Will the Sahara archeological findings reveal the Origins of the Fulani?


Explorers, colonials, and Africanists of all persuasions have spilled a lot of ink on the Fulani. Because of the physical appearance and lighter complexion of the Fulbe in comparison to the rest of the West Africans, many European authors were tempted to find the origins of the Fulbe outside the African continent.  They were Gauls, Vietnamese (Annam), or Pelasgians, according to the most eccentrics, the Nile Valley, and the Sahara by the most serious. A lost Jewish tribe, Bohemian, Dravidians, you name it, the Fulani was all according to the fantasy or the imagination of the authors. His geographical and ethnic origins have thus fascinated everyone, from the most credible specialists to simple amateurs of exoticism.

This post is an excerpt from Henry Lothe’s paper: “The Extraordinary Adventure of the Fulani”, published by Présence Africaine: Revue Culturelle du monde noir. Paris. Oct.-Nov. 1959. pp. 48-57.

  Henri Lhote (16 March 1903 – 26 March 1991) was a French explorer, ethnographer, and discoverer of prehistoric cave art. He is credited with the discovery of an assembly of eight hundred or more works of primitive art in a remote region of Algeria on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

 In this publication, Lhote argues in favor of what is known as “The Sahara Theory”, which argues, based on cave arts and engravings found in several places in the Sahara, that the Fulani have occupied the area long before it becomes a desert more than four thousand years ago.

The Sahara Theory

After discussing several theories and pointing out their weaknesses Lothe noted that among many hypotheses, Motel alone offers the southern limit of the Sahara as the migration route followed by the Fulani on their way to Fuuta Tooro (Tekrur). In short, the Sahara itself is excluded and it is easy to understand why, since it was considered until then as a desert and uninhabitable country, it would not have been reasonable to have it crossed by a population whose economy is relied on animal husbandry since there is general agreement to attribute the introduction of the zebu to West Africa to the Fulani.

Barth, of all the authors, is the most nuanced. For him, the Fulbe would have formerly been in contact with the Bantus, this at a very remote time that he places around 3000 years before the Christian era and would have occupied, all of northern Africa between the Atlas and Sudan, before the expansion of the Berbers in this region.

In our opinion, it was for the time a conception of genius which stemmed from his broad knowledge of the populations of Africa and from what he had observed and learned in his double crossing of the Sahara. As an informed observer he had understood that the Sahara had not always been the uninhabitable desert that had been said, and moreover, the rock engravings of Tel Izahren and other places he had seen, several of which represented oxen, gave him a glimpse that pastoral peoples must have lived there in the past.

Since Barth, the research carried out in the desert has only confirmed his prognosis. Not only prehistoric tools have been found by the thousands, but also engravings and cave paintings depicting bovids were found by the thousands. These documents are distributed over the entire surface of the Sahara – where of course support rocks allowed their execution, from the Upper Nile to the Atlantic. And these new facts, not yet seriously considered by those who have been concerned with the history of the Fulbe, demonstrate masterfully that the Sahara, at a given time, was totally occupied, by pastors possessing, not the zebu, but long-horned ox (Bos Africanus) and short thick horned ox (Bos brachyceros).

Who were the authors of these engravings and wall paintings, many of which are true works of art, where did they come from, and when did they make them? So many questions were submitted to the sagacity of archaeologists.

A young Fulani woman wearing a traditional crest hairstyle with glass beds and silver coins

The human representations which accompany bovids are not sufficiently homogeneous to define with certainty a human type and, even more so, a race. But, on the whole, they present a general appearance which is the slenderness, the grace and the perfect balance of the bodies and the features themselves appear, in a general way more Europoid than negroid; in many cases, the Ethiopian faces are even indisputable. The hairstyles, so typical of the different human groupings of present-day Africa, are not uniform either, but in many cases, we find crest hairstyles surprisingly reminiscent of those of Fulani women, as well as long hairstyles cadenettes or chignon, similar to those worn by Fulani women and girls of Macina. In front of these thousand-year-old documents, hidden in the rock shelters of Hoggar and Tassili, I was struck by the resemblance, and, without hesitation, my first instinct was to say: but they are Fulbe. The association with oxen could indeed only reinforce the impression and scenes of dancing in the middle of the herds also evoked the boolatry of our Sudanese (Malian)1 Fulani pastors. All this level of painting associates man with bovids and we perceive different ethnographic details, such as the clothes of fabrics – which are opposed here to the skin clothes of the hunters, which must have dominated in an earlier time – and the hemispherical hut. Here again, cloth of fabrics and hemispherical huts are characteristic of the Fulbe, who know how to weave, not only cotton but also wool. We are still uncertain about the introduction of the loom in West Africa, but it is considered to be of Asian origin (China) and it would have arrived, either through the valley of the Nile or, more probably, after having bypassed Africa by the Mediterranean and Atlantic coast (Montandon). So, it wouldn’t be impossible that the Fulbe were the agents of its transmission; when we know the place, they occupy in the weaving in A.O.F.2 – the best weavers, in particular those of Macina, are Fulani, – this hypothesis takes on a character of great probability. As for the hemispherical hut, we know that it belongs to what ethnologists call the Hamitic civilization of pastoralists, represented in West Africa by the Fulbe.

It is necessary to insist on the nature of the bovids represented in the rupestrian; they are not zebus, but cattle without humps, the same species that we see represented on Egyptian monuments. However, if Bos brachyceros is usually considered by some zootechnicians as being of Asian origin – although others assimilate it to Bos ibericus known in the wild in North Africa -, Bos Africanus, as its name well indicates, is unmistakably African. It existed in Egypt in a domestic state, at a very remote time and it is assumed that it was domesticated on the Upper Nile, a region more conducive to the existence of this species than the banks of the Nile. Bos Africanus and Bos brachyceros no longer exist, of course, in the Sahara, but we find them in West Africa, precisely in the hands of Fulani shepherds, sometimes in a pure state, most often crossed with the zebu native to Asia. which was not introduced to the Sahara in ancient times when it was never represented and reached West Africa from the east by walking through the grass steppe. The large lyre horns, so typical of figures, engravings, and rock paintings, are found in particular in the Bororo Fulani herds of the French colonies of Niger and Chad.

The age of rock art has naturally sparked discussion and the positive thing to remember is that in several cases Neolithic tools have been found in connection with stations. The arch (weapon of the Fulani Pastoralists), also considered an element of Hamitic civilization, is represented in the rupestrian on the floor of the cattle herders.

Its area of ​​distribution with that of many flint arrowheads that have been found so far in the Sahara; their distribution is very suggestive, since it encompasses all the Saharan regions, without encroaching on the Algerian Tell and without exceeding, in the south, the parallel of Gao. These data allow us to conclude that the Saharan pastoralists lived in the Neolithic period, this one being considered here according to Egypt as well as a later persistence of the use of stone in the Sahara than in other regions. If, moreover, we take into account the Egyptian – prepharaonic – data on domestication, as well as the style relationships of engravings and paintings with those of predynastic and dynastic Egyptian art, we are led to conclude that migrations are the most important. The oldest must date back to 4000 or 4500 BC. The route they followed is marked by large rock-hewn areas, such as northern Tibesti, eastern Tassili, and Hoggar. The first two massifs must have been reached from the east because it is on their eastern parts that the works are most numerous, even concentrated. The Hoggar appears, in the circumstances, as only an artistic annex of Tassili, but eventually, it played a particularly key role, because it was from this country that the pastors later gained the Adrar of the Iforas and most probably West Africa. The same is true of Jebel Ouénat in Libya, whose richness in paintings is known, which appears to be the result of secondary migration from Tibesti. As for the Aïr massifs, now very suitable for breeding, it has been hardly touched towards the north and this detail is to be remembered, because, if we take into account the distribution of the documents in Tibesti and Ennedi, we can conclude, contrary to what the current physical geography could suggest, that the pastors did not follow the southern zone of the Sahara with a steppe character.

The qualities of the works of Tibesti, Tassili, and Hoggar are equal, and it is not possible to detect the slightest chronological shift, which implies a certain cultural unity at a given period in the life of the Sahara; but in the West, they decrease markedly, not only in quality, but also in quantity. What is this artistic degeneration due to? Let us repeat that the parietal3works could only be made where the existence of supporting rocks allows it.

The sandstone Tassili and Tibesti, with their numerous rock shelters, were, of course, places of choice for artists. The granitic Hoggar already presented fewer possibilities for painters and that is why engravings prevail in number. If the migration was done from east to west, as everything suggests today, it is certain that the painters, from Tassili, found fewer and less suitable materials as they were advancing toward the west where ergs (Sand Sea) and regs dominate. This phenomenon would therefore have resulted, for lack of practice imposed by the nature of the terrain, in progressive degeneration of art.

One can suppose that the initial migrations had for cause a considerable development of breeding, probably at the dawn of the domestication and the search for new pastures; the swarming of animals – and perhaps people – encourages people to grow more and more in the west but the thrust must have become more general when the pastures began to be impoverished under the effect of incipient desertification, to which the herds were perhaps not entirely foreign.

At the beginning of the Christian era, the naturalist Pliny still described numerous herds of bovids among the Garamantes of Fezzan, but these latter, who formed mainly a cavalry population, probably had nothing in common with the cattle herders that they surely repulsed thanks to the military superiority conferred on them by the horse, recently introduced to the Sahara by their care. What became of the bovid populations? They had to remain for a long time in areas where they were not threatened by cavalry populations and where there was sufficient vegetation. The Western Sahara, slightly more privileged from this point of view thanks to oceanic influences, had to feed oxen later than the other regions, until the day when the exodus towards the Sudanese zone became a necessity.

It was around the 8th century, a date generally accepted, that the Fulbe would have arrived in Senegal, would have reached the Fuuta Tooro and the Macina from where they subsequently left in a new migration which, this time, took place from west to end up where we find them today, although their march towards the east is not finished since we can follow before our eyes the families of Bororo, settled there a little time ago. west of the Chadian meridian (N’Guigmi), which currently lies to the east and reaches the Bahr-el-Ghazal.

But before reaching Senegal, where were they?

We have seen the opinions of the various authors, many of whom situate them in southern Morocco. Were they really the Bafours of the traditions of the Saharan West, as has been claimed? That is not impossible, but it appears today, in the light of paintings and rock engravings, that the migration route was undoubtedly the Sahara. Were the authors of these works of art the ancestors of Fulani? There is a sum of facts so concordant that the opposite would be quite extraordinary:

• slender type of paintings reminiscent of the Fulani type

• hairstyles in crest, with cadenettes, a bun in certain paintings of Tassili and Hoggar, quite similar to those so characteristic of the Fulbe, people with long hair and not short and curly which would not allow such hair constructions.

• conical cups identical to those worn by Fulani men

• enveloping clothes, in fabric, for women, short tunics for men, identical to those worn today by the Fulbe Borooro.

• hemispherical hut

• armament represented by the arc

• beef association

Can we say that these convergences are fortuitous? I do not believe so and I’m, on the contrary, convinced that Saharan archeology has just given us the key to the Fulani problem which has remained unsolved until now by providing positive facts for the first time, whereas the hypotheses put forward previously were entirely speculative. And I recall here the brilliant intuition of Barth who had a presentiment of this Saharan migration, which is thus confirmed. However, I must specify that all our Saharan painters from the bovid stage are not to be taken globally as the ancestors of the Fulbe, nor that all of them have reached the end of their migration to Senegal. If I have noted a large number of human figures whose attire or hairstyle details singularly evoked those of the Fulbe, other human types present appreciable differences. They can be interpreted as being natives whom the pastors found in place or what is still possible, as being pastors of the Hamitic group of different tribes. Clothing and hairstyles are not uniform among the Fulbe either, on the contrary, we had the opportunity to admire their wide variety; however, they all seem to have a common character, the concern for a superior aesthetic. This is the reason why it is difficult to settle the question in a definitive sense, just as it would be absurd to deny that they were the ancestors of the Fulani because not all Bovidian representations are typically Fulani. In a movement of migration of such magnitudes, such as the one revealed to us by the Saharan rocks, it is certain that different populations must have been dragged; if they all came from the Upper Nile, they must have been quite close to each other, while presenting fairly sensitive varieties in the clothing, as can be seen today among the Nouba, the Bedja, the Oromo, the Danakil. In addition, it is to be assumed that the former Saharan pastors of Hamitic civilization had also participated in the training of the Tebous who, too, are neither blacks nor Berbers and who practiced the breeding of Bos Africanus until a time late, which was revealed to us, not by the paintings, but the engravings of Tibesti. There was subsequently a marked intrusion of black blood among the Tebous, probably Kanuri; there is moreover a connection between their current language and that of the Kanuri, which contributed to entangling the somatic problem, but many individuals still present the Ethiopian type.

The history of the Fulani is therefore an extraordinary adventure that is linked to that of the beef, which they made known to the black populations of West Africa. By mixing with these they formed new races which we agree to consider as being superior to the indigenous. Wherever they entered, either peacefully or by force, they dominated. By making themselves the vectors of Islam, they completely transformed the populations of the A.O.F. by bringing them a more advanced religion, causing the formation of powerful and well-organized empires, and by bringing a cultural leaven from which all the populations in contact with them have benefited; add to this the introduction of beef, the economic consequences of which were considerable.

Of their Saharan journey, nothing remains in their memory or even in their traditions; if they admit that they came from the East, it is certain that the various origins which they lend themselves are only the reflections of the contacts which they could have subsequently had with the Saharan populations, during the last centuries before their arrival in Senegal.

One can be surprised that a population that was in possession of art as high as that of its Saharan ancestors did not preserve the tradition and, in particular, that there are no more painters among them, as there were not long ago among the Bushmen of Kalahari. We can put forward a few reasons for this. First of all, it will be remembered that the rock art of the pastoralists was in full decline when it reached the Saharan West, probably due to a lack of support rocks in this region. Bovidian engravings are few and far between and paintings are limited to a few stations. In a few centuries, the techniques must have been lost and were to be forgotten when they arrived in Senegal. Then, the Sudan itself was hardly favorable to the resurrection of a parietal art with its plains and its lateritic rocks; only a few shelters in the region of Bamako and the cliffs of Bandiagara offered surfaces suitable for engraving and painting and were, moreover, used by the natives. If the furniture of the Fulani were important, perhaps it would have revealed the ancient artistic aptitudes of the race, but it is reduced to its simplest expression; the real nomadic Fulani, the Bororo, own nothing except a few milking vessels and a few calabashes which they do not even bother to decorate.

A Mbororo couple in traditional attire, the woman is wearing necklaces, earrings, rings of arms and ankes

On the other hand, few populations of West Africa have such a keen sense of aesthetics, a meaning which translates into feminine hairstyles of astonishing refinement, a much sought-after taste for amber and copper ornaments – hairstyle and necklace, as well as the earrings – up to six or seven passed in the edge of the pavilion – and the rings of arms and ankles. These tastes are also found among many peoples of East Africa, which is an additional point of agreement that would confirm their Nubo-Ethiopian origin. These hairstyles and adornments make the Fulani the prettiest women in West Africa and all the female populations with which they are in contact have tried to imitate them more or less happily. This is the only indication of the artistic qualities that can be detected today among the Fulbe. This last point will perhaps be judged not very convincing to attest to their kinship with the former pastors of the Sahara and it would be with reason if there was only that to highlight; but the somatic, archaeological, ethnographic data that we have just exposed constitute a sufficient whole to advance that the Fulbe are indeed Hamites of the civilization of the ox and that it is the Sahara that they passed before ending up in the Sudanese steppe.

  1. Although in Arabian history books, the whole of West Africa is known as Bilad As-Sudan, Sudan here refers exclusively to Mali.
  2. A.O.F. Stand for Afrique Occidental Francaise, which was the colonial name of France West Africa.
  3. In archaeology, the term “Parietal art” (also referred to as “cave art”) is used to denote any prehistoric art found on cave walls. It embraces all types of cave painting, all forms of engraved rock art, or other petroglyphs, as well as any relief sculpture carved on walls, floors or ceilings.

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