Desert Migrations Project (2007-2011)



A project funded by the Society for Libyan Studies that investigated the human occupation of the Central Sahara during the Garamantes Kingdom (DMP-Burials & Identity) and earlier prehistory (DMP-Palaeo) in the context of major geomorphological change.


David Mattingly, University of Leicester & 

Marta Mirazon Lahr, University of Cambridge 




The Central Saharan route out of sub-Saharan Africa: Palaeolithic and Palaeoanthropological Research

Directed by Marta Mirazon Lahr & Robert Foley

Classically, it was assumed that the Nile Valley was the primary route for hominins and other animals to expand beyond sub-Saharan Africa. Interest in the “southern route” across the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula, opening up possible dispersal routes along the Indian Ocean Rim, and evidence that at various times the Sahara was inundated with lakes and river systems (the Green Sahara) has changed this perspective. 

DMP-Palaeo explored this paradigm shift. Earlier palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic studies have shown that the level of northern African lakes, like Lake Chad, have drastically fluctuated through time, and that temporary lakes existed in the Wadi as-Shatti, at the edge of the Ubari Sand Sea in Fezzan, Libya. Today it is known that such expanded lakes, river systems, swamps and wetlands developed across the Sahara and Sahel, linked to “Green Sahara” periods of much greater precipitation. At maximum extent, Saharan palaeolakes may have formed adjacent catchment areas, joined by a network of rivers forming potential corridors for hominin and animal dispersal. 

Direct evidence for such dispersals is found in the archaeological record of the Central Sahara – in the form of stone tool scatters at the edge of palaeolakes, as well as in the depiction of sub-Saharan animals in the amazing rock art of the people who lived during the last Green Sahara 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. The aims of DMP-PALAEO were to map the landscape archaeology across a segment of the Sahara in order to investigate whether the region was a stepping stone in a dispersal corridor between the Sahel and the Mediterranean. 

More information about DMP-Palaeo

DMP – Burials & Identity in the Wadi al-Ajal

Directed by David Mattingly

The archaeology of the Wadi al-Ajal is dominated by funerary structures, with large concentrations of cairns and other burial monuments along the foot of the Messak Settafet escarpment that bounds the valley on its southern side for c.150 km. Charles Daniels, who worked in the area in the 1960s-70s, estimated there were ~120,000 visible tombs. The earliest of these appear to be of Pastoral (Neolithic date), although it is uncertain how early in the Holocene these practices originated. A major component of the burial landscape concerns the vast Garamantian cemeteries, with distinctive burial forms, accompanying stelae and offering tables and other evidence of rituals. The Garamantes were the major regional power in the central Sahara from around the mid 1st millennium BC to mid 1st millennium AD, with earlier origins and a later shadowy existence. Previous research in the valley was carried out as the Fezzan Project, directed by David Mattingly between 1997 and 2001. This project focused on several aspects of Garamantian civilisation, revealing an unexpected sophistication of oasis agriculture, water management, literacy, urbanisation and advanced technology, but did not target its burial landscape. Throughout the 20th century, some 200 Garamantian burials were excavated by teams from different countries (Libyan, Italian, French and German), as well as by Daniels. DMP – Burials & Identity focuses entirely on the Garamantian mortuary landscape at the centre of the Wadi al-Ajal. It has three main objectives – first, to systematically excavate a large sample of burials in the region around Jarma, targeting tombs of different ages between ca. 6,000-1,000 BP and from different levels of the social hierarchy as indicated by the tomb structures and material culture; second, to survey the Messak escarpment with a view to map and record the mortuary landscape of the area; and third, to complete archive and post-excavation work on a number of burials excavated by Daniels.

More information:

Mattingly et al. (2001) The Fezzan Project 2001: Preliminary report on the fifth season of work. Libyan Studies 32: 133-153. (pdf)

Mattingly et al. (2010) DMP IX: Summary report on the fourth season of excavations of the burials and identity team. Libyan Studies 41: 89-104. (pdf)

Nikita, E. (2010) The Garamantes of Fazzān: Bioarchaeological evaluation of desert-induced stress and Late Holocene human migrations through the Sahara. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Cambridge. 

Leicester-Cambridge Collaboration on DMP-Burials & Identity

Anthropological and Palaeopathological Analysis of the Human Remains from the Wadi al-Ajal

For nearly 1000 years, between 500 BC and 500 AD, the Garamantes lived in the area of the Fezzan in the Central Sahara of Libya. We find references to them in classical texts of Herodotus, Pliny and Tacitus, in which they appear as a somewhat warlike group of people. However, questions as to who the Garamantes were, how did they flourish in the desert, and what was their relationship to the Roman and Egyptian civilisations remained un-answered. The fabulous Garamantian cemeteries of Fezzan have been the subject of several archaeological studies, including the excavations carried out by David Mattingly during the Fezzan and the Desert Migrations Projects, looking for evidence to answer some of these questions.

In 2002, as part of David Mattingly’s Fezzan Project, Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert Foley carried out a preliminary study of the Garamantian human remains excavated by Charles Daniels between 1958-1977. In 2007, Marta Mirazon Lahr completed the work on the existing Garamantian human remains from the Daniels’ excavations, as well as beginning the study of those excavated as part of the DMP-Burials & Identity Project by David Mattingly and his team. From 2008, the full osteological and palaeopathological analysis of the Garamantes skeletal remains excavated during the DMP was carried out by Efthymia Nikita, as part of her PhD under the supervision of Marta Mirazon Lahr.