- The Sahara sits atop the African Shield, which is composed of heavily folded and denuded Precambrian rocks.
- Huge areas are wholly empty, but wherever meagre vegetation can support grazing animals or reliable water sources occur, scattered clusters of inhabitants have survived.
- Archaeological evidence suggests that the Sahara was increasingly inhabited by diverse populations, and plant and animal domestication led to occupational specialization.
Sahara, (from Arabic ṣaḥrāʾ, “desert”) largest desert in the world. Filling nearly all of northern Africa, it measures approximately 3,000 miles (4,800 km) from east to west and between 800 and 1,200 miles from north to south and has a total area of some 3,320,000 square miles (8,600,000 square km); the actual area varies as the desert expands and contracts over time. The Sahara is bordered in the west by the Atlantic Ocean, in the north by the Atlas Mountains and Mediterranean Sea, in the east by the Red Sea, and in the south by the Sahel—a semiarid region that forms a transitional zone between the Sahara to the north and the belt of humid savannas to the south.
The principal topographical features of the Sahara include shallow, seasonally inundated basins (chotts and dayas) and large oasis depressions; extensive gravel-covered plains (serirs or regs); rock-strewn plateaus (hammadas); abrupt mountains; and sand sheets, dunes, and sand seas (ergs). The highest point in the desert is the 11,204-foot (3,415-metre) summit of Mount Koussi in the Tibesti Mountains in Chad. The lowest, 436 feet (133 metres) below sea level, is in the Qattara Depression of Egypt.
The name Sahara derives from the Arabic noun ṣaḥrāʾ, meaning desert, and its plural, ṣaḥārāʾ. It is also related to the adjective aṣḥar, meaning desertlike and carrying a strong connotation of the reddish colour of the vegetationless plains. There are also indigenous names for particular areas—such as the Tanezrouft region of southwestern Algeria and the Ténéré region of central Niger—which are often of Berber origin.
The Sahara sits atop the African Shield, which is composed of heavily folded and denuded Precambrian rocks. Because of the stability of the shield, subsequently deposited Paleozoic formations have remained horizontal and relatively unaltered. Over much of the Sahara, these formations were covered by Mesozoic deposits—including the limestones of Algeria, southern Tunisia, and northern Libya, and the Nubian sandstones of the Libyan Desert—and many of the important regional aquifers are identified with them. In the northern Sahara, these formations are also associated with a series of basins and depressions extending from the oases of western Egypt to the chotts of Algeria. In the southern Sahara, down warping of the African Shield created large basins occupied by Cenozoic lakes and seas, such as the ancient Mega-Chad. The serirs and regs differ in character in various regions of the desert but are believed to represent Cenozoic depositional surfaces. A prominent feature of the plains is the dark patina of ferromanganese compounds, called desert varnish, that forms on the surfaces of weathered rocks. The plateaus of the Sahara, such as the Tademaït Plateau of Algeria, are typically covered with angular, weathered rock. In the central Sahara, the monotony of the plains and plateaus is broken by prominent volcanic massifs—including Mount ʿUwaynat and the Tibesti and Ahaggar mountains. Other noteworthy formations include the Ennedi Plateau of Chad, the Aïr Massif of Niger, the Iforas Massif of Mali, and the outcroppings of the Mauritanian Adrar region.
Sand sheets and dunes cover approximately 25 percent of the Sahara’s surface. The principal types of dunes include tied dunes, which form in the lee of hills or other obstacles; parabolic blowout dunes; crescent-shaped barchans and transverse dunes; longitudinal seifs; and the massive, complex forms associated with sand seas. Several pyramidal dunes in the Sahara attain heights of nearly 500 feet, while draa, the mountainous sand ridges that dominate the ergs, are said to reach 1,000 feet. An unusual phenomenon associated with desert sands is their “singing” or booming. Various hypotheses have been advanced to explain the phenomenon, such as those based upon the piezoelectric property of crystalline quartz, but the mystery remains unsolved.
Although as large as the United States, the Sahara (excluding the Nile valley) is estimated to contain only some 2.5 million inhabitants—less than 1 person per square mile (0.4 per square kilometre). Huge areas are wholly empty, but wherever meagre vegetation can support grazing animals or reliable water sources occur, scattered clusters of inhabitants have survived in fragile ecological balance with one of the harshest environments on earth.
Long before recorded history, the Sahara was evidently more widely occupied. Stone artifacts, fossils, and rock art, widely scattered through regions now far too dry for occupation, reveal the former human presence, together with that of game animals, including antelopes, buffalo, giraffe, elephant, rhinoceros, and warthog. Bone harpoons, accumulations of shells, and the remains of fish, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses are associated with prehistoric settlements along the shores of ancient Saharan lakes. Among some groups, hunting and fishing were subordinated to nomadic pastoralism, after domesticated livestock appeared in the Sahara almost 7,000 years ago. The cattle-herding groups of the Ténéré region of Niger are believed to have been either ancestral Berbers or ancestral Zaghawa; sheep and goats were apparently introduced by groups associated with the Capsian culture of northeastern Africa. Direct evidence of agriculture first appears about 6,000 years ago with the cultivation of barley and emmer wheat in Egypt; these appear to have been introduced from Asia. Evidence of the domestication of native African plants is first found in pottery from about 1000 BCE discovered in Mauritania. The cultivators have been associated with the Gangara, the ancestors of the modern Soninke.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Sahara was increasingly inhabited by diverse populations, and plant and animal domestication led to occupational specialization. While the groups lived separately, the proximity of settlements suggests an increasing economic interdependence. External trade also developed. Copper from Mauritania had found its way to the Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean by the 2nd millennium BCE. Trade intensified with the emergence of the Iron Age civilizations of the Sahara during the 1st century BCE, including the civilization centred in Nubia.
The greater mobility of nomads facilitated their involvement in the trans-Saharan trade. Increasing aridity in the Sahara is documented in the transition from cattle and horses to camels. Although camels were used in Egypt by the 6th century BCE, their prominence in the Sahara dates from only the 3rd century CE. Oasis dwellers in the Sahara were increasingly subject to attack by the Sanhaja (a Berber clan) and other camel-mounted nomads—many of whom had entered the desert to avoid the anarchy and warfare of the late Roman period in North Africa. Many of the remaining oasis dwellers, among them the Haratin, were subjugated by the nomads. The expansion of Islam into North Africa between the 7th and 11th centuries prompted additional groups of Berbers, as well as Arab groups wishing to retain traditional beliefs, to move into the Sahara. Islam eventually expanded through the trade routes, becoming the dominant social force in the desert.
Despite considerable cultural diversity, the peoples of the Sahara tend to be categorized as pastoralists, sedentary agriculturalists, or specialists (such as the blacksmiths variously associated with herders and cultivators). Pastoralism, always nomadic to some degree, occurs where sufficient scanty pasturage exists, as in the marginal areas, on the mountain borders, and in the slightly moister west. Cattle appear along the southern borders with the Sahel, but sheep, goats, and camels are the mainstays in the desert. Major pastoral groups include the Regeibat of the northwestern Sahara and the Chaamba of the northern Algerian Sahara. Hierarchical in structure, the larger pastoral groups formerly dominated the desert. Warfare and raids (ghazw) were endemic, and in drought periods wide migrations in search of pasture took place, with heavy loss of animals. The Tuareg (who call themselves Kel Tamasheq) were renowned for their warlike qualities and fierce independence. Although they are Islamic, they retain a matriarchal organization, and the women of the Tuareg have an unusual degree of freedom. The Moorish groups to the west formerly possessed powerful tribal confederations. The Teda, of the Tibesti and its southern borderlands, are chiefly camel herders, renowned for their independence and for their physical endurance.
In the desert proper, sedentary occupation is confined to the oases, where irrigation permits limited cultivation of the date palm, pomegranate, and other fruit trees; such cereals as millet, barley, and wheat; vegetables; and such specialty crops as henna. Cultivation is in small “gardens,” maintained by a great expenditure of hand labour. Irrigation utilizes ephemeral streams in mountain areas, permanent pools (gueltas), foggaras (inclined underground tunnels dug to tap dispersed groundwater in the beds of wadis), springs (ʿayn), and wells (biʾr). Some shallow groundwaters are artesian, but it is often necessary to use water-lifting devices. Ancient methods such as the shadoof (a pivoted pole and bucket) and the animal-driven noria (a Persian wheel with buckets) have been replaced by motorized pumps in more accessible oases. Water availability strictly limits oasis expansion, and, in some, overuse of water has produced a serious fall in the water level. Salinization of the soil by the fierce evaporation and burial by encroaching sand are further dangers.
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