Stone Age tools and animal bones in Tunisia are ‘clues to an early human corridor’

14 March 2017

Researchers have found animal bones and stone tools on the margins of a dried-up giant lake in Tunisia, which they suggest are evidence of early human activity. They believe the shores of Chotts megalake may have formed an early corridor across the Sahara for the dispersal of Homo sapiens and other animals from Sub-Saharan Africa between 200,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Tunisia is a key region for understanding the nature and dispersal of anatomically modern humans as it lies at the ‘crossroads’ for north-south movements between the Sahara and the Mediterranean, as well as east-west migration along the North African coast into the Maghreb. A research team from Oxford University, Kings College London, with researchers from Tunisia, found scattered stone tools and animal bones around a major lake basin, which is now dried up but was once full of water during the winter months.

The researchers say the animal bones are particularly interesting, revealing a mixture of large fauna including rhinoceros, zebra, bovids (Oryx, hartebeest, gazelles, aurochs, and buffalo), carnivores and ostrich. According to Tunisian co-director of the project Nabiha Aouadi, ‘the faunal assemblage represents a sub-Saharan and savannah biotope very different from the one that exists there today’. The team believes that once the landscape was wet and green, which would have made it an ideal habitat for animals and human settlements.

The researchers found evidence of substantial hunting activity in the form of scattered stone projectile points and animal bones with breakages consistent with marrow fracture. According to Professor Nick Barton, the stone tools are ‘classic examples of a (Middle Stone Age) hunting technology with many small stemmed points (Aterian points) for tipping throwing spears.’ One further intriguing discovery is that some of the stone tools are made from a raw material known as Silcrete, which was sourced at a distance of 150 km from the site.

Using sophisticated new dating techniques, Head of Luminescence Dating Laboratory at Oxford University, Dr Jean-Luc Schwenninger, has dated shoreline deposits to between 72,000 to 98,000 years ago, showing when the saline mudflats were once a lake. The Chotts region today is characterised by numerous very large exposures of saline mudflat sediments and small salt lakes. The former extensive lake system was fed by several small rivers emanating from the Atlas Mountains and two much larger river systems that have their sources in the Tassili n-Ajjer and Hoggar Mountains of the central Sahara.

Project co-leader Professor Nick Barton, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘…this is the first well-dated Aterian site in the northern Sahara. It shows that Homo sapiens had populated this area by at least 72,000 years ago, using the lakes as a staging posts in their dispersal across Africa”

The project is sponsored by the Institut Nationale du Patrimoine and supported by the Ministère de la Culture in partnership with the Chambre de Développement du Tourisme Oasien et Saharien. Funding for the work has been provided by grants from Oxford University, Kings College London, National Geographic and the Society for Libyan Studies.

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office on 01865 280534 ore email: [email protected]

Notes to Editors:

  • Images are available to media on request.
  • Professor Nick Barton is Associate Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology 
  • Tutor and Fellow in Archaeology in the School of Archaeology. He is co-director with Professor Bouzouggar, Rabat University, of excavation at Taforalt Cave in Morocco, which is aimed at the understanding of human behaviour and environmental change in North Africa over the last 200,000 years. He recently completed a major collaborative NERC project as Co-Principal Investigator concerning the response of humans to rapid environmental change. Nearing completion of a monographic study on the Middle and Later Stone Age levels at Taforalt cave, for which he received a Leverhulme Fellowship in 2012-13. Most recently, with Dr Louise Humphrey (Natural History Museum) and Professor Martin Bell (Reading University), has been awarded a Major Leverhulme Research Award for a project on Cemeteries and Sedentism in North Africa, to investigate changes in hunter-gatherer behaviour prior to the Neolithic.
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