Late Stone Age North and West Africa have been stereotyped as a monolithic culture in two hypotheses: the African Aqualithic and the Neolithique de Tradition Soudanis. Lithic diversity was ignored in favor of a broad-based cultural tradition defined by remains from aquatic activities and by the supposed observance of wavy-line and dotted wavy-line pottery. However, a recent reanalysis of Saharan pottery concluded that wavy-line pottery constitutes a pottery mode-tradition rather than a horizon style, thus restricting the value and applicability of the Khartoum Horizon Style to the dotted wavy-line component only for the Sahara-Sahel Belt. The dotted wavy-line motifs frequently appear with other motifs on the sherds, reducing their diagnostic value and highlighting the cultural variability of the region in the early Holocene. Furthermore, some of these motifs are misidentified.
In addition, the Mclntoshes, influenced by the ferrocentric tenets of Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa, dismissed early pastoralists as the progenitors of social complexity and downplayed the importance of Late Stone Age Dhar Tichitt.
By contrast, MacDonald approached the issue by using polished stone rings and hachettes (defined as small axes under six centimeters) to hypothesize a tandem spread of the items subsequent to the initial adoption of pastoralism across the Sahara and their use as mediums of exchange. His model postulates that the spread was complete throughout the Sahara-Sahel by 1800 BC. This chronologically distributed pattern, stressing long-distance mediums of exchange with cattle serving as their repositories of wealth, is taken as indicative of incipient social complexity arising ca. 4000 BC. with transitory leadership positions; these transitory peaks eventually took hold and developed into complex, hierarchical societies such as seen at Dhar Tichitt and Kerma.
MacDonald’s hypothesis has been incorporated by Andrew Smith into a model of population movement claimed to be depicted in the rock art of the Tassili. Smith relates the appearance of Proto-Berbers, represented by the white-face rock art style, around 3500 BC with the black-face style of preexisting populations, showing ideological similarities to modern Fulani cultural practices. Following the results of Paris’s excavations of burials and settlements in the Air Mountains of Niger, and his tenuous conclusion of a migratory flow of Proto-Berbers of unknown origin bringing with them tumuli, Smith brackets these events as a package. The platform cairn, making its earliest appearance ca. 3800 BC in the Central Sahara, is regarded in the model as the earliest form introduced by the Proto-Berbers, who Smith postulates originated in Northeast Africa.
Northeast Africa is the location for the claimed earliest expression of pastoral social complexity. The postulated degree of control over labor and the expression of ritual activity by Nabta Playa’s Late Neolithic (ca. 5000 BC) inhabitants for the construction of the cattle tumuli and stone structures has been heralded as the start of social complexity in the Egyptian Western Desert, which subsequently influenced the ideology of the Predynastic Nile Valley inhabitants.
These competing hypotheses share a common thread in recognizing that socioeconomic strategies are manifestations of behavioral adaptations whereby knowledge and culture are transmitted through social learning. They differ in timing when the accumulated repertoire was materially expressed in a wide diversity of situations through socially mediated responses to internal or external stimuli. Social diversity serves as a warning against simplistic, linear models. It highlights the importance of developing an explanatory framework for investigating regional socioeconomic networks against the backdrop of differential resource access, environmental stimuli, variable cultural norms, and socio-ideological evolution.
New data, from the excavated Saharan tumuli in the 1990s and early 21st century, are helping to redefine the previously held tenets by demonstrating meaningful occurrences of symbols empowering socio-ideological settings in socially transmitted patterns. This social reproduction of culture needs to be engaged with and defined anthropologically to a greater degree than is currently done by Saharan archaeologists. The construction of the Saharan tumuli was probably the outcome of the interpopulation integration outlined earlier, under variable degrees of resource abundance. This integration was likely to have been preceded by warfare in the Libyan Sahara, evidenced in Late Pastoral (3900-1800 BC) rock art from the Acacus, and the emerging dominance of prominent individuals in Messak Settafet rock art. Yet while rightly recognizing the relationship feedback between landscape, structure, and society, an important avenue of this investigation has been the role the act and consequence of building the tumuli had on the reproductive capabilities of the society. Designating and linking landscape systems and exchange goes some way toward explaining how social complexity arose and became institutionalized.
The production of these tumuli would also have involved redistribution of resources by the elite at the accompanying ritual celebrations. The set of shared values, wherein the social value of a clan or lineage was affirmed, applied to individuals along horizontal sections of society. The social access to status burial was thus widened but remained elitist, and distinct disposal areas were formed in Wadi Tanezzuft. These serve as cultural markers of vertical differentiation, or incipient complex social hierarchy, with a strong trend toward ethnic fragmentation that increased ca. 1800-810 BC in Wadi Tanezzuft with formalized burial sites and ceremonial centers.
There existed in the Late Neolithic increasing ethnic fragmentation and pooling of economic wealth (in the form of ovicaprids or cattle, depending on the region) in the hands of an emerging lineage elite and formalized through the acquisition and control of prestige trade items with regionalized mediums of exchange. Contra the Mclntoshes, the pastoral burials were not constant. They vary in time and space, and the material culture demonstrates socially transmitted patterns of culture through cumulative inheritance systems. The deposition of goods within the tumuli show that the descendants were wealthy and powerful enough to dispose of them.
Cultural structures, imbued with power symbolism, were visible symbols of social organizational principles with wealth accumulation partly substituting for abstract symbols. The rise of the political ideology of domination and enculturation, with its thoughts and rules, lies behind the regulation of behavior and the instigation of principles of descent, selective material redistribution for prestige, and labor divisions. These early manifestations of social complexity and hierarchy separated ritual and political influences and were the basis for the later early Sahara, West African and Nubian states.
- Brass, M. (2003). Tracing the origins of the ancient Egyptian cattle cult. In A. Eym & C. A. Bennett (Eds.), A Delta-man in Yebu: Occasional volume of the Egyptologists’ electronic forum (No. 1., pp. 101-110). Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers.
- Wendorf, F., Schild, R., & Associates (Eds.). (2001). Holocene settlement of the Egyptian Sahara (Volume 1): The archaeology of Nabta Playa. London: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.