Humans Delayed the Onset of the Sahara Desert by 500 Years

Humans did not accelerate the decline of the ‘Green Sahara’ and may have managed to hold back the onset of the Sahara desert by around 500 years, according to new research led by the UCL.  (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Humans did not accelerate the decline of the ‘Green Sahara’ and may have managed to hold back the onset of the Sahara desert by around 500 years, according to new research led by the UCL. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The study by a team of geographers and archaeologists from UCL and King’s College London, published in Nature Communications, suggests that early pastoralists in North Africa combined detailed knowledge of the environment with newly domesticated species to deal with the long-term drying trend.

It is thought that early pastoralists in North Africa developed intricate ways to efficiently manage sparse vegetation and relatively dry and low fertility soils. Dr. Chris Brierley (UCL Geography), lead author, said:

Around 8,000 years ago, the Sahara wasn’t desert, but instead was a vibrant ecosystem that supported hunter-gatherers and fisherfolk. The “Green Sahara” — the colloquial term for the African Humid Period — was the period in which North Africa became much wetter than it is today thanks to a series of monsoons.

As the Earth’s orbit slowly changed, the rain started to reduce and the vegetation started to die back. Around 5,500 years ago, the ecosystem in the Sahara went into a terminal decline toward the desert we have today. Pastoralism (nomadic or semi-nomadic cattle herders) blossomed in the Sahara from around 1,000 years before that collapse.

Previous studies have put the blame for the collapse of the “Green Sahara” onto these nomads who have often been marginalized in history, but this latest study dispels that myth. The study uses a novel climate-vegetation model to determine whether the end of the African Humid Period occurred earlier than expected.

The model keeps track of variables, such as vegetation and rainfall, and other processes such as the amount of energy coming from the sun, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The model found that the “Green Sahara” should have collapsed earlier than it did. This suggests that pastoralists lasted longer than expected and the techniques they used helped them to adapt to the environmental changes. Dr. Brierley added:

Dr Katie Manning (King’s College London), concluded:

Provided by: University College London [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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