Fish Bones Scattered Across the Sahara Shed Light on the Desert's Past

The sandy desert was once a lush, green savannah with lakes.
Fabienne Lang

The Sahara desert you know today looked impressively different years ago. This massive desert spanning much of North Africa is currently the home to sand dunes and a small number of living animals. 

However, researchers have discovered that during the Holocene epoch, the Sahara was verdant, and had fish galore

Their findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

Fish in the desert

Researchers uncovering the past remains of 17,551 fauna in the Takarkori rock shelter in central Sahara were not expecting to discover fish bones. It might have even been one of the last things they would have thought to lay their hands on there. However, 80% of these remains belonged to fish.

The arid and harsh Sahara you know today looks mightily different compared to the Sahara of the past.

These fish fossils showed a clear line of decline in fish populations in the area over the years. As the climate changed, fewer and fewer fish were able to survive. Some of the earliest remains the researchers found were made up of 90% fish species, in stark comparison to just around 5,000 years ago when under half of the population was made up of fish. 


It turns out these latest fish were small and tough, as they had to survive living in shallower, warmer declining waters. 

Savino di Lernia, one of the authors of the study, has been going back to Libya since 1990 in order to find and observe these remains. According to di Lernia, the fish were able to get to the Sahara zone around 12,000 years ago, when monsoon patterns shifted and waterways in the area grew. This enabled the fish to swim their way over to central Sahara. 

Naturally, the residents of central Sahara at the time ate what was at hand, which turns out was predominantly fish. Di Lernia stated that "I was personally surprised by the fact that fish were a type of staple food, even during neolithic, pastoral times." 

Following this, around 5,000 years ago another major shift in the weather occurred and the rain that had previously made the Saraha lush virtually disappeared. As another author of the study, Andrea Zerboni, explained "The whole region underwent a dramatic landscape change. Some areas abruptly shifted into a hyperarid desert."

This is the Sahara that you can picture today. 

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