Skip to main content Accessibility help

The archaeology and ethnoarchaeology of rain-fed cultivation in arid and hyper-arid North Africa

  • Carla Lancelotti (a1), Stefano Biagetti (a1) (a2), Andrea Zerboni (a3), Donatella Usai (a4) and Marco Madella (a1) (a2) (a5)...


Rain-fed cultivation in drylands—especially in arid and hyper-arid areas—is often considered to play a minor role in human subsistence. Drawing upon the results of ethnoarchaeological research in North Africa, this paper reviews non-irrigated agricultural practices in the absence of anthropogenic water-harvesting structures, and presents a proposal for how such practices can be identified in the drylands of the past. An improved understanding of the long-term development of rain-fed cultivation augments our knowledge of past land-use strategies and can inform future models of sustainable agriculture in some of the world's driest regions.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The archaeology and ethnoarchaeology of rain-fed cultivation in arid and hyper-arid North Africa
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The archaeology and ethnoarchaeology of rain-fed cultivation in arid and hyper-arid North Africa
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The archaeology and ethnoarchaeology of rain-fed cultivation in arid and hyper-arid North Africa
      Available formats


Corresponding author

*Author for correspondence (Email:


Hide All
Bourbon del Monte Santa Maria, G. 1912. L'oasi di Ghat e sue adiacenze, Comando del Corpo di Stato Maggiore (Ufficio Coloniale). Citta’ di Castello: Tipografia dell'Unione Arti Grafiche.
Chapligin, B., Leng, M.J., Webb, E., Alexandre, A., Dodd, J.P., Ijiri, A. & Longstaffe, F.J.. 2011. Inter-laboratory comparison of oxygen isotope compositions from biogenic silica. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 75: 7242–56.
Clarke, J. et al. 2016. Climatic changes and social transformations in the Near East and North Africa during the ‘long’ 4th millennium BC: a comparative study of environmental and archaeological evidence. Quaternary Science Review 136: 96121.
Cremaschi, M. & Zerboni, A.. 2009. Early to Middle Holocene landscape exploitation in a drying environment: two case studies compared from the Central Sahara (SW Fezzan, Libya). Comptes Rendus Géoscience 341: 689702.
D'Andrea, A.C. & Casey, J.. 2002. Pearl millet and Kintampo subsistence. African Archaeological Review 19: 147–73.
D'Andrea, A.C., Fahmy, A.G., Perry, L., Richards, M.P., Darcus, L., Toffolo, M. & El Shafaey, A.E. Attia. 2015. Ancient agricultural economy in the Horn of Africa: new evidence from grinding stones and stable isotopes. Proceedings of the IWAA8, Società dei Naturalisti e Matematici di Modena 144: 155–57.
Desio, A. 1942. Il Sahara Italiano. Il Tibesti nord-orientale: Reale Società Geografica Italiana. Roma: Società Italiana Arti Grafiche.
di Lernia, S., N'siala, I. Massamba & Zerboni, A.. 2012. ‘Saharan waterscapes’. Traditional knowledge and historical depth of water management in the Akakus Mts. (SW Libya), in Mol, L. & Sternberg, T. (ed.) Changing deserts: integrating people and their environment: 101–28. Cambridge: White Horse.
Ding, T.P., Zhou, J.X., Wan, D.F., Chen, Z.Y., Wang, C.Y. & Zhang, F.. 2008. Silicon isotope fractionation in bamboo and its significance to the biogeochemical cycle of silicon. Geochimica and Cosmochimica Acta 72: 1381–95.
Duveyrier, H. 1864. L'exploration du Sahara. Les touaregs du Nord. Paris: Challamel.
Fuller, D.Q. 2005. Farming: Stone Age farmers of the savanna, in Shillington, K. (ed.) Encyclopedia of African history: 521–23. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.
Gasse, F. 2000. Hydrological changes in the African tropics since the Last Glacial Maximum. Quaternary Science Reviews 19: 189211.
Giosan, L. et al. 2012. Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 109: E168894.
Gulia, S.K., Wilson, J.P., Carter, J. & Singh, B.P.. 2007. Progress in grain pearl millet research and market development, in Janick, J. & Whipkey, A. (ed.) Issues in new crops and new uses: 196203. Alexandria (VA): ASHS.
Hodson, M.J. 2016. The development of phytoliths in plants and its influence on their chemistry and isotopic composition. Implications for palaeoecology and archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science 68: 6269.
Huang, J. et al. 2017. Dryland climate change: recent progress and challenges. Reviews of Geophysics 55: 719–78.
Iacumin, P., Matteo, A. Di, Usai, D., Salvadori, S. & Venturelli, G.. 2016. Stable isotope study on ancient populations of central Sudan: insights on their diet and environment. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 160: 498518.
Jenkins, E., Jamjoum, K., Nuimat, S., Stafford, R., Nortcliff, S. & Mithen, S.. 2016. Identifying ancient water availability through phytolith analysis: an experimental approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 73: 8293.
Kuper, R. & Kröpelin, S.. 2006. Climate-controlled Holocene occupation in the Sahara: motor of Africa's evolution. Science 313: 803807.
Lancelotti, C., Ruiz-Pérez, J. & García-Granero, J.J.. 2017. Investigating fuel and fireplaces with a combination of phytoliths and multi-element analysis: an ethnographic experiment. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 26: 7583.
Leng, M.J., Swann, G.E., Hodson, M.J., Tyler, J.J., Patwardhan, S.V. & Sloane, H.J.. 2009. The potential use of silicon isotope composition of biogenic silica as a proxy for environmental change. Silicon 1: 6577.
Li, X. & Siddique, K.H.M.. 2018. Future smart food—rediscovering hidden treasures of neglected and underutilized species for zero hunger in Asia. Bangkok: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Madella, M. & Lancelotti, C.. 2012. Taphonomy and phytoliths: a user manual. Quaternary International 275: 7683.
Madella, M., Jones, M.K., Echlin, P., Powers-Jones, A. & Moore, M.. 2009. Plant water availability and analytical microscopy of phytoliths: implications for ancient irrigation in arid zones. Quaternary International 193: 3240.
Marshall, F. & Hildebrand, E.. 2002. Cattle before crops: the beginnings of food production in Africa. Journal of World Prehistory 16: 99144.
McClaran, M.P. & Umlauf, M.. 2000. Desert grassland dynamics estimated from carbon isotopes in grass phytoliths and soil organic matter. Journal of Vegetation Science 11: 7176.
Mercuri, A.M., Fornaciari, R., Gallinaro, M., Vanin, S. & di Lernia, S.. 2018. Plant behaviour from human imprints and the cultivation of wild cereals in Holocene Sahara. Nature Plants 4: 7181.
Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute, G., Jacob, J., Telizhenko, S. & Jones, M.K.. 2016. Miliacin in palaeosols from an Early Iron Age in Ukraine reveal in situ cultivation of broomcorn millet. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 8: 4350.
Nicolaisen, J. & Nicolaisen, I.. 1997. The pastoral Tuareg: ecology, culture, and society. Copenhagen: Thames & Hudson.
Olsen, J.T., Caudle, K.L., Johnson, L.C., Baer, S.G. & Maricle, B.R.. 2013. Environmental and genetic variation in leaf anatomy among populations of Andropogon gerardii (Poaceae) along a precipitation gradient. American Journal of Botany 100: 1957–68.
Opfergelt, S., Cardinal, D., Henriet, C., André, L. & Delvaux, B.. 2006. Silicon isotope fractionation between plant parts in banana: in situ vs. in vitro. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 88: 224–27.
Piperno, D.R. 2006. Phytoliths: a comprehensive guide for archaeologists and paleoecologists. Lanham (MD): Altamira.
Portmann, F.T., Siebert, S. & Döll, P.. 2010. MIRCA2000—global monthly irrigated and rainfed crop areas around the year 2000: a new high-resolution data set for agricultural and hydrological modeling. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 24: 124.
Rockström, J. & Falkenmark, M.. 2015. Agriculture: increase water harvesting in Africa. Nature 519: 283–85.
Rodd, F.R. 1926. People of the veil. London: Macmillan.
Safriel, U. & Adeel, Z.. 2005. Drylands systems, in Hassan, R., Sholes, R. & Ash, N. (ed.) Ecosystems and human well-being: current state and trends: 625–62. Washington, D.C.: Island.
Styring, A.K., Ater, M., Hmimsa, Y., Fraser, R., Miller, H., Neef, R., Pearson, J.A. & Bogaard, A.. 2016. Disentangling the effect of farming practice from aridity on crop stable isotope values: a present-day model from Morocco and its application to early farming sites in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Anthropocene Review 3: 222.
Terwilliger, V.J., Eshetu, Z., Alexandre, M., Huang, Y., Umer, M. & Gebru, T.. 2011. Local variation in climate and land use during the time of the major kingdoms of the Tigray Plateau of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Catena 85: 130–43.
Toupet, C. 1963. L'evolution de la nomadisation en Mauritanie sahelienne, in Bataillon, C. (ed.) Nomades et nomadisme au Sahara: recherches sur la zone aride XIX: 6779. Munich: R. Oldenbourg.
United Nations Environment Programme. 1997. World atlas of desertification. London: United Nations Environment Programme.
Usai, D. 2018. Prehistory in central Sudan, in Honegger, M. (ed.) Nubian archaeology in the XXIst century. Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference for Nubian Studies, Neuchatel, 1–6 September 2014: 318. Leuven: Peeters.
Webb, E.A. & Longstaffe, F.J.. 2003. Climatic influences on the oxygen isotopic composition of biogenic silica in prairie grass. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 66: 18911904.
Williams, M.A.J., Usai, D., Salvatori, S., Williams, F.M., Zerboni, A., Maritan, L. & Linseele, V.. 2015. Late Quaternary environments and prehistoric occupation in the lower White Nile valley, central Sudan. Quaternary Science Reviews 130: 7288.
Winchell, F., Brass, M., Manzo, A., Beldados, A., Perna, V., Murphy, C., Stevens, C. & Fuller, D.Q.. 2018. On the origins and dissemination of domesticated sorghum and pearl millet across Africa and into India: a view from the Butana Group of the Far Eastern Sahel. African Archaeological Review 35: 483505.
Zomer, R.J., Bossio, D.H., Trabucco, A., Yuanjie, L., Gupta, D.C. & Virendra, P.S.. 2007. Trees and water: smallholder agroforestry on irrigated lands in northern India. Colombo: International Water Management Institute.
Zomer, R.J., Trabucco, A., Bossio, D.A., van Straaten, O. & Verchot, L.. 2008. Climate change mitigation: a spatial analysis of global land suitability for clean development mechanism afforestation and reforestation. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 126: 6780.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed