Origins of the Berbers

August 13, 2022 6 min read

Origins of the Berbers - Berbers Market

Origins of the Berbers

The formation of the Berber population, or more exactly of the different Berber groups, remains a very controversial issue because it was badly posed. Diffusionist theories have so much Weighed since the origin of research, any attempt at explanation was traditionally based on invasions, migrations, conquests, dominations.

Alternately, the Orient taken as a whole was evoked (Mèdes and Persians), Syria and the land of Canaan, India and South Arabia, the Thrace, the Aegean Sea and Asia Minor, but also Northern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, the Italian Islands and Peninsula... It is surely more difficult to research the countries from which the Berbers do not come!

What if the Berbers came from nowhere?

Rather than searching more or less happily for waves resemblances of all kinds and to amalgamate meaning data differently, even contradictory, isn't it better to start by examining the Berbers themselves and earlier human remains in historical times, when, as we know, the population was already in place?

In a word, we must logically grant primacy to Anthropology.

But this does not currently allow us to define the less "Berber" originality in the whole of the southern Mediterranean population. This still makes it possible today to mention Berber groups in the northwest quarter of East Africa, else quality, cultural rather than physical. Among these cultural data the main one remains the language.

We will therefore successively examine the data of Anthropology and those of linguistics.

Without researching the very origins of man in South Africa North, however, we must cheerfully go back millennia to understand how the settlement of this vast region is currently pinched between the desert and the Mediterranean. Let's place-us at the beginning of the period that in Europe prehistorians call Upper Paleolithic: at this time already living in the Maghreb a man of our species, Homo sapiens, more primitive than his European contemporary, Cro-Magnon Man and who is the author of the Aterian, a culture derived from the Mousterian. This aterian man discovered in Dar es-Soltan (Morocco) presents sufficient analogies with the Mousterian man of Djebel Irhoud so that we can admit that it came out of it. Even more interesting is the recognition

of a filiation between this Aterian man and his successor, known since for a very long time in the Maghreb under the name of Man of Mechta el-Arbi.

The Man of Mechta el-Arbi is a cromagnoid; he presents the dominant physical characters; tall (1.74 m on average for men), the large cranial capacity (1,650 cc), the disharmony between the wide and low face, with more rectangular orbits wide than high and the skull which is dolichocephalic or mesocephalic.

In his early days, the Man of Mechta el-Arbi was associated with an industry, called Iberomaurusian, which occupied all the coastal regions of Tellian. The Iberomaurusian, contemporary with the Magdalenian and European Azilian, already has the characteristics of an epipalaeolithic industry due to the small size of its lithic pieces. These are very often small strips of which one of the cutting edges has been knocked down to form a back. These objects were parts of tools, sorts of spare parts including arrangement in wooden or bone handles that provided effective instruments or weapons.

Man of the Mechta el Arbi type (left) and Proto-Mediterranean Capsian man. Of the first type, only a few minute traces remain in the current population. which is largely descended from the Caspian proto-Mediterraneans (Photos M. Bovis and A.Bozom).

Man of the Mechta el Arbi type (left) and Proto-Mediterranean Capsian man.

Traditionally, it was thought that the Man of Mechta el-Arbi, cousin of Cro-Magnon Man, had an external origin. The some imagined the Men of Mechta el-Arbi, coming from Europe, crossing Spain and the Strait of Gibraltar to spread both in the Maghreb and the Canary Islands, whose first inhabitants, the Guanches, had retained most of their physical characteristics before to mingle with the Spanish conquerors.

Others believed that the Man of Mechta el-Arbi descended from Homo sapiens appeared in the East (Man of Palestine) and that the original hearth had developed two migrations. A European branch would have given the Cro-Magnon Man, an African branch would have set up the Man of Mechta el-Arbi.

Eastern origin, European origin, two elements of an alternative which already appears in the legendary accounts of Antiquity or in the fanciful explanations of the modern era and which finds itself under current scientific assumptions. Unfortunately one and the other had large anomalies that made them difficult to accept. Thus the migration of men from Cro-Magnon to through Spain cannot be staked; much better, Paleolithic skulls European superior have less marked characters than their so-called North African successors. The same arguments can be opposed to the hypothesis of a Near Eastern origin of the Men of Mechta el-Arbi: no anthropological document between Palestine and Tunisia cannot support it. Moreover, we know the inhabitants of the Near East at the end of the Upper Paleolithic, these are the Natufians, of proto-Mediterranean type, who differ considerably from the Men of Mechta el-Arbi. How to explain, if the Men of Mechta el-Arbi have a Middle Eastern ancestry, that their ancestors left these regions entirely without leaving the slightest trace on the anthropological level? 

So there remains the local origin, on the spot, the simplest (this is probably the reason why we hardly believed in it!) and today the most obvious since the discovery of Aterian Man. Anthropologists specializing in North Africa such as M.-C. Chamla and D. Ferembach admits today a direct, continuous filiation, from the North African Neanderthals (Men of Djebel Irhoud) to the Cromagnoids who are the Men of Mechta el-Arbi. Aterian Man from Dar es-Soltane would be the intermediary who would have already acquired the characteristics of Homo sapiens.

The type of Mechta el-Arbi gradually faded in front of other men, but his disappearance was never complete. Thereby we still find 8% mechtoid men among the preserved protohistoric skulls and Punic burials (Chamla, 1976). Of Roman times, whose human remains were long disdained by "classic" archaeologists, we still know a few skulls from eastern Algeria which present mechtoid characters. From type of Mechta el-Arbi there are still some very rare elements in the current population which, almost entirely, belongs to the different varieties of the Mediterranean type: some meso or dolichocephalic with low face, tall stature, and craniofacial ratio disharmonic, recall the main characters of Men of Mechta el-Arbi. They represent at most 3% of the population in the Maghreb; they are much more numerous in the Canary Islands. From the 8th millennium, we see appearing in the part eastern part of the Maghreb (we are completely ignorant of what was happening at the same time, anthropologically, in the confines from Egypt and Libya), a new type of Homo sapiens who already the characteristics of certain current Mediterranean populations. He is also tall (1.75 m for the men of Medjez II, 1.62 m for women), but it differs from the Man of Mechta el-Arbi by less robustness, a more harmonious cranio-facial relationship since a dolichocranic corresponds to a high face and more narrow, the orbits are squarer and the nose narrower. Relief bones of this new human type are attenuated, the angle of the jaw, in particular, is not thrown outwards, so there are no extroversion gonions as the anthropologists say. But this character is very frequent, if not constant among the Men of Mechta. 

This human type has been qualified as Proto-Mediterranean. Of the anthropologically very close groups find themselves, at the same time or a little before, in the East (Natufians) and in various countries of the Mediterranean where they seem to come from the type of Combe Capelle (called in Central Europe Man of Brno) which is distinct from Man of Cro-Magnon. Also D. Ferembach supposes the existence in the East, in the Upper Paleolithic, of a man close to Combe Chapel. Obviously the Man of Mechta el-Arbi could not give birth to proto-Mediterranean men. These, which will gradually replace it, appear first in the east, while the Men of Mechta el-Arbi are still, in the Neolithic, the most numerous in the west of the country. This progression from east to west clearly indicates that we must look beyond the limits of the Maghreb for the appearance of this type of proto mediterranean human. A general consensus of all specialists, anthropologists and prehistorians, emerges today to admit that he came from the Middle East. One can, following M.-C. Chamla, recognized among the Proto-Mediterraneans, has two varieties. The most common, Médjez II subtype, with a high skull, is orthogonal, the second, less widespread, that of the Ain Dokkara, with a lower cranial vault, is sometimes prognate, without however presenting the negroid characters on which one had to wrongly attracted attention. These men are carriers of a prehistoric industry which received the name of Capsien, from the ancient name of Gafsa (Capsa). The Capsian covers a shorter period than the Iberomaurusian; it extends from the 8th to the 5th millennium.

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