Cultures of the Sahara Desert: Resources & Environmental Concerns

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Sahara Desert is not an easy place to make a living, but many people have found a way. In this lesson, we'll discuss the cultures of the Sahara and talk about the challenges they face in the future.

The Sahara Desert

Pretty much everybody complains about their weather at some point in the year. It's too cold, it's too hot, it's too humid, it's too dry- we all do it. But perhaps nobody has as much right to complain about harsh conditions as the inhabitants of the Sahara Desert. Covering most of Northern Africa, the Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world. For millennia, it has served as a nearly impenetrable barrier, dividing African peoples between the north and south. However, humans are nothing if not stubborn and over time many cultures have emerged within this vast ecosystem. It may be considered harsh, barren, and treacherous; but it is also home to many.

Even from Space, the Sahara Desert is easy to identify

Cultures of the Sahara

So, who lives in the Sahara Desert? There are actually several groups, and while we don't have time to discuss them all by name, let's look at some common styles of Saharan society. Basically, you can expect to find three kinds of cultures within the desert. The first are fully sedentary. These peoples live in one place all year round, practice agriculture, business, and various crafts, and are sustained by the rare large water supplies that can be found in often fought-over oases.

The Sahara does have urban centers where people live permanently
Saharan people

Besides the settled urbanites of the Sahara, you may also find some people who are partly sedentary. These groups do not have access to a single water supply all year, but may move between various water sources throughout the seasons. They are generally pastoralists, moving herds of cattle or camels between watering holes. Finally, there are nomadic cultures which are constantly on the move. Most are also pastoralists, herding hardy creatures like goats that can eat the tough desert plants, but some are traveling merchants that move from town to town. Many of these people rely on the same trade routes through the desert used by merchants for millennia.

Many nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples rely heavily on camels as pack animals

Besides lifestyle, we can also categorize the peoples of the Sahara by ethnicity. Now, ethnic identity is a complex subject, so this is a very basic summary, but generally Saharan people belong to one of three ethnic groups. The Berbers are often found in the northwest and are the indigenous peoples of Northern Africa. Arabs are ancestrally connected to the Arabian Peninsula, and live largely in the northeast. Arab populations brought Islam into the Sahara, and today it is the most practiced religion in the area amongst all ethnic groups. Finally, Sudanese groups live mostly in the central Sahara. While we may recognize these three distinct ethnic categories, the reality is much more complex. Most people of the Sahara have genetic ancestry to all three groups, but will choose to identify with only one of them depending on various social, economic, and political pressures in their region of the desert.

Resources and Environmental Issues

For generations, the people of the Sahara desert have learned to thrive in a very formidable environment. Rather than accumulate much in the way of material possessions, their cultures tend to rely on kinship networks, and in the absence of large forms of art, many take body art, clothing, and music very seriously.

One thing that has constantly defined these cultures is the eternal search for resources. Even cultures near large water sources and edible plants can lose everything very quickly if the climate shifts even for a season or two. Thus, oral and written traditions of these cultures are largely focused on preserving ancient wisdoms on how to locate and access food, water, and shelter in an otherwise unforgiving desert.

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