Desert Economy

For humans, there are traditionally only three basic ways to sustain themselves in deserts: hunting-gathering, pas-toralism, and to some extent agriculture.

Ever since the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic era, foraging as the exclusive mode of production (hunter-gatherers) became limited to areas that were marginal to agriculture or animal husbandry. Naturally deserts are among these zones. Examples of peoples who foraged as hunter-gatherers are the aborigines in Australian deserts (this practice receded since the European discovery of the continent), and the !Kung (bushmen) of the Kalahari, who remain foragers in our times. Recent research on the !Kung people showed that hunting-gathering is a suitable lifestyle that can sustain healthy populations that are even able to spend sufficient leisure time, all this as long as population densities are low. Some Amerindian people employed hunting-gathering in deserts as well. There are some evidences that a later immigration wave of people, the Nadene, linguistically distinct from the first Clovis people, were culturally better adapted to harsh environments and settled first in semiarid grasslands and eventually in deserts (the Navajo and Apache might be the descendents of the Nadene).

Pastoralism is a true desert activity that is also typical for semiarid grasslands. It is obvious that many of the livestock animals that were and are herded by pastoralists originated from arid and semiarid areas and therefore are well adapted to such environments. The ancestors of horses, sheep, and goats evolved in semiarid environments and donkeys and camels in arid environments. People who live as pastoralists in deserts often combine animal husbandry with some scale of horticulture; this combination is called transhumance. In order to use the stochastic desert environment optimally, many pastoral-ists have to follow rainfall events and are partly or truly nomadic, as is exemplified by the traditional lifestyle of the Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula (Figure 17).

The use ofagriculture most likely did not evolve in the desert proper, but it has to be mentioned that the first cultured plants, annual grasses, and legumes were domesticated near the edge of the desert in the Middle East (10 000-8000 BC Natufian culture). Independently, in likewise semiarid areas in Mexico (Tehuacan Valley, before 7200 BC), the domestication of Teosinte into corn (Zea mays) took place. Deserts harbored in historical times small-scale horticulture near springs and elaborately

Figure 17 The nomadic lifestyle is a cultural adaptation of desert-dwelling people to the unpredictability of the desert environment. As still seen here in the Sahara Desert, traditionally camels were essential for transport between grazing areas and arable oases. Douz, Southern Tunisia, March 1986. Photograph by C. Holzapfel.

Figure 17 The nomadic lifestyle is a cultural adaptation of desert-dwelling people to the unpredictability of the desert environment. As still seen here in the Sahara Desert, traditionally camels were essential for transport between grazing areas and arable oases. Douz, Southern Tunisia, March 1986. Photograph by C. Holzapfel.

designed irrigation systems that utilized the effects of runoff and water redistribution. Water-harvesting systems in runoff farms have been found and partly recreated in the Negev Desert (e.g., the Nabatean system in Avdat and Shifta) and in the arid southwest of North America. Large-scale agricultural enterprises depend on permanent water courses. As along the Nile in Egypt and along the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, these water sources originated from areas far beyond the desert region. Modern, often large-scale irrigation projects are mostly independent from surface water and use deeper aquifers.

In history, many large cities were established in desert areas (Egypt, Middle East, South America) and there are many cites in deserts in our times (Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas). Incidentally, the climate and ecology of urban areas even in the temperate, nonarid zones has many similarities to true deserts (e.g., water limitation due to surface sealing and runoff, high temperatures, etc.).

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