When the Sahara was green, Banting wasn't in fashion
New discoveries shed fascinating new light on what ancient Africans ate
Imagine a rock shelter deep in the desert in the south-western part of Libya: dry earth, ochre-coloured facades, barren sand in which nothing but the hardiest of shrubs might grow.
Now rewind by 10,000 years and try picture what some innovative scientists have just discovered was there all those years ago.
Back then, the site (known as Takarkori) was all luscious and green, thanks to an era called the “green Sahara”, a period of around 6,000 years during which the region actually received high levels of rainfall and blossomed as a result.
That wild things grew there is not news.
What is new is what the human beings were getting up to in that landscape. Archaeologists from the University of Huddersfield, and other partner institutions, have now discovered more than 200,000 seeds in small circular concentrations.
After much analysis, they have come to the conclusion that during the Holocene age, the people living there were actually farming cereals – growing them, harvesting them and storing them.For any Banting diet fan, or those into the paleo-diet, cereals (with their gaudy boxes and high levels of sugar) are seen as the antithesis of a natural or healthy way to eat.
This latest discovery doesn’t disprove that, but it certainly shows we have been indulging in these crops for food for much longer than previously thought.
Then again, the research first began as a whodunnit: At first, the main suspect was huge colonies of ants which are capable of carrying seeds much larger than themselves, and laying them in geometric patterns.
Think of it as a tiny Stonehenge situation.
But then, Dr Stefano Vanin, a University of Huddersfield entomologist, analysed a large number of samples, and was ultimately able to demonstrate “that insects were not responsible” – something which “supports the hypothesis of human activity in collection and storage of the seeds”.This is, say the researchers, “the first known evidence of storage and cultivation of cereal seeds in Africa”.
They also found the remnants, woven from roots, “that could have been used to gather the seeds”, while chemical analysis of pottery from the site demonstrates that cereal soup and cheese were being produced.
A major additional highlight of this research, published in journal Nature Plants, is that the wild seeds found at Takarkori are considered to be “weeds” in modern agriculture, but could be an important food for the future.
“The same behaviour that allowed these plants to survive in a changing environment in a remote past makes them some of the most likely possible candidates as staple resources in a coming future of global warming. They continue to be successfully exploited and cultivated in Africa today and are attracting the interest of scientists searching for new food resource,” say the researchers.