Challenging a commonly held theory that changes in the Earth’s orbit triggered Sahara desertification, a new study suggests that humans may have played an active role in the transition of a lush green landscape into the world’s largest hot desert thousands of years ago.
The desertification of the Sahara has long been a target for scientists trying to understand climate and ecological tipping points.
Most studies done to date point to changes in the Earth’s orbit or natural changes in vegetation as the major driving forces.
In a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science, David Wright from Seoul National University in South Korea challenges the conclusions of these studies.
“In East Asia there are long established theories of how Neolithic populations changed the landscape so profoundly that monsoons stopped penetrating so far inland,” said Wright.
Evidence of human-driven ecological and climatic change has been documented in Europe, North America and New Zealand, said Wright who believed that similar scenarios could also apply to the Sahara.
To test his hypothesis, Wright reviewed archaeological evidence documenting the first appearances of pastoralism across the Saharan region, and compared this with records showing the spread of scrub vegetation, an indicator of an ecological shift towards desert-like conditions.
The findings confirmed his thoughts.
Beginning approximately 8,000 years ago in the regions surrounding the Nile River, pastoral communities began to appear and spread westward, increasing at the same time the spread of scrub vegetation, the study said.
Growing agricultural addiction had a severe effect on the region’s ecology. As more vegetation was removed by the introduction of livestock, it increased the albedo (the amount of sunlight that reflects off the earth’s surface) of the land, which in turn influenced atmospheric conditions sufficiently to reduce monsoon rainfall.
The weakening monsoons caused further desertification and vegetation loss, promoting a feedback loop which eventually spread over the entirety of the modern Sahara, the study said.