Humans have always adapted to life in deserts. They cope with extreme heat, cold, and lack of rainfall. Nomadic people tamed animals and developed a pastoralist lifestyle keeping animals for food and trade. Some civilisations developed irrigation and established permanent settlements, until forced out of them by invading armies or a changing climate. Though nomads still exist, modern desert life depends more on mining, tourism, and science.
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The Gobi desert stretches through Mongolia, Central Asia and part of China. Nomadic tribes here first tamed horses, and developed a pastoralist economy of migrating between seasonal grazing grounds with their livestock and dwellings, round felt tents variously called “gers”, “yers” or “yurts.” They invented trousers and stirrups to make riding more comfortable. Communist governments after 1917 in the former Soviet Union, and after 1950 in Mongolia, curtailed the migrations and collectivised the pasture grounds. A revival of nomadic traditions and tourism began after the end of communism in 1991.
Human life in the Sahara desert, the world’s largest desert, has been dominated by climate change and war. Archaeologists estimate that hominids, hunter gatherers, and pastoralists settled in the Sahara only to abandon it during dry periods. In 1,000 BC, the Garamantians developed irrigation and established permanent settlements in a region that is today’s southern Libya. These declined when water resources were depleted in the 5th century AD and were followed by Arab invasions. Nomadic tribes in the Sahara travelling by camel traded ivory, precious stones, wild animals, human slaves, and salt from Sub Saharan Africa with settlements on the Mediterranean coast. Nomadic societies still exist in Niger, Chad, and Sudan.
Polar deserts such as northern Greenland have an average annual rainfall of 250 mm and average summer temperatures no greater than 10 degrees Celsius. The Inghuit population of northern Greenland still maintains a traditional hunter gatherer way of life. Inghuits use kayaks and harpoons to hunt narwhal, an Arctic whale, live on a diet of walrus and whale blubber, and travel across the winter snow and ice by dog-sled. They have been displaced from southern regions in Greenland with the development of modern urbanisation, military bases, and mineral exploration.
Northern Chile’s Atacama desert is the world’s driest place. It is also called a salt desert because of surface deposits of saltpetre, or potassium nitrate. Parts of the rocky landscape is covered in geoglyphs, carvings of figures that archaeologists believe were made by the Atacameno people, nomads moving herds of llamas, alpacas, and vicunas from inland oases to the Pacific Ocean coast. They developed an early sedentary society that learned to cope with harsh climatic conditions, before being invaded by the Incas from the north and later by Spanish colonists. Their descendants live around the Spanish colonial town of San Pedro de Atacama but are longer nomads. Modern human life in the Atacama includes mining and astronomy at the European Southern Observatory at Cerro Paranal.
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