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E. Ann McDougall

The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.


Climate has emerged as one of a number of themes in debates concerning the formation and disaggregation of African state structures before the colonial era. The proliferation of paleoclimatic data series from “natural archives” such as tree-rings has shed increasing light on changes in temperature and precipitation stretching back millennia. Such long-term climatic changes could have enduring effects on human livelihoods in agriculturally marginal areas. The apparent coincidence of periods of climatic change with major turning points in African history over the last millennium has therefore led to claims of causation, with early moves towards state formation in the Shashe–Limpopo basin (c. 1000–1220ce) and in KwaZulu-Natal (c. 1750–1800) linked to contemporaneous warm–wet conditions, and the decline, or “collapse,” of state structures, including Mapungubwe (c. 1300ce) and Great Zimbabwe (c. 1450ce), linked to a shift to cooler and drier regional climates. Recent literature from both within and outside of the southern African context has begun to question the veracity of climate-driven historical change. In the southern African case, there remains considerable uncertainty concerning the climate history of the region prior to 1800. The climatic signatures captured by some records are ambiguous in their representation of temperature or precipitation, while many long-duration climate records available for southern Africa are simply of insufficient temporal resolution to capture the short-term extremes in rainfall that have proved challenging to societies in more recent centuries. Even where there is robust evidence for the coincidence of wet or dry conditions with societal change, African farming communities were far from passive observers, but responded to environmental stress in a variety of ways. The relative length, continuity and richness of the historical record in Zimbabwe and Mozambique after. c. 1505 provides opportunities to look more closely at these relationships. From the early 16th century onwards, Portuguese observers left records of those droughts which most impacted societies. These short-term extremes—usually back-to-back years of deficient, irregular or delayed rainfall, sometimes coupled with locust plagues—had varying effects between and within societies as they were “filtered” through different levels of societal vulnerability and resilience, which in turn engendered divergent responses. Analysis of over three centuries of written records on the pre-colonial period suggest that climate-related stress alone, while sometimes leading to famine, was rarely enough to cut deeper into the political fabric of the region; yet, when combined with weak institutional capacity, warfare, or increasingly uneven distributions of power, extreme and protracted droughts could prove decisive and help bring about transformations in society. The Mutapa state and lower Zambezi valley during the late 16th and early 19th centuries, as well as the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s, serve as cases in point.