What was the Green Sahara?

woman holding a book

While modern humans think of the Sahara as a vast and menacing desert, for a brief period in history it was actually quite enjoyable. From about 10,000 BCE to 4,000 BCE, the Sahara was lush, green, and fertile, with a brief period of drought from about 8,000 to 7,000 BCE. This period of desert history is sometimes known as the “Green Sahara” or “Green Period”.

Archaeologists have always been aware that the Sahara’s climate has changed radically throughout history. Mineral deposits in the desert indicate traces of lakes and rivers, for example, and traces of plants and animals were also found in the Sahara, indicating that the environment was once again hospitable. In 2000, a team of archaeologists looking for dinosaur bones stumbled across a cemetery in Niger and realized they had found traces of a civilization that lived in the Green Sahara.

Several factors led to the formation of the Green Sahara. The Sahara has long been a desert, but around 10,000 BC, the Earth’s orbit wobbled slightly, causing a change in weather patterns. The monsoons that flood southern Africa today have increased, spilling water into the Sahara, where it formed bodies of water. Plants settled, taking advantage of the humid environment, and were followed by animals and humans who established living civilizations. When weather patterns changed again, the Sahara returned to a desert state briefly before turning green once more. Around 4000 BC, the Sahara became a desert once again, and is now rapidly expanding due to a variety of factors.

Two distinct human civilizations appear to have lived in the Green Sahara. The first lived from about 10,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE, during the first green period, and the second moved during the second green period. When people lived in the Green Sahara, they left a number of legacies behind, such as hunting implements, traces of fabrics and works of art and tombs. Several tombs contain high levels of pollen, suggesting that people were buried in flower beds.

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Archaeologists continue to collect evidence about the Green Sahara and the people who live there, with much of this evidence coming from extremely isolated and harsh areas of the desert. These findings illustrate how much Earth’s climate has changed and how changes in climate can alter human civilization.

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