The history – and prehistory – of early man in North Africa stretches as far back as the Middle Stone Age, around 150,000 years ago. Excavations, such as that at Ifri n’Ammar in the north of Morocco, have revealed artefacts including worked stone flakes, tools and shell beads which had been pierced and coloured.
In northeast Morocco, near the village of Taforalt, a cave known as La Grotte des Pigeons contains a 10 m (33 ft) thick series of layers dating to between at least 85,000 and 10,000 years ago. The cave is also the oldest known burial site in North Africa, containing more than 30 human skeletons dating from the Late Stone Age between 15,000 and 14,000 years ago.
Further west in Morocco, 50 km south of Tangiers, stands the Neolithic Mzora (or M’Soura) stone circle. It is estimated that the original circle consisted of 175 stones, of which 168 still remain in place. Many of the stones are enormous and the tallest, known locally as El Uted (the Pointer), is more than 5 metres (16 ft) high.
The Mzora stone circle has a diameter of 55 metres (180 ft) and at its centre is a large barrow. According to local legend, this is the grave of the giant, Antaeus. In Greek mythology he was the son of the sea god Poseidon and the earth god Gaia, and was slain by Hercules as one of his Twelve Labours. Antaeus was invincible as long as he was touching his mother, Gaia, the Earth. Hercules lifted him from the ground and crushed him to death in a bear hug.
As with many stone circles around the world, the purpose of Mzora is unknown. Theories range from druid worship to a burial site to an astrological calendar, and indeed some of the stones do appear to be aligned with the summer and winter solstices. This has given rise to another theory.
Many stone circles were built during the Neolithic period, a time which coincided with the introduction of agriculture. Being able to follow and predict the progress of the year, and monitor the seasons, would have been crucial in ensuring that crops were planted at the right time.
Text Alun Harvey