Algeria’s River of Ink

The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society has posted an interesting geographical puzzle. An article, "The Story of Ink," in the 1930 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy included the following statement:
Iron tannin inks are sometimes formed naturally; such a phenomenon has been observed in Algeria, a country in northern Africa, where there exists a "river of ink." Chemical examinations of the waters of the streams combining to form this river revealed that one of the streams is impregnated with iron from the soil through which it flows while the other stream carries tannin from a peat swamp. When the two streams joined, the chemical action between the tannic acid, the iron and the oxygen of the water caused the information of the black ferric tannate, making a natural river of ink.
Does this river of ink actually exist? And if so, where is it on a map?

The earliest reference to this mysterious river I could find occurred in The Athens Messenger on May 25, 1876. The short blurb read:
"A river of ink has been discovered in Algeria. Let them find a mountain of paper, and then send for William Allen."
For the next seven decades, similar passages -- almost verbatim to what ran in the Am. Jour. of Pharmacy -- appeared regularly in newspapers. They were typically thrown in as an odd bit of trivia to fill up column space. However, the name and location of the river itself (except for the fact that it was in Algeria) was never identified.

More recently, Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler included a passage about this river in their 1994 book The Best, Worst, & Most Unusual: Noteworthy Achievements, Events, Feats & Blunders of Every Conceivable Kind:
Most Unusual River: The comingling of two tributary streams in Algeria forms a river of ink: One brook contains iron; the other, which drains from a peat swamp, contains gallic acid. Swirled together, the chemicals unite to form a true black ink. (Black Brook in upstate New York is formed by a similar chemical blend.)
Though the chemical composition of this "river of ink" sounds plausible, the other details about it are so vague that it sounds a bit like a geographical urban legend.

Exploration/Travel Places

Posted on Fri Aug 17, 2007

More content from the Hoax Museum:


I sent an email to the Algerian embassy asking about it. If I get an answer, I'll post it here.
Posted by Craig  on  Fri Aug 17, 2007  at  09:17 AM
It's reasonably common to find iron-impregnated water sources which appear blood red. The Rio Tinto in Spain is probably the most famous example, but there are smaller, sometimes temporary, "blood creeks" all over the place.
Posted by Irene Ringworm  in  Beaverton, OR  on  Fri Aug 17, 2007  at  02:41 PM
Now if it leads to an ocean of calamine lotion, you've got something.
Posted by JoeDaJuggler  in  St. Louis, MO  on  Fri Aug 17, 2007  at  05:32 PM
Well, most of the rivers south of the Atlas plateau are seasonal only, and wouldn't be flowing through much of anything that would give them tannin. So if there is such a river, it's probably either on or north of the plateau. And I seem to remember that there was a lot of iron ore in Algeria, so I suppose that the whole idea is possible. Whether it's actually true or not, I haven't a clue.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Fri Aug 17, 2007  at  06:15 PM
Can anyone contact Bruce Felton or Mark Fowler and find out where they got their information from? They would seem to be the most logical people to find out if there is anything to this other than urban legend. I'm not familiar with Algeria or its people, but an embassy is normally populated with political types or bureaucrats and I don't think either are known for telling the truth. Maybe Algeria staffs their embassies with angels?
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Fri Aug 17, 2007  at  07:29 PM
I don't know about Algeria, but its pretty evident that Tucson, AZ isn't.
Posted by Jimbo  on  Fri Aug 17, 2007  at  08:51 PM
Not to harp, but the Felton/Fowler book is actually from 1976. As far as the book itself, some of the items presented as fact by Felton and Fowler are HIGHLY suspect; for example, they cite the classic "foreging tourists with a pet at a restaurant" legend as fact. I wasn't even aware until now of other references to the "river of ink" beyond Felton and Fowler. I WANT to believe most of what they catalogued, but having never seen any other references, I always assumed the river was a rumor reported as fact.
Posted by ~.a.~  on  Wed Oct 31, 2007  at  09:07 PM
That was supposed to be "foreign", btw.
Posted by ~.a.~  on  Wed Oct 31, 2007  at  09:08 PM
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Posted by Compound Pharmacy  in  USA  on  Sat Jul 19, 2008  at  03:29 PM
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