Algeria: From pre-history to the pieds-noirs

Algeria, it seems, has a rather rich history, full of stories of Berber tribes and kingdoms, subjugated by empire after empire before the French, caught up in a rivalry and politically induced nationalistic fervour, assimilated Algeria into the departements.

In the abyss of prehistory, hominids and humans flourished in various areas of Algeria. The earliest archeological evidence of inhabitants of Algeria dates from as far back as 1.8 million years, but more substantial tracts of toolmaking and hunting dates from around 30,000 years ago. Blade-making flourished in the area around Oran, and spread to the surrounding regions between 15,000 and 10,000 BC. These early peoples eventually coalesced into what became the Berbers. The Berbers were a people primarily brought together by similar languages and customs and were considered by classical scholars to be an unruly and barbarian people. This view is however entirely unfounded and may be thought of as propaganda by invading forces.

The first foreign powers to extablish a foothold in north Africa were the Phoenicians. These were Canaanite people living along the coast of what constitutes modern day Lebanon and trading extensively throughout the Mediteranean by means of a fleet of galleys.

Although they most likely called themselves kena’ani in their own semitic language, the name Phoenicians was first coined by the Greeks who associated the colour purple or phoînix with the Phoenicians who traded the dye. Thus the ‘purple people’ became known as the Phoenicians.

By 900BC, the Phoenician traders had extended their trading routes as far as north Africa and around a hundred years later, established Carthage in what is present day Tunisia. Soon Phoenician power began to wane after repeated attack by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. After a final conquest by Cyrus the Great of Persia, Phoenician lands in the middle east fell under Persian occupation. Many Phoenicians moved to the colonies previously extablished to control trade routes in the Mediteranean. As Phoenicians migrated to Carthage, they began to expand and found new settlements along the coast of Northern Aftica such as Hippo Regius and Rusicade, and further inland, impinging upon the Berber civilisation.

At this time, the Berbers had become a society supporting agriculture, trade, central organisation and various states. Steady Carthaginian expansion partially recruited and partially enslaved the local Berber population until the Carthaginian army was primarily constituted of Gauls and Berbers. Carthaginian power and trading began to grate against the emerging Roman empire leading to the three Punic wars beginning in 264BC. Following the defeat of Carthage in the first war, the Berbers revolted and gained control of much of North Africa which had previously been under Carthaginian control. Successive Carthaginian defeats at the hands of the Romans led to the destruction of Carthage in 146BC. The Berbers emerged in the power vacuum and established the states of Numidia and Mauretania.

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