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The cave paintings found at Tassili-n-Ajjer, north of Tamanrasset, Algeria, and at other locations depict vibrant and vivid scenes of everyday life in the central North Africa during the Neolithic Subpluvial period (about 8000 BC to 4000 BC). They were executed by a hunting people in the Capsian period of the Neolithic age who lived in a savanna region teeming with giant buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, animals that no longer exist in the now-desert area. The pictures provide the most complete record of a prehistoric African culture.

Earlier inhabitants of central North Africa have left behind equally significant remains. Early remnants of hominid occupation in North Africa, for example, were found in Ain el Hanech, near Saïda (ca. 200,000 B.C.); in fact, more recent investigations have found signs of Oldowan technology there, and indicate a date of up to 1.8 million BC (Sahnouni 1998.) Later, Neandertal tool makers produced hand axes in the Levalloisian and Mousterian styles (ca. 43,000 B.C.) similar to those in the Levant. According to some sources, North Africa was the site of the highest state of development of Middle Paleolithic flake-tool techniques. Tools of this era, starting about 30,000 B.C., are called Aterian (after the site Bir el Ater, south of Annaba) and are marked by a high standard of workmanship, great variety, and specialization.

Neolithic cave paintings found in Tassil-n-Ajjer (Plateau of the Chasms) region of the Sahara

The earliest blade industries in North Africa are called Ibero-Maurusian or Oranian (after a site near Oran). The industry appears to have spread throughout the coastal regions of North Africa between 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. Between about 9000 and 5000 B.C., the Capsian culture began influencing the IberoMaurusian, and after about 3000 B.C. the remains of just one human type can be found throughout the region. Neolithic civilization (marked by animal domestication and subsistence agriculture) developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean North Africa between 6000 and 2000 B.C. This type of economy, so richly depicted in the Tassili-n-Ajjer cave paintings, predominated in North Africa until the classical period.

The amalgam of peoples of North Africa coalesced eventually into a distinct native population that came to be called Berbers. Distinguished primarily by cultural and linguistic attributes, the Berbers, overshadowed by larger empires, tended to be overlooked or marginalized in historical accounts. Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Arab Muslim chroniclers typically depicted the Berbers as "barbaric" enemies, troublesome nomads, or ignorant peasants. They were, however, to play a major role in the area's history.

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