This week-end, I have been watching a DVD I had bought when I was at the Musée de l’Homme with our students last month. It is a documentary on the search by French scholar Théodore Monod for fragments of a meteorite reported in one of the emptiest quarters of the Sahara desert, the Majâbat al-Koubrâ of Mauritania. This film brought this polymath researcher to the knowledge of the wider public.
His research in the Majâbat al-Koubrâ involves hundreds of kilometres walking through dunes and plateaux with no water points and no trees. The film vividly depicts the landscape. This website gives a good sense of the place by showing a series of IGN 1:200,000 maps – “Though the maps date from the 1950s it’s very unlikely that Google Earth would reveal any more detail today… the mapmakers weren’t just being lazy – there really was nothing to show”.
I understand better now the environment in which was recovered the famous ‘Lost caravan’. Discovered by Monod in the Majâbat al-Koubrâ, this was a cache of brass bars and cowrie shells, probably the abandoned load of a caravan which had lost its way as it headed south from Sijilmasa, nine hundred years ago. Monod published his discovery in 1969 in a wonderful paper, and its images show that the site appears as a small mound in a flat landscape. A sample of the shells and brass bars were taken, and the site left. It has never been found again.