Results of the Winter 2008/9 Bergmann-Böckli-Marei-4WD-trip to Gebel Uweinat


- A solution to the Clayton ring problem (continued) -


Even though colocynth (Handal) pips taste bitter and are in fact poisonous, I have, in previous reports on this website, proposed that plots of Handal found in remote wastelands served as natural larders that provided “desert nutriment” to travellers. As the seeds can be treated and rendered edible, I have also demonstrated how, via a heating process, Clayton rings can be used to refine the pips. This treatment seems to ensure that the heat of the embers acts as an agent promoting pyrolysis of the pip’s poisonous properties. (see results of winter 2006/7-expeditions) Claytons therefore may be regarded as “Handal pip converters” used by those who lived in or traversed the dying savannah and desert steppe in the Late Neolithic and in antiquity.


The expedition report referred to above provides two scenarios which explain how the colocynths could have been utilised during the donkey expeditions of the ancients. The first scenario assumes hyper arid conditions and therefore, the almost complete absence of natural vegetation cover in desert areas during 6th dynasty times. In this instance, donkey drivers would have collected Handal pips before embarking on a journey into the fearful void. The fuel required to convert the pips into nutriment for humans may have either been obtained from occasional clusters of plants and trees that still existed in the arid wastes, or from donkey dung. In the latter case and as long as the beasts of burden had enough forage, such ancient caravans could be seen as autonomous fuel producing units. (If the dung is derived from the forage the production of the fuel still depends on the landscape.)


The second scenario proposes sporadic precipitation during the period in question. These intermittent and somehow predictable rainfalls would have turned the desert along the Abu Ballas (TAB)- and the Kufra Trails into a patchwork of “green gardens”. In later times, the term “hatiya” (uninhabited shallow basin with low plant cover; “false” oasis) was used by the Arabs to denote such ecologically favoured locations. In such mud pans, clusters of colocynth would sprout after sufficient rainfall. Note that due to a varying speed of maturation and decay amongst the Handal, some may have dried out whilst others were still green and juicy. The co-existence of colocynths in these different states explains how the donkey drivers of the distant past were able to pick (dry) Handal for human consumption from the same field where their beasts of burden would be feeding on green Handal that would simultaneously be satisfying their hunger and quenching their thirst. In fact, by eating the bitter fruits the animals would not have needed to be watered at all. Occasional fruit picking (for human consumption) and grazing would continue until a Handal field was exhausted.


The discovery of organic substances in a Clayton found in a “Clayton camp” on the fringes of a mud pan near Farafra oasis (see expedition reports 2005/6) seems to point to the utilization of Claytons as put forward in the second scenario.


When considering the survival strategies of humans in a dry savannah or in a desert environment in antiquity, it is useful to know for how long colocynth seeds can survive in a dormant state. Natives from Eastern Sudan had informed me that Handal seeds could survive for ten years but Thomas Künne, a former associate at the Institute of Agrology and Microbiology of the University of Halle, Germany considers this estimate too short and believes that given favourable (dry) conditions, a dormancy period of a hundred years or more could be expected. (see expedition reports 2006/7) A dormancy of such a long period would ensure that long lasting dry spells would not entail the destruction of the seed’s germination capacity and therefore, would prevent any rapid devastation of colocynth colonies that had existed for ages. Thus, at first sight, it may seem there are no visible traces of the plants in their accustomed habitats, but clusters of colocynth may have survived there for decades if not centuries.


In January/February and August 2008 heavy downpours occurred in the area of the Gilf Kebir creating ponds and pools in some of the plateau’s valleys. Soon after the first rainy interval, on 2/10/2008, Mahmoud Marai went for a swim in a pool which he and Christian Kny had found in the northern branch of Wadi el-Akhdar. (picture 1) At that time no vegetation had yet sprouted. The first plants emerged in April 2008 at which time Mahmoud noticed no Handal. He claimed however, to have seen the plants in Wadi Hamra in January 2009, when additional precipitation occurred in that area. Yet his photographs regarding the Wadi Hamra vegetation cover did not reveal a single specimen of the poisonous plant. To the best of my knowledge occurrences of colocynth have never been reported so far north in Egypt’s Western desert, so Mahmoud´s observation could have been the result of a confusion. Or was his surveillance obscured by a mirage? I had to find out with my own eyes.


picture 1: Mahmoud Marai at a pool in Wadi el-Ahdar (courtesy of Christian Kny)


The question of whether or not the natural range of colocynths, even nowadays, extends up to 24 degrees 37 minutes latitude (see below) is vital for my research. If it´s possible for colocynth at this latitude and under the present hyper arid conditions, to sprout and to be available for harvest, the fruits most probably must have been more or less ubiquitous south of this latitude under the less severe climatic conditions of 6th dynasty times. Coversely, if there were no occurrences of colocynth in the area concerned, then Handal could not have been harvested by the ancients who for instance, travelled along the TAB. Thus my proposal as set out in the second scenario outlined above, namely, that Claytons were used as Handal pip roasters would loose at least half of its plausibility because the ubiquitous presence of the plant is a prerequisite of my theory. However, to my surprise, observations during our 4WD-trip to the Gilf Kebir and to Gebel Uweinat confirmed the environmental preconditions on which the second scenario is based thus bringing me another step closer to a solution to the Clayton ring problem. (Note that on my 2000/01-camel expedition to the Gilf Kebir I found dried up Handal 11.5 kilometres south-east of the TAB in the upper reaches of Wadi el-Bakht at N 23 14 07.4 + E 26 13 55.6.)


We arrived at the eastern mouth of Wadi Wassa on 3/4/2009. Turning into Wadi el-Akhdar I saw to my amazement, the first Handal plant. (picture 2) We followed the western branch of the wadi and came across sizable clusters of colocynth (pictures 3 + 4); evidence enough for a presence of Handal fairly close to the TAB. Later, after ascending the plateau and following the ancient trail, we arrived at a dead end and looked down into a valley covered by a green band of low vegetation. (picture 5) From above, I noticed clusters of colocynth through my binoculars.



picture 2: first occurrence of a colocynth in Wadi el-Akhdar picture 3: vegetation including colocynths in Wadi el-Akhdar (West)


picture 4: colocynths in Wadi el-Akhdar (West) – close-up picture 5: Handal valley 1 - green band of low vegetation including colocynths


That night we camped on top of the south-western cliff of the Gilf. At this point the plateau narrows to not more than 500 metres. Before darkness fell I walked to the eastern cliff and again, detected colocynths down below in the distance. (picture 6)



picture 6: Handal valley 2 - green band of low vegetation including colocynths

picture 7: “Little Gilf” - site 1: dried up Handal


Continuing our search for the ancient road we made a detour to the “Little Gilf”, where we arrived on 3/11/2009. Mahmoud showed us a place where he had seen Handal before. (picture 7) Six years ago the plants had been sprouting. Now, apparently, mice were feeding on the dried up remains. (picture 8) Close to the site, Hardy found a skeleton of a Waddan. As if the animal had wanted to tell the story about the last days of his life, it had collapsed close to a Handal peel. (picture 9) Eight kilometres further to the south-west we had midday rest in a wadi scattered with acacia bushes and colocynths. (picture 10)



picture 8: “Little Gilf”-site 1: dried up Handal – close up

picture 9: “Little Gilf”-site 1: skull of a waddan & dried up a Handal peel.

picture 10: “Little Gilf”-site 2: colocynths & acacia bush


After we had arrived at Gebel Uweinat Mahmoud showed us remains of dried up Handal in Karkur Talh. (picture 11) A few days later we turned north and headed for a wadi in the central section of the Gilf Kebir where I had seen a dead acacia tree on my winter 2000/1 camel expedition. The wadi is situated about 15 kilometres to the northwest of El-Aqaba. It must have received quite an amount of rain as a stretch of more than three kilometres was found scattered with colochnths. (pictures 12 + 13) Later, I learned that Rose-Maria Khalifa had also found Handal less than 10 kilometres to the south-southeast of that wadi.



picture 11: dried up Handal in Karkur Talh         picture 12: colocynths in the central Gilf



picture 13: blossoming colocynths in the central Gilf   picture 14: vegetation in Wadi Hamra from the distance


picture 15: a colocynth in Wadi Hamra carrying no less than 200 fruits


At the end of our trip it came as no surprise that we struck colocynths in the upper reaches of Wadi Hamra. (picture 14) Believe it or not, a few of the plants carried no less than 200 of the bitter fruits. (picture 15) I made a photo survey of the vegetation. (pictures 16 - 23) To the best of my knowledge apart from the Handal, none of the plant species seen at the location can provide sustainable nourishment that can be exploited by humans. Do these findings point to the fact that the only plant which contains natural oil and carbohydrate that can be utilized by humans and which still survives in the arid core of the Libyan desert today, was also the plant that helped the desert dwellers, travellers and beasts of burden of antiquity survive long after rainfalls had ceased?



pictures 16 + 17: a sample of the vegetation cover in Wadi Hamra



pictures 18 + 19: a sample of the vegetation cover in Wadi Hamra



pictures 20 + 21: samples of the vegetation cover in Wadi Hamra



pictures 21 + 22: samples of the vegetation cover in Wadi Hamra



pictures 22 + 23: samples of the vegetation cover in Wadi Hamra


On 3/27/2009, during a brief visit to the Khalifa expedition Lotos-House in Bahariya oasis, Khaled Khalifa informed me that in May 2009, he had come across colocynths in the upper reaches of the eastern branch of Wadi Abd el Malik (picture 24) and, surprisingly, also further north in Wadi Gingoi (N 24 37 43,680 + E 25 17 12,264). The latter wadi is sparsely covered with acacia trees. A picture exhibiting the vegetation in Wadi Gingoi will be presented as soon as possible.


picture 24: colocynth in the upper reaches of Wadi Abd el-Malik (courtesy of Khaled Khalifa)


The simultaneous sprouting of colocynths in places so far apart from each other rules out the possibility that the seeds have recently been spread by wild animals or by migratory birds. Instead, it strongly underlines the drought resistance abilities of Handal pips. This capacity enables them to remain in a dormant state for decades.


In 1939 Count Ladislaus Almasy reported that camels and cows were herded in Wadi Abd el-Malik during the 1930s. (L.E. Almasy, Schwimmer in der Wüste. Innsbruck 1997, pp. 182-190, 211-221) This was probably the last time that abundant area-wide rainfalls touched the Gilf Kebir creating a favourable environment for a few animal herders.



Among the locations where colocynths were seen are five sites which are situated close to the TAB. Does such proximity point to the possibility that the ancient donkey caravans were exploiting the poisonous fruits 4,000 years ago? I believe so but no Clayton was found during our swift survey. However the mere fact that Handal is blossoming in areas that have been considered barren and infertile for decades if not centuries, illustrates the resilience and survivability of its seeds. This alone increases the possibility that the fruits had been picked up and consumed by those who traversed the desert in antiquity.


Sehlis 6/4/2009


Carlo Bergmann