Desert Flora - Human Relations - Human Life in Deserts

Human Life in Deserts

People have been living in deserts for millennia. Many, such as the Bushmen in the Kalahari, the Aborigines in Australia and various tribes of North American Indians, were originally hunter-gatherers. They developed skills in the manufacture and use of weapons, animal tracking, finding water, foraging for edible plants and using the things they found in their natural environment to supply their everyday needs. Their self-sufficient skills and knowledge were passed down through the generations by word of mouth. Other cultures developed a nomadic way of life as herders of sheep, goats, cattle, camels, yaks, lamas or reindeer. They travelled over large areas with their herds, moving to new pastures as seasonal and erratic rainfall encouraged new plant growth. They took with them their tents made of cloth or skins draped over poles and they ate milk, blood and sometimes meat provided by their livestock.

The desert nomads were also traders. The Sahara is a very large expanse of land stretching from the Atlantic rim to Egypt. Trade routes were developed linking the Sahel in the south with the fertile Mediterranean region to the north and large numbers of camels were used to carry valuable goods across the desert interior. The Tuareg were traders and the goods transported traditionally included slaves, ivory and gold going northwards and salt going southwards. Berbers with knowledge of the region were employed to guide the caravans between the various oases and wells. As many as eight million slaves may have been taken northwards across the Sahara between the 8th and 18th centuries. Traditional means of overland transport declined with the advent of motor vehicles, shipping and air freight, but caravans still travel along routes between Agadez and Bilma and between Timbuktu and Taoudenni carrying salt from the interior to desert-edge communities.

Round the rims of deserts, where more precipitation occurred and conditions were more suitable, some groups took to cultivating crops. This may have happened when drought caused the death of herd animals, forcing herdsmen to turn to cultivation. With few inputs, they were at the mercy of the weather and may have lived at bare subsistence level. The land they cultivated reduced the area available to nomadic herders, causing disputes over land. The semi-arid fringes of the desert have fragile soils which are at risk of erosion when exposed, as happened in the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The grasses that held the soil in place were ploughed under, and a series of dry years caused crop failures, while enormous dust storms blew the topsoil away. Half a million Americans were forced to leave their land in this catastrophe.

Similar damage is being done today to the semi-arid areas that rim deserts and about twelve million hectares of land are being turned to desert each year. Desertification is caused by such factors as drought, climatic shifts, tillage for agriculture, overgrazing and deforestation. Vegetation plays a major role in determining the composition of the soil. In many environments, the rate of erosion and run off increases dramatically with reduced vegetation cover. Unprotected dry surfaces tend to be blown away by the wind or be washed away by flash floods, leaving infertile soil layers that bake in the sun and become unproductive hardpan. Although overgrazing has historically been considered to be a cause of desertification, there is some evidence that wild and domesticated animals actually improve fertility and vegetation cover, and that their removal encourages erosive processes.

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Human Life in Deserts
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