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End of the African Humid Period

Image of cave painting from Sahara
Following the last glacial period and the Younger Dryas, climate warmed around much of the world and human settlements expanded. In Africa, the monsoon rains grew stronger and spread northward into the Sahara. Instead of being the sandy desert we now know, the Sahara was a steppe, covered in grasses and shrubs. In this inviting environment, hunters domesticated buffaloes and goats and developed an early system of symbolic art (left).

A marine sediment record from off the western coast of Africa clearly shows an abrupt decrease in Saharan vegetation about 5,500 years ago, however (Figure 9). The scientists who generated this record measured the terrigenous flux, or dust that is transported off Africa into the Atlantic Ocean. This variable is inversely related to the amount of vegetation. Prior to 5,500 years ago, vegetation was more extensive in northern Africa and there was little loss of sediment from the land. The reverse is true after 5,500 years ago.

Insolation and dust flux from Sahara

Figure 9.Terrigenous (dust) flux from Africa into sediments offshore (deMenocal at al., 2000) and July insolation (incoming solar radiation) at 15°N (Berger and Loutre, 1991). Note that the insolation axis is reversed because there is an inverse relationship between insolation and dust flux.

Why did vegetation decrease abruptly?

Pollen records show that vegetation in North Africa has two stable states (Figure 10). Since 5,500 years ago, this area has been in a 'desert' state, with little to no vegetation in the Sahara and mixed steppe and savanna to the south in the Sahel. However, pollen records from this area show that a 'green' state prevailed during most of the time between 14,500 to 5,500 years ago. Steppe vegetation expanded across the Sahara, and the Sahel was covered by savanna. One exception is during the Younger Dryas, when conditions in North Africa were drier and the vegetation was more desertlike.

African vegetation 6.0 ka and present-day

Figure 10.Vegetation in Africa at 6,000 years ago and today from Hoelzmann et. al. (1998). Prior to 5,500 years ago, vegetation had expanded across what is now the Sahara desert.

Slow variations in the Earth's orbit caused a gradual decrease in summer solar radiation in the tropics from the early to mid Holocene (Figure 9). This decreased the amount of summer monsoon rainfall in Africa and other parts of the tropics. Scientists hypothesize that as monsoon precipitation gradually decreased, at some point conditions became too dry for plants and a rapid transition to dusty, desert conditions resulted. Understanding the feedbacks associated with this transition is an active area of research.

Some important datasets related to the African Humid Period:

Next: Drought and the Akkadian empire

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