The Garamantes (possibly from the Berber igherman / iɣerman, meaning: "cities" in modern Berber; or possibly from igerramen meaning "saints, holy/sacred people" in modern Berber) were a people who developed an advanced civilization in ancient southwestern Libya. They used an elaborate underground irrigation system, and founded prosperous Berber kingdoms or city-states in the Fezzan area of Libya, in the Sahara desert. They were a local power between 500 BC and 700 AD.
There is little textual information about the Garamantes, but their written language was "...a still nearly indecipherable proto-Tifaniq, the script of modern-day Tuaregs." Even the name Garamantes was a Greek name, which the Romans later adopted. Available information comes mainly from Greek and Roman sources, as well as archaeological excavations in the area, though large areas in ruins remain unexcavated. Another important source of information is the abundant rock art, which often depicts life prior to the rise of the realm.
In the 1960s, archaeologists excavated part of the Garamantes' capital (modern Germa, about 150 km west of modern-day Sabha) and named it Garama (an earlier capital, Zinchecra, was located not far from the later Garama). Current research indicates that the Garamantes had about eight major towns, three of which have been examined as of 2004[update]. In addition they had a large number of other settlements. Garama had a population of some four thousand and another six thousand living in villages within a 5 km radius.
The Garamantes were farmers and merchants. Their diet consisted of grapes, figs, barley and wheat. They traded wheat, salt and slaves in exchange for imported wine and olive oil, oil lamps and Roman tableware. According to Strabo and Pliny, the Garamantes quarried amazonite in the Tibesti Mountains. In 2011, Efthymia Nikita reported that Garamantes skeletons do not suggest regular warfare or strenuous activities. "The Garamantes exhibited low sexual dimorphism in the upper limbs, which is consistent to the pattern found in agricultural populations and implies that the engagement of males in warfare and construction works was not particularly intense. [...] the Garamantes did not appear systematically more robust than other North African populations occupying less harsh environments, indicating that life in the Sahara did not require particularly strenuous daily activities."
The ruins include numerous tombs, forts, and cemeteries. The Garamantes constructed a network of underground tunnels and shafts to mine the fossil water from under the limestone layer under the desert sand. The dating of these foggara is disputed, they appear between 200 BC to 200 AD but continued to be in use until at least the 7th century and perhaps later. The network of tunnels is known to Berbers as Foggaras. The network allowed agriculture to flourish, but used a system of slave labor to keep it maintained.
The Garamantes were probably present as tribal people in the Fezzan by 1000 BC. They appear in the written record for the first time in the 5th century BC: according to Herodotus, they were "a very great nation" who herded cattle, farmed dates, and hunted the "Ethiopian Troglodytes", or "cave-dwellers" who lived in the desert, from four-horse chariots. Roman depictions describe them as bearing ritual scars and tattoos. Tacitus wrote that they assisted the rebel Tacfarinas and raided Roman coastal settlements. According to Pliny the Elder, Romans eventually grew tired of Garamantian raiding and Lucius Cornelius Balbus captured 15 of their settlements in 19 BC. In 202, Septimius Severus captured the capital city of Garama.
By around 150 AD the Garamantian kingdom (in today's central Libya (Fezzan), principally along the still existing Wadi al-Ajal), covered 180,000 square kilometres in modern-day southern Libya. It lasted from about 400 BC to 600 AD.
The decline of the Garamantian culture may have been connected to worsening climatic conditions, or overuse of water resources. What is desert today was once fairly good agricultural land and was enhanced through the Garamantian irrigation system 1,500 years ago. As fossil water is a non-renewable resource, over the six centuries of the Garamantian kingdom, the ground water level fell. The kingdom declined and fragmented.
May/June 2004; Volume 55, Number 3