Used by permission for
Bridging World History
The Annenberg Foundation copyright © 2004
Richard Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans? Chasing Sources
across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun,”
Journal of World History
14, no. 4 (December 2003): 459–500.
Determining group identity in the ancient world, especially when
peoples were lumped under the constructs of tribe and ethnicity, was based
on point of view, and labeling was a haphazard process. A case in point is the
fate of those North African ancient writers called Libyans. Did their
descendants become the people Arab writers referred to as Sanhaja and
Zanata? Despite a significant degree of cultural discontinuity, the answer
seems to be yes. A principal issue is the reliability of sources, which are
markedly better for the era of Arab domination than for the ancient period.
Piecing together the ethnic history of the ancient world in a systematic way is
an impossible mission. One particularly perplexing problem is the fate of
groups that lived beyond the bounds of city and empire: hundreds of them
come and go in the historical record. We think we know what happened to a
few, such as the Franks and the Angles and Saxons. Many others, however,
simply disappear from the historical record, presumably the victims of larger
or more martial groups, although the disappearance of an entity was more
likely to have meant absorption or fragmentation than complete annihilation.
Even prominent or notorious peoples came to mysterious ends: the Scythians
fade away while the Huns lose their storied warlord and make a precipitous
exit. What about the people the Greeks called “Libyans,” and, in particular,
those who lived in the Sahara?
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the Libyans, described
by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E., the same people Ibn Khaldun wrote
about under the name “Sanhaja” almost two thousand years later? Ethnic
history rarely provides straight yes and no answers.
The indigenous peoples of North Africa appear to go for long intervals with
little discernable change. Periodically a metamorphosis occurs, usually
accompanying some larger cataclysmic event: the Sahara becomes drier and
drier still; the Egyptian Empire to the east, or a millennium later the Roman
Empire to the north, or another millennium later the Songhay Empire to the
south collapses, reverberating deep into the interior; Islam enters North
Africa and makes its way through war and trade to beyond the southern
fringe of the desert; the Hilalian Arabs, a new ethnic strain, appear, affecting
politics, language, and culture. But is this metamorphosis model illusionary,
less the result of some drastic change than of the perspective from which we
must observe our subject? We are, after all, viewing this history through
portals in time rather than along a continuous pane of glass.