The Maghreb: a cul-de-sac for hominides during the ESA?


mauretania katzmanThis is a large (23 cm long) Acheulian Handaxe from the Gorgol  (Arabic: ولاية كركول‎) area / southern Mauretania.  This region borders the Mauritanian regions of Brakna and Assaba to the north, the Mauritanian region of Guidimaka to the south-east and Senegal to the south-west. Numerous Acheulean sites have been recorded in Southern Mauritania, as well as those along southern tributaries of the Senegal River. Unfortunately these sites have minimally  been  studied and none of them is securely dated.

Global climatic events characterize the period around 2.5 Ma. These led to major global cooling that resulted in significantly increased aridity in Africa and eustatic sea-level changes. The effects on northern African environments were very pronounced and widespread. The establishment of the Saharo-Arabian desert belt was followed by a period of very dry conditions between 2 and 1 Ma, interrupted by two wet episodes.

During this time frame, indications for  human presence in the Maghreb are scare. The best contextualized of these is the site of Aïn Hanech, near Sétif in northern Algeria, and the nearby  site of El-Kherba. Both sites exhibit an Oldowan ensemble, dated to at least 1,2 Ma.

This rarity of early sites in North Africa can also be extended to the early Acheulean. At present, the best Quaternary stratigraphic sequence is that of the complex of sites at Casablanca, Morocco, which comprises a series of deposits and terraces, ranging from 180 m a.s.l. to the coast, and variously cover the last 5.5 million years. The oldest archeological occurrence at Casablanca is that of Thomas Quarry 1, Unit L, dated to ~1 Ma. The ensemble consists of Chopping tools, Polyhedrons, and some Cleavers, Trihedrals and Bifaces. The bifaces are neither symmetrical nor carefully finished. The remaining sites at Casablanca are all likely to be Middle Pleistocene in age, ranging from early to very late.

A later Acheulean tradition, of early to middle Middle Pleistocene age (700–400 k.a.), is more widespread, represented at sites in the western Sahara (Sidi Zin, Tighenif, Lake Karar, the Oulad-Thomas Quarry deposits, the Sidi Abderrahman deposits, Tihodaïne, Wadi el-Ajal, Fazzan). Later sites, of very late Acheulean or early MSA character are equally or more widespread as the early Middle Pleistocene Acheulean. It is suggested that many of the large Handaxes sites in the western Sahara come from this time period.

Integrating the archeological information above with the lack of evidence for trans-Mediterranean crossings during the Pleistocene, it is a strong hypothesis that northwestern Africa acted as a cul-de-sac throughout the period, receiving intermittent faunal (and hominid) dispersals from Central and West Africa when climatic conditions allowed the formation of bodies of water (in the form of wadis, paleolakes, springs and water holes ), and more rarely from Eurasia along the southern Mediterranean coast. This would make the Maghreb, a faunal refugium throughout the Early Stone Age. This may also have promoted the recurrent extinction, as well as extended survivorship. The role of  the Maghreb and the Sahara to dispersals of H. Sapiens during OIS 5 has to be separately discussed.

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