Substantial and often remarkably undisturbed archaeological evidence does exist across much of Mediterranean Africa during the majority of the Holocene. However, it is fragmented, variably reliable, sometimes poorly dated, riddled with apparent gaps and lacking in both ambitious explanatory models and state-of-the-art archaeological and scientific analysis. Mediterranean African archaeological data have mainly been accumulated in three phases (1) pre-WW2; (2) 1950-1960s, truncated by the variable consequences of decolonisation, but then providing the data for the last attempts at synthesis during the 1970s; and (3) a spate of excellent fieldwork generating important discoveries over the last decade or so, with huge potential for reformulating our understanding but now again largely curtailed by current events. There could hardly be a better time to conduct this project, in terms of the abundant new evidence available, the opportunity to draw this together for overall analysis and to maintain investigative momentum during an enforced partial cessation of field activity, and the potential to shape future investigative strategies.
It is evident that Mediterranean African societies and ways of life over this timespan differed greatly from those of Neolithic to Bronze Age Europe, the east Mediterranean and much of the remainder of Africa, primarily due to a much more spatially restricted early uptake of full mixed village farming as traditionally defined in Levanto-European terms (Lucarini 2016). For this reason, the applicability of the term ‘Neolithic’ (and later ‘Bronze Age’) to this region has long been debated, and certainly requires heavily adapted definition. The lack of any definitive evidence for a significant early dispersion of farming across the remainder of the Maghreb during the later 6th to 5th millennia BC is particularly challenging. First, there seems to be a marked dearth of archaeological and iconographic evidence for maritime engagement and culture along the majority of the coast of Mediterranean Africa over most of the time-span concerned, in stark contrast to the dynamic seafaring societies attested over much of the remainder of the basin (Broodbank 2013). Second, archaeological evidence pertaining to the first six millennia of the Holocene is markedly richer than that for the last three pre-colonial millennia; from the 4th millennium BC, the evidence everywhere except the Nile delta declines sharply and recovers only around the period of Phoenician and Greek settlement.