Early Saharan Pastoralists
The Sahara is a highly diverse, albeit dry, region that has undergone major climatic changes since 10,000 B.C. As recently as 6000 B.C., the southern frontier of the desert was far to the north of where it is now, while semiarid grassland and shallow freshwater lakes covered much of what are now arid plains. This was a landscape where antelope of all kinds abounded-along with Bos primigenius, a kind of oxen that has become extinct. The areas that are now desert were, like all arid regions, very susceptible to cycles of higher and lower levels of rainfall, resulting in major, sudden changes in distributions of plants and animals. The people who hunted the sparse desert animals responded to drought by managing the wild resources they hunted and gathered, especially wild oxen, which had to have regular water supplies to survive.
Even before the drought, the Sahara was never well watered. Both humans and animals were constantly on the move, in search of food and reliable water supplies. Under these circumstances, archaeologist Andrew Smith believes, the small herds of Bos primigenius in the desert became smaller, more closely knit breeding units as the drought took hold. The beasts were more disciplined, so that it was easier for hunters to predict their habits, and capture animals at will. At the same time, both cattle and humans were more confined in their movements, staying much closer to permanent water supplies for long periods of time. As a result, cattle and humans came into close association.
Smith believes that the hunters were well aware of the more disciplined ways in which their prey behaved. Instead of following the cattle on their annual migrations, the hunters began to prevent the herd from moving from one spot to another. At first, they controlled the movement of the herd while ensuring continuance of their meat diet. But soon they also gained genetic control of the animals, which led to rapid physical changes in the herd. South African farmers who maintain herds of wild eland (large African antelopes with short, twisted horns) report that the offspring soon diminish in size, unless wild bulls are introduced constantly from outside. The same effects of inbreeding may have occurred in controlled cattle populations, with some additional, and perhaps unrecognized, advantages. The newly domesticated animals behaved better, were easier to control, and may have enjoyed a higher birth rate, which in turn yielded greater milk supplies. We know from rock paintings deep in the Sahara that the herders were soon selecting breeding animals to produce offspring with different horn shapes and hide colors.
It is still unclear whether domesticated cattle were tamed independently in northern Africa or introduced to the continent from Southwest Asia. Whatever the source of the original tamed herds might have been, it seems entirely likely that much the same process of juxtaposition (living side by side) and control occurred in both Southwest Asia and northern Africa, and even in Europe, among peoples who had an intimate knowledge of the behavior of wild cattle. The experiments with domestication probably occurred in many places, as people living in ever-drier environments cast around for more predictable food supplies.
The cattle herders had only a few possessions: unsophisticated pots and polished adzes (cutting tools with blades set at right angles to the handle). They also hunted with bow and arrow. The Saharan people left a remarkable record of their lives painted on the walls of caves deep in the desert. Their artistic endeavors have been preserved in paintings of wild animals, cattle, goats, humans, and scenes of daily life that extend back perhaps to 5000 B.C. The widespread distribution of pastoral sites of this period suggests that the Saharans ranged their herds over widely separated summer and winter grazing grounds.
About 3,500 B.C., climatic conditions again deteriorated. The Sahara slowly became drier and lakes vanished. On the other hand, rainfall increased in the interior of western Africa, and the northern limit of the tsetse fly, an insect fatal to cattle, moved south. So the herders shifted south, following the major river systems into savanna regions. By this time, the Saharan people were probably using domestic crops, experimenting with such summer rainfall crops as sorghum and millet as they moved out of areas where they could grow wheat, barley, and other Mediterranean crops.