If you take the map of Africa and turn it upside down, you might see it through the eyes of an early European explorer. From this perspective, you may be impressed by the enormity of the land. Directly across the Mediterranean, North Africa is almost twice the size of Europe.
Africa was once called the Dark Continent, not because it was thought to be a place of evil but as it was largely unexplored. The extensive reach of the Sahara protected ancient Egypt from military invasion. Even today, huge swaths of isolation keep travelers from penetrating inland, keeping archaeologists at bay and ancient secrets hidden.
Courageous souls such as the explorer “Count” Byron de Prorok sought Atlantis here in the 1920s. His book, “In Quest of Lost Worlds”, is a thrilling account of escapades and adventure. Undoubtedly, the Count made mistakes and is considered a “tomb raider” by modern standards but was one of the few willing to explore this land.
The Count and Atlantis aside, North Africa holds a special place in almost every imagination. Here is the land of the pharaohs and the river Nile. Even today, you can still hear the trance music of Morocco, ponder the astronomy of the Dogon and journey to Timbuktu. Nomadic Tuareg still disappear into a sand-duned horizon while Berber tribesmen ascend high in the mountains. The people carefully guard the secret of underground tunnels leading to vast reserves of water and some say, lost cities in ruin.
The perfect setting for a romantic, fictional authors have concocted intriguing tales set in North Africa. Although it is possible to imagine the past, the truth is revealed by the explorer.
Savino and the Black Mummy
In a documentary video named Black Mummy of the Green Sahara, we meet an Italian university professor who has taken several trips to the desert. He believes the ancient land holds important keys to our past and despite the obvious dangers, Savino di Lernia relentlessly pursues his quest.
In the video, Savino and others discuss the somewhat “advanced” mummification techniques that were used on the body of a black child discovered in Libya and carbon dated to be from 5600 years past. Uan Muhuggiag is both a place in the Acacus mountains of the Libyan Sahara and the name for the child mummy found there in 1958. The find is of some interest as the infant was prepared a thousand years before mummification was practiced in Egypt!
An animal or person can be dried to a mummy if buried out in the desert sands. Advanced mummification involves removing water-holding organs and other treatments such as the use of materials to combat decay.
In the Uan Muhuggiag case, a substantial amount of care went into preserving the child’s body. Death at such an early age would have been profoundly sad to the ancients, as it is to us, but the preservation seems to indicate hope for an afterlife. Mummification in ancient Egypt was centered around this belief.
The child mummy is not the only link with Egyptian culture. In the same region, Savino and others have found pottery decorative styles, rock art and symbols connecting East to West.
In the same area of Libya, we find rock paintings of dog-headed human figures resembling the Egyptian god Anubis that seem to date back to the time of the mummy. In ancient Eygpt, Anubis was protector of the dead, lord of the underworld and an embalmer of mummies. This canine-headed figure assisted souls into the afterlife and was involved in weighing of the hearts – a judgement that determined whether one entered the realm of the afterlife or was devoured by a monster.(1) If an Anubis-like god was part of the funeral rites of the Black Mummy, we might be looking at a precursor, or at least, influence for the Egyptian religion.
A constant figure throughout the history of Egypt, Anubis is oft depicted in Eygptian artwork. Strangely enough, Anubis is rarely mentioned in Egyptian myth and was replaced by Osiris as ruler of the underworld during the Middle Kingdom.(2)
Could Anubis be a prehistoric god that came to Egypt from elsewhere? Did the god migrate from a Western land?
In the video, Savino di Lernia tells us he compared the artwork on pottery shards he found in the Uan Muhuggiag region with artwork that appears on pottery in Southern Egypt. The similarities might indicate central Africans interacted with settlements along the Nile.
Ancient African Cattle Herders
In the video, Savino also mentions finding a “cattle cult” site not too far from Uan Muhuggiag. Looking at Libyan rock art, Savino guesses the child’s people were cattle herders and points out a Hathor-looking figure, complete with Apis bull horns and sun disk, in one of the paintings. The Egyptian gods Isis, Apis and Hathor are often portrayed with the ‘disk between horns’ symbol.
There could be a strong connection between the Mummy’s people and the later civilizations of Egypt but an important question arises: Did a nomadic, livestock-herding people have the resources and time to develop mummification techniques?
A Lost Civilization
If speculation is allowable, is it possible that an advanced pre-Egyptian civilization once existed in the African North?
In the BBC documentary presented by Aminatta Forna, “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu”, we learn that enormous urban areas once existed on the shores of the Niger river. These ancient cities were probably connected to extensive trade routes reaching across North Africa, like those leading to Timbuktu (a city 12 miles north of the Niger River) in medieval times.
Through the Black Mummy in the Green Sahara we are also made aware that the Sahara was once wetter and “greener” with multiple lakes and rivers. Perhaps ancient waterways allowed technologies such as mummification to spread. Throughout much of human history, bodies of water have acted as highways for trade, knowledge dispersion and empire building. Perhaps those who mummified the child enjoyed the benefits of a somewhat technological civilization but practiced a more rural lifestyle, much like ranchers in modern Montana.
Notions of African history are being revised. Once thought to be a mostly primitive place, the continent holds many surprises. For example, a 2002 UNESCO published study suggests that iron smelting at Termit, in Eastern Niger may have begun as early as 1500 BC.(3) According to Wikipedia, the iron age is thought to have occurred between 1500 and 1 BC, so this would place the Africans at the leading edge. It has yet to be established but a well-populated civilization centered in Eastern Niger or another area could have developed the techniques used to mummify the child.
If other mummies could be found, we might find a trail leading back to the origin of such practices. Whether or not these techniques were brought to Egypt from urban centers to the West, there might be a somewhat advanced North African civilization waiting to be discovered.
Still Much to Uncover
Renowned UCL Institute of Archaeology researcher Kevin McDonald suggests there is still much to catalog when it comes to African heritage. In a video interview, he estimates “we probably have an idea of less than 50% of what is actually there”:
As Africa is thought to be the cradle of humanity, North Africa seems to be at a crossroads for emerging civilizations.
Exploration is necessary to connect the dots and truly understand our past. There are many gaps in the available record and much has been covered by the ‘sands of time’.
On the positive side, new advances in ground radar and satellite imaging are helping us find buried secrets and we have many new archaeological sites to investigate. Unfortunately, few have the means and resources to travel to remote Libya.
Recent political developments make such a trip unlikely but it hasn’t stopped explorers like Savino. In any age, those courageous persons willing to leave behind the safety and mindset of the familiar are the first to find answers.
– A. Brown
Coming Soon: Ancient North Africa, Part II
1 [“Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Ani”. Britishmuseum.org. Retrieved 2012-06-15.]
2 [Johnston, Sarah Iles (general ed.) (2004), Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, – via Questia (subscription required), Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-01517-7.]
3 [IRON IN AFRICA: REVISING THE HISTORY UNESCO, 2002].