Earliest symbolism and cemeteries in prehistoric North Africa

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Taf General: Taforalt Cave, NW Morocco (photo: Ian Cartwright, copyright Institute of Archaeology)

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Taforalt Cave midden deposits (photo: Ian Cartwright, copyright Institute of Archaeology)

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Human burial at Taforalt under excavation (photo: Ian Cartwright, copyright Institute of Archaeology)

The Neolithic revolution was undoubtedly one of the most far-reaching in human prehistory. But much less certain is whether the radical transformation of domestic food production and the move to living in large settled communities happened suddenly, as the word ‘revolution’ implies, or whether it was the result of more gradual changes that began thousands of years earlier. This is one of the issues addressed by our project on the cemeteries and sedentism in the epipalaeolithic of North Africa, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. 

The project focuses on prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies that lived in Morocco between about 18,000 and 9,000 years ago. A key site is the cave of Taforalt, which is nestled in the Beni Snessen Mountain range, close to the Algerian border. The site has been known for a long time; excavations in 1954–55 had uncovered a remarkable series of epipalaeolithic human burials situated towards the back of the cave. Other related investigations showed a great thickness of grey, ashy midden deposits, containing vast amounts of burnt lithic artefacts, bone, and snail shell debris. The new work, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, concentrated on areas adjacent to the earlier excavations and allowed an extensive programme of dating and other scientific studies to be undertaken.

Some of our most important findings were made in previously unexcavated parts of the cemetery, which yielded further examples of partially articulated human skeletons. Direct dating has allowed us to place them chronologically within the same age range as the beginnings of the midden accumulation—about fifteen thousand years ago. The extreme dryness of the midden deposits has also favoured the preservation of organic materials including bone, delicate snail shells, and charred plant remains. Interestingly, all of the snails are large, edible types and show signs of burning and breakage indicating they were regularly eaten by humans. Unusually for such early sites, we have direct evidence for the use of plants, with twenty-two different taxa reported. These include an abundance of edible sweet acorns of Holm Oak and pine nuts from maritime pine. Other edible or economically useful plants include juniper, terebinth pistachio, wild pulses, wild oats and the rhizomes of esparto grass. Such plants provide a broad range of nutrients, and their presence suggests a preference for foods rich in carbohydrates and fats.

Although work is still in progress, different lines of evidence suggest that pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherers in Morocco lived in sizable groups, buried their dead in large communal cemeteries and harvested a broad spectrum of foods that could be gathered and hunted locally. Further studies are planned on the human remains and to assess climatic factors in the changes that occurred 15,000 years ago. A reliance on plant gathering and semi-sedentary living in this part of Africa clearly anticipated some of the developments that led to farming many thousands of years later.    

Professor Nick Barton
University of Oxford