Early North African Cattle Domestication and Its Ecological Setting: A Reassessment
Nearly four decades have passed since an independent North African centre for cattle domestication was first proposed in 1980, based on the Combined Prehistoric Expedition’s work in the Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba region of southern Egypt, and the initial rigorous debates between Andrew B. Smith and Fred Wendorf, Romuald Schild and Achilles Gautier. More recently, geneticists have entered the fray with determinations on the spread of haplotypes, and the timing thereof, that extend the scope and increase the complexity of the debate. Here, a new look at the botanical data and a re-analysis of the geology of Bir Kiseiba–Nabta Playa rejects the ecological foundations of the early African domestication model, while a detailed examination of the published osteological and radiometric data from the same area reveals a more nuanced picture than has been recognised to date. These results are placed into context by a wider review of the genetic and other archaeological evidence from the Western Desert of Northeast Africa, where no other cattle remains designated as domesticated have been found. It is concluded that (a) Bos remains from the early Holocene at Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba were those of hunted aurochs; (b) domesticated caprines were likely present in Northeast Africa before domesticated cattle; and (c) the domesticated cattle spreading across Northeast and northern Africa, including Nabta Playa—Bir Kiseiba, from the late seventh millennium BC or early sixth millennium BC onwards were descendants of Bos taurus domesticated in the Middle Euphrates area of the Middle East.
A recent theory proposed by David Wright is that the sudden expansion of domestic cattle in the Sahara contributed greatly to the speed of catastrophic desertification.