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Who made these circles in the Sahara?

May 11, 2022
Of all the rabbit holes I get stuck on the internet, I don't know of any as powerful as Google Earth. See beautiful patterns from above... Go down to street view... And see the planet in ways you would never get to see in person. So when I found this post on Reddit, I was blown away. He described "undocumented markings" in Algeria, in the middle of the Sahara near a place called the "Tomb of Tebalbalet." Visible on Google Earth. There were 22 of them, each with 12 “surrounding things”, 42 meters in diameter separated by 420 meters, in longitude 4'20 East. It almost sounded like a joke.
who made these circles in the sahara
But then I copied the coordinates and looked. There they were: identical

circles

in an almost perfect line. 100 miles from any sign of life in the largest desert in the world... in the middle of the largest country in Africa. This is a story about the limits of what you can find on the internet. About all the different ways of looking at the same thing. And about going there. Over the course of the last 20 weeks, we've filmed every step of the process while trying to figure out one thing... what could these

circles

be? So this whole story starts in September 2021 when I first saw the Reddit post.
who made these circles in the sahara

More Interesting Facts About,

who made these circles in the sahara...

I wanted to find out what these "marks" were and make a video of the entire reporting process. It doesn't matter how long it took. Because the answer had to be out there. And, step one, I knew I was going to have to send some emails. For weeks, I contacted everyone I could think of: Algerian experts, officials, tour groups... even the nearest hotel, in a city called Aïn Salah. I read about the closest town the circles were located to: Foggaret Ezzaouia. I asked the commenters on the Reddit post...and even located a Twitter account that we thought was the same Will K who posted this question on various subreddits before deleting his Reddit account.
who made these circles in the sahara
I tried English and French... organizations, academics, locals... And then... I waited. But there was one easy thing to clear up first. Were these circles real? Or were they just some kind of glitch in the satellite imagery? So I asked a teammate who does a lot of map work: Sam, he produces our Atlas series. And he pointed me to the company that takes many of the satellite images for Google Earth: Maxar Technologies. I am very sure that they are actually on the ground because we see them in multiple images over several years. So I know it wasn't an artifact of the processing that Google might have done to our images.
who made these circles in the sahara
And then a colleague of mine who has spent a fair amount of time studying this area said, "You know, this is a very rich oil and gas area." “This is a lot like what we see when they are exploring for oil.” Oil radically changed the course of Algerian history. "Oil from the desert wastelands..." "And the Sahara is thought to be immensely rich in it." When oil and gas was discovered there in 1956, companies flocked to the region against the backdrop of a brutal decolonization war with France. Today, Algeria is one of the main exporters of natural gas in the world.
What Steve is talking about here is seismic surveys where geophysicists analyze the Earth's surface by sending shock waves into the ground. Depending on how those seismic waves are recovered, researchers can tell what resources can be extracted from the subsurface. Steve thought that perhaps seismic pulses from a specialized vehicle could produce something like this. So, we had a hypothesis. But I wanted a second opinion. So I asked Bob Hardage of the University of Texas, one of the world's leading experts in seismic imaging. He responded by email: "I can assure you with 100 percent confidence that the features in these images are not seismic arrays used in oil and gas exploration." First, the shapes themselves weren't right. "...there will be hundreds of thousands of receivers positioned as a single straight line or as hundreds of parallel straight lines." I looked up NASA images of seismic surveys and you can see what he means.
Second: the fact that we could see them meant that they were probably not a seismic survey. "...the goal is to leave the landscape as you found it." "If a seismic team created something like these features, a return visit would be

made

to restore the landscape." "I have no idea what the circles are on the satellite image." "Whatever they are, the people who created them wanted those characteristics to be permanent." Closing: I don't think we need to talk. Thanks. So I kept googling. I found geotagged photos of the nearest municipality, Foggaret Ezzaouia, on a site called mapio.net.
These old stone wells seemed to be arranged in a circle. But reverse image searches were a dead end. I didn't know what to do next. So we called on Melissa, Principal Investigator at Vox Video, to help me out. So, she was trying to find out what this thing was. I don't know if you remember from her original post that she calls it the tomb of Tebalbalet. You remember? So I found this article. This is from 1985, I mean, not 1985: 1885. The "Pozo de Tebalbalet" is at latitude 27°20 and longitude 4°38. And that's roughly where what we're looking at is. And it says there are two round barrows.
I had to google it, I don't know that word. -Tumuli. What is a burial mound? Mound. It is an ancient burial mound. What it looks like... that sounds good. “...surrounded by two concentric ring-shaped mounds, all of great regularity.” “The two rings are respectively 30 and 21 meters in diameter, from crest to crest.” Then, a document from 1885 said that, around this same area, there were 1) lots of wells, and 2) tombs with "highly regular rings." Now, the sketches weren't an exact match. But they got us thinking: what if these things were really old? So I sent the photos to a Tunisian archaeologist who had done research in this area.
We speak French due to decades of French occupation in the 19th and 20th centuries. French is still used in many contexts in Tunisia and Algeria. And she had a new lead. These monuments are undoubtedly because I know Aïn Salah very well... These monuments are related to... Water. It's a desert environment, it's the Sahara. It is practically the hottest place in the Maghreb. It is an area well known for the difficulties of this heat that exists there, and for the harvest of water. So people dig. It has a name: the Foggaras. Foggara. It is the North African name for a 2,500-year-old style of irrigation system that goes by many names, but is often called qanat.
Builders dig a well at a high point on a slope deep enough to tap groundwater. They then dig parallel pits at regular intervals. These provide airflow for the excavators as they create an underground channel down to the main shaft. With a slope of 1 or 2 degrees, the channel transports water over long distances powered only by gravity. In a part of the world where there is hardly any rain and no rivers, this technology can provide water for crops, livestock and people year-round...making man-

made

oases possible. It's funny, huh? This was the most promising lead so far. It explained the location of the desert, the circular shape, the regularity, and the spacing.
Even the name of the nearest municipality, Foggaret Ezzaouia, is named after foggaras. And those mapio photos of wells started to make sense. But he wanted more people who had studied qanats to do it. Qanats are actually more than just water infrastructure. I think they are the real raison d'être: the base of the room in such harsh climates. They start from outside the city, but then usually end up in the city or on farm land. But when it comes to our circles... Honestly, I have nothing to say. I'm looking at it now. Right. Okay, that's interesting.
There's something like 20 of them in a row. Yeah. So that's definitely a foggara. So at the end of that, there should be a city. There should be an oasis or something. But if there isn't, that means the water in the qanat or foggara has probably dried up a long time ago. You should talk to Dale Lightfoot. He is the American geographer who knows everything about qanats. These are the ones we're looking at. He couldn't even say with confidence if these are related to water collection. But I can tell you that they are definitely not qanats. We also found these photos.
Do you think these could be what the circles are? What you're showing me in the photos here looks a lot like animal-drawn pits. I've seen these in a lot of places. For me, this is not the same. I think you're back to square one. Back to square one, in fact. Don't discount the aliens. I've heard they do crazy stuff too. So they could be wells, but probably not a qanat. And maybe it's not even related to water at all. Could we at least rule it out? That's when Melissa found a database of oasis in the Sahara.
With lists of the people who help manage your water supply. Like Mohammed Brik, a farmer in Laghouat, Algeria. I don't think it was made to bring water. Because the objective of going out to look for water is to satisfy the needs of the population and agriculture. If there's nothing for 100 miles, then that's not a valid assumption. Right. Because there is no town, no... There is no town. There is no garden. There are no oases. There is nothing planted. There is no population. We were three months into it and it seemed that our most promising hypothesis so far was probably off the table.
Then I received an email. In early October, Steve Wood promised to send me high-resolution images from the Maxar archive. Finally, we had them. It was the clearest look we had ever had. And Steve thought he was showing a new detail: tire tracks. If that was correct, it would mean that someone had been there in the last century. I kept asking people. Historians... Algerian officials... Archaeologists... And nearby residents... But after a while, I felt trapped. As if we had exhausted what we could find on the Internet. And there was nowhere else to go from here... except to the circles themselves.
The longer this project lasted, the more I realized that we had to make a decision. We could keep interviewing more and more people, come up with more and more theories, and ultimately have no way to back them up. Or... we could find a way to get someone there... Try to film it... and then maybe we could be safe. So I asked my teammate Christina, who works with journalists from all over the world, if she knew anyone in Algeria. And that led us to Samir Abchiche, a video journalist in Algiers. I'm about to be a dad. So no more adventures for me after this.
We hired Samir to be our reporter on the ground... to use his experience in the area to help us solve this mystery. The next part took months. We knew this was not going to be an ordinary video shoot. We would ask him and his team to travel incredibly far to do something potentially dangerous. But Samir took this story into his own hands. He was obsessed with every scenario, networking locally to find out all the details of how to take a team of people from Algiers on a 15-hour drive to Aïn Salah and then deep into the desert where roads don't go.
Finally, Samir figured out how to make it happen. And at 7 pm on a cool February night, he and his second cameraman Abdelate... set off. And starts. Shit. It does not start. We can't find a hotel. They are all closed. And we are going to try the Hotel El Djanoub. We have the Royal Suite. I just woke up. It's starting to get very hot. There is no service. It's yellow all over. But it's beautiful. Yes, but it's beautiful. Which way to Ain Salah? 300 km to Ain Salah. 150 kilometers All we have seen is the horizon. They had already spent 24 hours driving to get here.
Now, they had to travel another 160 km from Aïn Salah towards the desert. But they had to pick someone else up first. Farid Ighilahriz, an archaeologist who used to head Algeria's national center for archaeological research and managed one of the largest national parks in Algeria. He's here to help the team identify whatever they find. How are we going to do this without cell service? No no, I made a map. From there, they prepared. They got groceries... They bought fuel... They interviewed local officials... They planned the GPS route... And they formed a team. A driver, an archaeologist assistant and a desert guide.
Right here I lost communication with Samir. And she wouldn't be able to hear from him until he was back in town… Hopefully, a definitive answer. There are no sandstorms, so that's good. That was making us nervous yesterday. It's still a bit risky, because no one goes through here. Almost nobody. And we are only two SUVs. This one is reliable, the other one, we really don't know. The weird thing is that as the team got closer and closer... They began to find signsthat pointed to each of our theories. First, the tire marks from the seismic survey trucks...
Then a system of wells... The water is always just ten feet below. And finally, ancient tombs. We just saw something from far away. Yes, it is a tomb. There is another. So this is a burial mound. It is one of the oldest types of funerary monuments. And on the morning of the second day, they checked the map and... We're going more or less in the right direction. So we are 11 km from the first. I think we found them... False alarm... Did you see? We are approximately 500 meters from that place. Let's go! We got really excited, but they weren't there.
They are apparently only 500 meters apart. We are not far. Right there, you can't see anything. You can't see anything. Right there, okay? 10... 11... 12... There we go, we got the 12. After 100 miles of off-road driving in the desert... they were there. The 22 circles, all in configuration. They were surprisingly weak. You may not notice them if you walk by. As Samir and the team explored the area, they found the following set. And the following. This one is a bit clearer. The hole comes out of the ground. And many of them had something in common... metal wires. They are connected. And there...
Come take a closer look... ...they run underground. Can I dig a little? No no no. Not here? I'm not sorry. So maybe they dug a little... It's dynamite. Okay. Beneath these little mounds was dynamite. But here we have something else, too. We call these "attachments". It's what you would put around a wooden box. That's how they should have brought the dynamite. That inscription reads SOTEMU, which is a French acronym for "Tunisian Explosives and Ammunition Company." But one of the cables looked different from the others. It still had a layer of yellow plastic on it. This is where it got a little scary.
It's possible...? Has this not been detonated yet? Well, get out of there, don't stay there. Be careful. We have to tell everyone to be careful. Finally, they decided that the dynamite, if any was left, was probably harmless, because it would have needed a detonator to go off. So they started digging. It must go down at least one meter. But it was buried pretty deep. So at some point, to be sure, they stopped. And then they found a clue that no one could have expected. Farid? Oh yeah. Bricato... Français... "Made in France". Old cans of sardines and tuna.
Here we find a small can. That was used for food... ...by those who worked here... ...who carried out this exploration. Ooh, there's colour. Wow... This could be the solution. So we knew what it was: dynamite, buried underground. And when Samir and the team finally got home... I called him to hear all the details. My English, does it work for this? Yes, it's perfect! We think we have... we know the solution. So it's a method of searching for oil. But it was an old technique. At the beginning of this journey, that's one of the first things someone suggested.
It had to do with the search for oil. Which is crazy that it's finally confirmed. It's the same thing they do today only with dynamite instead of finer technology. This is crazy, this is much wilder than I expected. Ironically, it put us right back where we started. seismic studies. The circles are the remains of surveyors looking for resources underground. All this time, that first guess was correct. But just kind of. Because Bob Hardage of the University of Texas was right when he said in that email that this doesn't look remotely like seismic surveying... Because that's not how seismic surveying works today.
It's an older technique, from the early days of surveying that uses dynamite blasts instead of vibrating machines. The explosions would provide the seismic waves that would be reflected and refracted by the ground and that would tell surveyors that something, potentially something valuable, like oil was underground and worth digging. The circles looked like this because of the force of those dynamite explosions that were happening underground. From this moment, a new question arose. Who did this and when? Knowing that it was a seismic study was not enough. But we had another desert clue to fall back on... sardine cans.
I contacted Saupiquet, which appears to be the only one of these companies still in existence, but was told that they could not identify its age from photographs. So I found someone who has been collecting sardine cans for over 40 years: Philippe Anginot. He even made a museum. And I showed him the photos. What we have here is what is called a three body can. So these are typical cans from the 1960s. After 1960, the “Arsène Saupiquet Cannery” became the “Saupiquet Company”. When it still has the "Arsène" label, it predates 1960. So, because this can was labeled Arsène Saupiquet, we know it was made before they changed their name in 1960.
Because of its "three-barrel" design to the 1960's style, I know it's probably from the late 1950's. Of course, this is canned food, so it may have been bought years before it was actually eaten. But I think we can safely assume that these cans were left behind by an oil exploration team sometime in the late 1950s. All that was left was to find out who these people were. Before heading into the desert, Samir recorded interviews with the experts he met along the way. And there was an interview with someone who would have actually been there in the late 1950s.
The father of the desert guides, who used to work as a guide. Peace be with you. Here are the photos, Belhadj. I see the little holes placed like the hands of a clock. When did the drilling take place? In 1953, the vehicles arrived at Djebel Beida to go to the probe. So this place existed and a company was working there. Yes it's correct. What were they doing. I know they were digging, that's all. What was your name? I don't remember anymore But I think CREPS. I know that, at that time, CREPS was working. CREPS, a French acronym for Sahara Petroleum Research and Exploitation Company, was a joint venture between the French government and Shell.
CREPS had a permit to explore and extract oil in this entire extent of the Sahara from 1953 to 1958. Aligning that map with Google Maps shows that the circles are within that CREPS sector. And according to these records from the French Senate, they began geological studies immediately. At that time, CREPS became the first company to find oil in the Sahara, at Edjeleh in 1956. This led to a flood of oil companies in the region. And the fight for control of Saharan oil became the centerpiece of France's brutal war against Algerian independence. "It was the end of almost 8 years of bloodshed." "And the African nation won its freedom after 132 years." Even when Algeria gained its independence in 1962, France held the rights to Saharan oil for years to come.
These circles are the scars of colonialism. They are evidence of attempts by one country to take the resources of another. And they are as isolated as they are because no oil was found there. Wherever it was, it was forever transformed. So, we found out. These circles in the Sahara were made by French CREPS employees searching for oil. They were made by underground explosions of dynamite arranged in circles along a straight line across the desert. And based on the dates on the CREPS permit and the types of cans they left behind, we can safely say they were there around 1957 or 1958.
When we figured it all out, I emailed Bob. And he said this: "he has certainly done persistent and exhaustive research." "I am comfortable with the conclusion that its features are remnants of decades-old analog recordings of first-generation seismic data." "Incredible preservation." "Comparing seismic equipment from the 1950s and seismic equipment today is similar to comparing propeller planes and deep space rockets." "Essentially, there is no comparison but two different worlds." "Well done." Thanks Bob. We only know this thanks to the help of dozens of people, the garbage of a sixty-five year old, a lot of time on the Internet, and a long and brave journey through the desert.
Of course, a story like this could always go on, more and more specific. But at some point to finish a story, we have to ask ourselves if the answer we have is satisfactory. And I think this is it.

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