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Who were the Garamantes?
A forgotten civilization in the middle of the Sahara Desert that survived based on an advanced irrigation system and the mining of fossil water.
The red pin in the Google Maps screenshot above marks the location of Germa, an archaeological site in the Wadi al-Ajal area of the remote Fezzan region of Libya. Two thousand years ago, it was known as Garama, and was the capital city of the great civilization of the Garamantes. Once thought to be mere “desert barbarians” annoying Roman colonies in North Africa, recent evidence from digs at Germa and other sites has shown that the Garamantes were a complex, populous, urbanized state, with large-scale agriculture, continent-spanning trade networks, and extensive public works projects. The Garamantian civilization lasted over one thousand years, from around 900 BCE to about 600-700 CE. At its height, it was a contemporary and local rival of the Roman Empire, sometimes trading with Rome and sometimes fighting wars against their North African provinces.
Astute readers may note that this doesn’t make a lick of sense. Germa is right in the middle of the Sahara Desert, miles from anything that could reasonably be described as “arable land”. If you zoom in on Google Maps, the site today is surrounded by the browns and beiges of sand dunes and rock, with barely a stick of greenery to be found.
True, the Sahara was once much wetter and more hospitable during the “African humid period” about 6,000-5,000 years ago, but this is well before our period of interest: it was well and truly the sandy, rocky waste we know and love by the time the Garamantes were at their height. And ancient civilizations are supposed to form around rivers and fertile river valleys, right? Like Egypt and the Nile, Mesopotamia around the Tigris and Euphrates, India around the Indus and Ganges, China around the Yangtze and Huang He, pre-imperial Rome around the Tiber, or Cahokia around the Mississippi. Or at least a fertile valley with lots of interconnected lakes, like the Valley of Mexico which supported the rise of Teotihuacan and the Mexica, or some really productive wetlands, like the marshes around Angkor or the ancient Amazonian cities in the Xingu River Basin and the Llanos de Moxos? Or maybe even dependent on the sea, like possibly the Norte Chico culture of Peru…but in any case, with water. How could the Garamantes have sustained any kind of large human population in the middle of the Sahara?
The Garamantes managed to build a civilization in the middle of the desert, in a climate with a few centimeters of rain a year (“frequently with none whatever for several years at a stretch”), because they were mining fossil water. This sounds like a needlessly fancy way of saying “using groundwater,” but it’s an important conceptual difference, because groundwater in most places gets regularly replenished by precipitation percolating through the soil. The Garamantes were using groundwater that had been built up during the African Humid Period and wasn’t being meaningfully replenished. They distributed the water through the landscape with a vast network of foggara irrigation canals. Archaeologists have found over 550 foggara canals in the Wadi al-Ajal region alone: there may well have been many, many more.
Now “irrigation canals” is a very imprecise term, so it’s important to clarify here that whatever you’re imagining the foggaras may have been, you probably need to be thinking bigger. These weren’t just “ditches a farming village dug,” but epic monumental construction projects. The foggara canals were underground (presumably because surface canals would have lost vast amounts of water to evaporation), and could be up to 50 meters deep, with most of them stretching for kilometers, gradually becoming more shallow as they went on, from aquifers deep below rock to irrigating surface farm plots. The foggaras even had “regularly spaced vertical shafts” for maintenance. Given the difficulty of doing this in the Sahara (with hand tools! starting before 500 BCE!), this arguably deserves to be remembered as an ancient engineering feat up there with the Pyramids or the Nazca Lines.
It’s estimated that the 550 known foggara canals required at least 72,000 man-years of labor to build, and considerably more to maintain. That’s the equivalent of 7,200 men working exclusively on this for ten years, or 720 men for 100 years, or (although this would be pretty unlikely) 72 men for 1,000 years. And someone had to have been feeding those workers, and making their tools and clothes, and bringing them water, and generally running the kind of civilization that could support this kind of project.
And we see that the Garamantes were indeed an impressive civilization, with substantial material wealth. The Garamantes seem to have just had a lot of stuff, with crops and goods from across Africa and Eurasia finding their way to cities in the middle of the Sahara. After reviewing some of the archaeological literature, here’s a partial list1 of some of the stuff we know was there in Gerama and some of the over 1,000 Garamantian cities2, forts, villages, and other sites found in the region.
Sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, and eventually horses, camels, and chickens as well.
Eurasian crops like wheat, barley, date palms, and grapes. (Grapes! In the middle of the Sahara!)
Later on, the introduction of crops from Sub-Saharan Africa, like pearl millet, sorghum and cotton
Mausolea in the Roman transition and mastaba tombs in the Egyptian tradition
Interesting “mini-pyramid” tombs that seem uniquely Garamantian.
A Roman-style bath3
A stone-columned temple, possibly to the god Ammon, a deity originally from Egypt but widely popular in many other civilizations.
Fine ceramics, fine glassware, and amphorae of wine and olive oil, almost certainly trade goods from the Roman Empire.
A range of items that were likely trade goods from sub-Saharan Africa, including hippo ivory, ebony beads, and cowrie shells
“Abundant evidence for craft activity…including weaving, metal-working and ostrich eggshell bead production.”
Human skeletons that seem to resemble those of modern day Berbers/north Africans, human skeletons that seem to resemble those of modern day sub-Saharan Africans, and human skeletons with a mixture of traits from both ethnic groups. (Yes, it seems creepy to this writer too to be classifying ancient humans into ethnic groups by their skeletons, like something out of the 19th century. But that’s what the archaeological literature on the Garamantes says). We don’t know what these peoples’ lives or social status were like, but they seem to have been integrated with Garamantian society. One skeleton in particular, of a young sub-Saharan African woman wearing a lip plug similar to those still used by many African tribes, was buried in a Garamantian cemetery, seeming to indicate some degree of diversity and multiculturalism in the society.
A study analyzing Garamantian skeletons’ bone rigidity, sexual dimorphism, and other factors found that “the Garamantes did not appear systematically more robust than other North African populations occupying less harsh environments, indicating that life in the Sahara did not require particularly strenuous daily activities.” This may have been a civilization with something akin to a semi-leisured “middle class” like those of classical Greece or Rome, or at least well-organized enough that daily life wasn’t a constant onslaught of punishing manual labor.
However, the Garamantes weren’t some anachronistically progressive utopia: the famed Histories of Herodotus4 describe them as hunting “Ethiopians” from “four-horse chariots,” possibly for slave-raiding or just for sport. Their desert realm was very possibly a major center for slave trading in addition to goods trading, and perhaps a major conduit selling African slaves to the Roman Empire. It’s entirely possible that the workers building their irrigation canals were slaves as well. We don’t really know for certain.
And then, sometime before North Africa became Muslim in the 600s-700s, the Garamantes were just…gone. There’s no known dramatic event marking the Fall of The Garamantes, no huge invasion or lost war or volcanic eruption: the civilization and their amazing foggara system seem to have just faded out of existence. As one book summarizes, the sequence of events is unclear, but it seems linked to declining access to the vital fossil water.
“The foggara-fed landscape…evidently declined in the second half of the first millennium, although chronological precision is poor, heavily dependent as it is on dating from imported Roman/Byzantine wares, which had become fewer by this period and ceased nearly completely by the seventh century…The foggara-fed landscape of settlement and irrigation was replaced by a system of gardens based around wells, which could support a much smaller population and produce far less in the way of surplus; there are indications that this process began, and may have been completed, before the first Arab incursion into the region in 643…
“The water table [in the region] has indeed been dropping slowly and steadily for thousands of years. This process may have been exacerbated at times by climatic change and human overexploitation, but it may be that the Garamantes were simply able to exploit it during a window of a few centuries before the water table dropped beyond the reach of the available technologies. We can trace this process at work through the manifold efforts to prolong the life of the foggaras by works to deepen them and augment their flow…”5
So what can we learn from the Garamantes today?
On one level, their story can be read as a classic 1970s-style environmental parable: they were dependent on a non-renewable resource (fossil water), they (may have) used it all up, or perhaps were just at the mercy of climactic shifts, and they eventually collapsed.
Even if this is true, though, it fundamentally ignores the timescale, and the magnitude of the Garamantes’ success. This writer feels like running an urbanized agriculture-dependent society based entirely on artificial irrigation in the middle of the Sahara Desert for over a thousand years should officially earn a civilization the Good At Water Management merit badge. The circumstances of the fall of the Garamantes are so uncertain that we can’t really make a definitive statement about why it happened. “This civilization fell because of X, therefore we should stop doing X” is a really tempting narrative structure that is wildly overused6, often based on contradictory or unclear evidence.
Perhaps paradoxically, learning more about the Garamantes makes this writer feel a lot better about modern-day water use issues. There’s a lot of well-founded concern about managing Earth’s fresh water supplies in the age of climate change and a growing technological human civilization, especially in dry, heavily populated landscapes like the Nile and Colorado river valleys. The story of the Garamantes doesn’t take anything away from how serious that is, but it might perhaps inspire a little more faith in humans’ abilities to solve complex water-management problems.
Modern humans are the same species as the folks that made the desert bloom for a millennium using only Iron Age technology. And today, we have satellite imagery and drip-feed irrigation and mechanical excavators (now available fully electric!) and drought-tolerant genetically modified crops. We have a lot more tools to respond to water scarcity.
And, paradoxically because modern technological civilization’s water demands are so much greater than those of Iron Age agriculturalists, there’s a lot of water use cuts we can make if we have to without getting to the point of “people don’t have enough to drink.” A lot of fat to trim, so to speak. The Garamantes weren’t using their precious fossil water for golf courses in deserts or legions of suburban lawn sprinklers. This writer believes that we can, for example, keep the American West livable even as it enters a “megadrought”—as long as by “livable” you mean, “people get enough to drink and bathe,” not “anyone can do whatever the heck they want with as much water as they want” or “we keep providing subsidies to irrigation-dependent crops woefully unsuited to desert environments7.”
Ultimately, an appropriate lesson we can draw from the Garamantes might be one of hope. Compared to “keep a preindustrial civilization alive and relatively prosperous for centuries in the middle of the Sahara,” the complex water-management tasks of the Anthropocene start to look…well, not easy, but certainly more doable. Also, lost ancient civilizations are just inherently pretty interesting! This writer hopes you enjoyed reading about this one.
This list, as well as much of this article, is based on the archaeological writing of Professor David Mattingly. Based on this writer’s highly informal Google research, there appears to be one archaeologist in the world specializing in the history of the Garamantes right now: David Mattingly, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Leicester. His research on the Garamantes, while worthy and indeed positively fascinating, hasn’t seemed to get much media attention so far. This writer found it in tomes like “Money, Trade, and Trade Routes in Pre-Islamic North Africa.”
Why haven’t the Garamantes attracted more attention? One guess: their ancient heartland is now in Libya, and it’s been really, really difficult to conduct large-scale archaeological work in Libya for the last few decades. An article in Le Figaro in 2011 expressed hope that after the fall of Gaddafi, archaeologists would be able to learn more about the Garamantes in a more peaceful Libya, but things didn’t exactly work out that way.
Honestly, even what we do know about the Garamantes is so interesting-and so fragmented-that this article barely scratches the surface.
Side note: what would the Garamantes have called their state and their land? “Garamantia” sounds intuitively right to Western ears, especially because archaeologists today call their culture “Garamantian,” but that’s an artifact of European languages. The “ia” ending makes it a Latin-style place-name unlikely to have been used by these longstanding rivals of Rome. “Akal” means “land” in the modern Tamazight language, considered by many linguists to probably be the closest modern relative of whatever the Garamantes spoke, so it’s just possible that the name of the Garamantes’ state might have sounded something like “Garamantakal.” Or Garamakal, maybe, after the capital city? This writer is not a historical linguist and definitely not an expert on the history of the Tamazight language (maybe it’s common knowledge in the Tamazight-expert community that the word “akal” only became common in modern times, I don’t know), so file this idea under “wild guessing.”
Source: The Saharan Berber Diaspora and the Southern Frontiers of Byzantine North Africa. One of many interesting works which only tangentially mention the Garamantes, and the only one where I found mention of the Roman bath.
In the same paragraph on the Garamantes, Herodotus describes them as eating “snakes and other creeping things” and their speech as like “the squeaking of bats.” In fact, what the heck, here’s the whole paragraph:
“After ten days' journey again from Augila there is yet another hill of salt and springs of water and many fruit-bearing palms, as at the other places; men live there called Garamantes, an exceedingly great nation, who sow in earth which they have laid on the salt.  The shortest way to the Lotus Eaters' country is from here, thirty days' journey distant. Among the Garamantes are the cattle that go backward as they graze, the reason being that their horns curve forward;  therefore, not being able to go forward, since the horns would stick in the ground, they walk backward grazing. Otherwise, they are like other cattle, except that their hide is thicker and harder to the touch.  These Garamantes go in their four-horse chariots chasing the cave-dwelling Ethiopians: for the Ethiopian cave-dwellers are swifter of foot than any men of whom tales are brought to us. They live on snakes and lizards and such-like creeping things. Their speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats.”
There is a long scholarly tradition from ancient Greece and Rome onwards of debating how much and whether Herodotus’ histories are best seen as an attempt at collecting real information about the world, or just collecting a range of interesting-sounding stories which happened to contain some real information. Herodotus’s histories were once widely viewed as an unreliable mix of myth and fact, but recent archaeological discoveries have increasingly shown his writing to be surprisingly accurate, even the parts that sounded completely insane. For example, he wrote about a giant city called “Gelonus” in Scythia (modern Ukraine), which was viewed as a myth for centuries until its ruins were rediscovered in the 1970s. Even more impressively, he wrote about giant fox-sized furry ants mining for gold in a remote Indian province of the Persian Empire, which was used for years as a major piece of evidence in support of the “Herodotus just wrote down whatever random stuff he heard or made up” school of scholarship. Then someone dug into it, and it turns out that the furry, fox-sized Himalayan marmots of Pakistan’s isolated Deosai Plateau actually have been used as “gold miners” for centuries by the Minaro tribal people, who collect the gold dust dug up when the marmots dig their burrows. Herodotus might just have mistranslated the Persian word for “marmot” as “ant.” So this is a guy worth listening to, even when he sounds crazy.
Quotes from pages 56-58 of The Saharan Berber Diaspora and the Southern Frontiers of Byzantine North Africa (Fentress and Wilson, 2016).
This is what this writer means about the Garamantes being “out of focus”: some the best summaries of their history available show up in books focusing on “the Southern Frontiers of Byzantine North Africa.”
For example, some historians and bloggers have collected a list of 210 proposed reasons why the Roman Empire fell. A lot of them, like “capitalism,” “communism,” “conservatism,” and “cosmopolitanism” (and that’s just from the C’s) seem to say a lot more about the proposer’s present-day anxieties.