Fish might not be top of the menu in the Sahara Desert today, but that’s exactly what its inhabitants were dining on over 10,000 years ago.
Archaeologists from the Natural History Museum of Belgium and the Sapienza University of Rome have discovered nearly 18,000 animal bones in a rock shelter known as Takarkori in southwestern Libya. Up to 80 percent of these bones belong to fish, including species like catfish and tilapia, while around 19 percent were mammals, including Barbary sheep, Dorcas gazelle, and rock dassies. The remaining 1.3 percent was made up of bird, reptile, mollusk, and amphibian remains.
This certainly wasn’t a prehistoric zoo or aquarium either. On many of the skeletal remains, the archaeologists discovered the presence of cut marks and burns, showing the animals had been butchered and cooked.
Reported in the journal PLOS ONE, the bones were dated at between 4,650 to 10,200 years old, placing them in an era known as the early Holocene. Around this time, the Sahara was a very different place. Far from being a desert, this strip of North Africa was lusciously green and alive, covered in lakes and plant life. It only started to become a desert environment around 8,000 years ago due to a combination of human activity and wider environmental factors.
So, given this knowledge, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Sahara’s inhabitants ate a lot of fish. Interestingly, the new research also shows that the amount of fishbone appeared to decline over time. Between 8,000 to 10,200 years ago, fish made up over 90 percent of the bones found at Takarkori, while only accounting for 40 percent of all remains traced to 4,650 to 5,900 years ago.
Clearly, there was a gradual diet change from fish to livestock. While it’s not totally clear what prompted the diet change, the researchers strongly suspect that it’s associated with the Sahara turning from a luscious land of lakes to an arid bone-dry desert.
“The amount of fish is decreasing through time and the contribution of mammals increases, showing that people at Takarkori focussed gradually more on hunting and livestock keeping. It is unclear if this was an intentional process or if this shift could be related to increasing aridity, which made the environment less favorable for fishes,” the researchers write in their paper.
Fish was often the go-to meal for prehistoric humans. Another study published this month studied the fish-heavy diet of people living in northern Norway during the Stone Age and found it was riddled with dangerous levels of toxic metals. Bon appétit!