Sahara sensation

Updated: Jun 28

New evidence suggests early humans were in the Sahara by 700,000 years ago.

We have long known about very ancient human settlement in the Sahara Desert. We know how the desert once supported extensive semi-arid grasslands and large shallow lakes, which attracted both game and hunting groups who preyed on them, also cattle herders. And there is good reason to believe that some of the cultural institutions and beliefs of Ancient Egyptian civilization originated among Saharan nomads after increasing aridity caused cattle herders to settle in the Nile Valley. But evidence of hominin occupation goes back very much earlier in the heart of the Sahara.

Polish archaeologists have recently found stone axes and massive, almond-shaped cleaving tools in an old gold mine near the city of Atbara in the eastern Sahara. The cleavers were clearly used for butchering game animals. but have never been found this far north in Africa. They are commonplace in Eastern and Central Africa, especially at big-game kill sites like Kalambo Falls in northern Zambia and Olorgesaillie in Kenya.

The project leader Miroslaw Masojc, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Worclaw, obtained optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates from the levels above the human artifacts. The sands were about 390,000 years old. Masojc believes that the hand axes and cleavers found in the lower levels may date to about 700,000 years ago, or even earlier. The makers were most likely Homo erectus, pictured here.