The Sahel: Definition & History

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

The Sahel is one of Africa's largest and most important landscapes. In this lesson, learn about what the Sahel is, why it is crucial to Africa, and the challenges facing the region today.

Where is the Sahel?

The Sahel (blue)
North-Central Africa

Plants and Animals of the Sahel

Sahel Environment

People of the Sahel

The Sahel is a relatively fertile region, which makes it much more inhabitable than the Sahara Desert to the north. It is home to some of our earliest hominid ancestors who lived in the area millions of years ago, and is the namesake of ancient species such as Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Early cultures in the Sahel were able to practice large-scale agriculture, but rapid desertification over the last five thousand years have made semi-nomadic herding the most common Sahelian livelihood.


Modern History and Contemporary Issues Facing the Sahel

Unfortunately, desertification and droughts have weakened civilizations of the Sahel throughout history, especially in the period leading up to the colonial era of the 18th-20th centuries. The region became a key part of the slave trade during colonial times. France took control of western Sahel during the 1800s, and the region was one of France's most important territories, known as French West Africa. The eastern Sahel, however, remained under Islamic rule after being annexed by Egypt. After 1960, the Sahel region began breaking up into the nation-states we recognize today, but is still undergoing bitter territory disputes.

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