone of climatic transition between the area under the influence of the African monsoon and that dominated by the Atlantic westerlies, the region is important for understanding prehistoric population movements, cultural transmissions and human-environment interaction. Western Sahara is of particular relevance to the study of human responses to the humid-arid transition centred around 4400 uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present (bp) (Gasse 2000; based on IntCal04.14c, Reimer et al. 2004). Initial results reported below show significant Early Holocene (eighth-ninth millennia bp) occupation of the area at the beginning of the last Saharan humid period, with a reduction in evidence of occupation in the drier sixth-seventh millennia bp. After the fifth millennium bp the region was used extensively as a funerary landscape.

The study area

The study area lies in a region characterised by a series of escarpments, between which are found ephemeral rivers and playa (wet weather) lakes. In common with other Saharan regions, Western Sahara is characterised by an arid environment but contains numerous indicators of past humid conditions. In the vicinity of the study area, dense networks of drainage channels focus run-off into a number of occasionally active wadis which flow northwards into the Saguia el-Hamra, a large ephemeral river. Other wadis are filled with accumulated sediment and appear to be permanently dry. Sand and gravel plains, sandstone hills and elevated plateaux and extensive playa surfaces are major features of the landscape.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Rainfall today is higher than in other Saharan regions located at similar latitudes, and significant rainfall is not uncommon, particularly in autumn and winter. While there are currently no meteorological stations in the vicinity of the study area, mean annual rainfall was estimated at 30-40mm, rising to over 50mm in the elevated region to the south-west of the study area, for the period 1926-1950 (Dubief 1953). Precipitation is sufficiently abundant for the local Sahrawi people to have a concept of drought and to practice mobile pastoralism, exploiting savannah-like vegetation after periods of significant rainfall. …

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