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The Sahara is the world’s largest desert. Whether the desert is increasing or decreasing is a point of constant debate. The Sahara’s northern boundary runs from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to the Suez Canal. The southern boundary stretches from a point in Mauritania to the Red Sea in Sudan or Eritrea. These borders create an area of approximately 9,000,000 square kilometers. This area was not always a desert. As recently as 8,000 years ago, much of it was temperate, making the climate hospitable to fishing and farming. The area then quickly turned to a desert, most likely due to a shift in the earth’s axis.
This change in climate had a substantial impact on human society. It is proposed that grazing for sustenance became difficult, forcing many Saharan people to cultivate food and to eventually move to the Nile River valley. Some theorists further hypothesize that these new developments led to civilizations. There is contention over this grand theory, especially concerning dates, in part because of difficulty in carbon dating objects in an arid area that lacks many carbon based organisms.
Despite the arid conditions, the Sahara is a populated area, where the environs have played a primary role in the distributions of people, the construction of their political systems, and the development of their culture. Environmental conditions, combined with the aspirations of foreign empires, led to the current Arab, Moor, Berber, and Tuba societies. The desert prevented many empires from expanding, but the Arabs managed to establish themselves in Egypt. With the desert as a hurdle, Arab life and customs later collided with various Moor, Berber, and Tuba communities established in the desert, resulting in distinct cultures among these societies.
In 2002, there were approximately two million people living in the Sahara, with two-thirds living in cities, oases, and the highlands, and one third living a nomadic life. Availability of water is central to the distribution of people, although recently political leaders such as Muammar al-Qadhafi have begun tapping the Sahara’s subterranean water sources for agricultural pursuits. Water was pivotal to the traditional mainstays of the Saharan economy, trade, and farming. Caravans composed of non-native camels, which were introduced by Arabs, carried slaves, salt, and gold between the Mediterranean and the Shale. Today, only salt is still traded this way.
With new forms of society come new ecological issues and challenges. Shifting sands can easily destroy settlements. Increases in population and resource use are fueling localized desertification and resource degradation among oases and previously border areas. Attempts to access new water sources raise questions concerning the water tables’ ability to regenerate. Further, it is uncertain what affects climate change will have on the Sahara.
- Lloyd Cabot Briggs, Tribes of the Sahara (Harvard University Press, 1960);
- Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, Sahara: A Natural History (Walker and Company, 2002);
- Compton Tucker et , “Expansion and Contraction of the Sahara Desert from 1980 to 1990,” Science (v.253, 1991).