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Two types of deserts—tropical and temperate —occupy approximately one third of the planet. While thought to be vast areas of limited resources, the usefulness of arid climates throughout history has depended on the social interaction between the climate and a given society. Analyzing hunter-gatherer and nomadic pastoralist societies has given insight to the influence that desert regions have had on human development.
Deserts cover approximately 30 percent of Earth’s surface. A rudimentary classification divides them into two broad types: hot deserts (tropical and subtropical deserts) and temperate or midlatitude deserts. Hot deserts, in which temperatures remain high or very high all year round, are found around the tropics in both hemispheres between latitudes 20° and 30° north and south. In temperate deserts, temperatures differ widely between winter and summer (in winter there is often at least one month in which the mean temperature falls below 5°C, and snow may accumulate for several days). Such deserts are found mainly in the interior of Eurasia and in the Southwest of North America. Besides these two broad classes there are other types that in part coincide with tropical deserts, but whose formation is affected by different factors such as cold coastal currents.
Despite their great diversity, the Earth’s arid zones share some common characteristics, principally their excessive dryness, which is the result of high temperatures and low, irregular rainfall. The irregularity of rainfall explains another typical characteristic of dry ecosystems: large fluctuations of biomass above and below very low mean values.
Apart from deep subterranean resources, which in most cases remained unexploited until the twentieth century, deserts provide two important kinds of natural resources: scarce but relatively long-lasting water and food resources, and episodic but abundant resources (such as a sudden deluge of rain after which a pasture may develop). In any event, it must be emphasized that it is the interaction, by way of technology and social relations, between a given society and an arid environment that causes certain aspects of a desert to be perceived as either limitations or as resources.
Some hunter-gatherer societies of semiarid zones survived into the nineteenth century in America and into the twentieth century in Australia and southwestern Africa. In general these societies had little ability to modify their environment (although they sometimes did so with fire), and they depended on the spontaneous reproduction of spatially dispersed natural resources. They all displayed an astonishing knowledge of their ecosystems and were able to exploit a large variety of ecological niches, which constituted their productive base. They lived in small groups around temporary sources of water. When the water dried up or the resources situated at a short distance from the pool ran out, they were obliged to move away and find another source of water, which means they were constantly on the move. Lack of water was an almost absolute constraint for them; if food was located too far from the water, they could not exploit it and therefore it did not constitute a resource. Different local groups maintained close kinship relations or alliances with neighboring groups in the same or nearby territories. When there was extreme drought or shortage of food, these social relations allowed them to move into territories occupied by their relatives and allies. It has been suggested that the enormous complexity in the kinship systems of some Australian Aborigines, which created strong ties of obligation among different groups, may have been a way of adapting to the uncertain nature of arid environments.
For thousands of years the typical way of life in the deserts of Eurasia and Africa (though not in those of America or Australia) has been that of nomadic pastoralism, a complex, sophisticated mode of subsistence that has played a major role in the history of the Old World. Most researchers believe that nomadic pastoralism arose at the edges of cultivable zones after the Neolithic advent of agriculture and domestication of animals, in regions that were too dry for the development of settled agriculture and cattle raising.
Nomadism specialized in exploiting an ecological niche that the mixed economies (sedentary agriculture and stockbreeding) could not take advantage of. It seems that almost all nomad societies originated directly or indirectly in the Near East. This region, which suffers acute summer droughts or has clearly arid climates, was inhabited by wild animals (goats, sheep, dromedaries) that, owing to their specific characteristics, fulfilled two conditions: they were easily domesticated and were more or less naturally adapted (or could become so, with the help of man) to the arid or semiarid environmental conditions. The other early agricultural and cattle raising centers of the world, in Asia and America, were not populated with these kinds of animals. Some argue that pastoral nomadism arose independently in the Sahara, but that theory continues to be controversial.
A secondary center of nomadic pastoralism may have had its origin in the steppes of southern Russia, where it would have emerged between the third and second millennia BCE in mixed-economy societies of eastern Europe. In the south of Russia, the horse, domesticated around 3000 BCE, gave herders of sheep and goats (which had originated in the Near East) great mobility. The theory is that the domestication of the Bactrian camel (between the third and second millennia BCE), which is similar to the dromedary but better adapted to cold winters, allowed nomads to penetrate the deserts of central Asia. The discovery of Caucasian mummies, some of them from the second millennium BCE, and of texts written in Indo-European languages in the desert of Taklimakan (in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang) may testify to the extent of this movement.
Analyzing the way nomadic societies interact with the environment helps us to understand the great influence that arid and semiarid regions have exercised on the development of Eurasian and African civilizations. Nomadic pastoralism, as a mode of subsistence, is essentially unstable and expansionist. Herds undergo great fluctuations in size and composition in arid environments. Both ethnographic studies and computer techniques demonstrate the potentially explosive growth of a simple flock of sheep or goats. Nomadic societies exploit this potential in order to accumulate a lot of animals. From the standpoint of basic units of production, it is an intelligent and adaptive response to environmental fluctuations, but on a regional scale it prepares the way for social and ecological disaster. Assertions that nomads, although they do not consciously attempt to modify their environment, create their own steppes and deserts may contain a certain element of truth. The combination of sudden fluctuations and expansive tendencies gives rise to another of the most well-known aspects of nomadic societies: quick and radical shifts along migratory tracks, which sometimes historically appear as invasions or attacks on settled civilizations. It should be remembered that mobility and the lack of fixed settlements has always given great military advantages to desert peoples.
Nomads exploit their resources in small units of production (households or encampments), but, as with hunter-gatherers, these basic units are linked to each other, generally by means of kinship relations. It is these links that form the basis of larger units when organizing migratory tracks, regulating rights of access to grazing land, and when facing environmental changes. It is membership in these higher-ranking units that in fact grants rights to territory and its resources. As in many hunter-gatherer societies, among nomads kinship relations have great importance because they operate like economic institutions. The manner in which hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads relate to nature is very different, however. Whilst the hunter-gatherers exploit a great variety of ecological niches in different places and seasons, the nomads always exploit the same basic resource: pasture (either in different environmental zones or in the same one). Whereas the hunter-gatherer’s territorial system is based on moving himself towards the resources, that of the nomad involves moving an entire infrastructure of production, with little regard to the regional availability of microresources (such as small mammals and birds, and wild nuts and fruit, all of which are important to hunter-gatherers). For the hunter-gatherer the great waterless spaces of the desert represent a constraint that prevents him from exploiting resources that are too remote from pools and streams. For the nomad, those spaces only represent a relative limitation, since he can travel long distances transporting water on his animals.
Trading Routes and Oases
From the Atlantic to western China, deserts form a gigantic arid belt that for centuries separated the principal civilizations of the Old World. The nomads, on their constant journeys in search of new pastures, discovered the routes that would allow Chinese silk to travel to Europe across the deserts of central Asia, and that would move gold, ivory, and slaves from tropical Africa to the Mediterranean across the Sahara. They became intermediaries operating between ecologically and culturally different regions, which allowed them to divert surpluses from the agrarian societies of Africa, Europe, and Asia to the arid lands. Thus there emerged, in the oases and at the edges of deserts, fabulously wealthy cities, such as Palmyra, Petra, Samarqand, Timbuktu (Tombouctou), and Almeria, in extremely poor environments. The wealth of medieval Islam, which culturally unified the deserts of Asia and Africa, is very much connected with the control of trade between remote civilizations and with the irrigation systems in arid countries.
The oases, like islands in the sea, played a crucial role along the trading routes. But life in these landlocked islands would have been impossible without agriculture, and the main limiting factor for the growth of plants in deserts is water. What characterizes the agriculture of oases is the use of ingenious techniques and complex irrigation systems that permit the extraction and exploitation of water from surface aquifers. The expansion of the Arabs in the Middle Ages helped to spread hydraulic technologies and crops from different regions. The result was the appearance of agricultural ecosystems that were largely freed from the environmental constraints of arid climates, in which man was able to introduce species from different regions. Before the discovery of America the greatest relocation of vegetable species in history occurred precisely across the deserts and oases of Asia and Africa in the medieval Islamic world.
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