Twenty million years ago, northern Africa was covered by lush tropical rain forest. Then, three million years ago, the swampland eventually dried up into a searing wasteland. Today this is the world’s largest hot desert, and it currently stretches from the Red Sea in the east and the Mediterranean in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. This is terribly significant because, since the time of the great desertification, the landscape has been transformed over and over again through cycles of dramatic climate change. Small wobbles in the Earth’s orbit cause slight tilts, so the monsoons that drench southern Africa regularly shift up, pouring rain down onto the Sahara. This periodic transition from wet to dry occurs every twenty thousand years, like clockwork.
This extraordinarily transformative process has had very profound impacts on the evolution of our species, time and time again. Twenty-five thousand years ago, the region changed from a vast wasteland to a sprawling grassland, changing the course of human progress once more. During the time of Gobekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey, there was a radically different religious sect in what is now Egypt that constructed their own place of pilgrimage. The Sphinx we see today was originally an enormous lion statue that was carved out long before the pharaonic empires of old. This one hundred foot tall, two-hundred and fifty foot long, monolith served as a beacon of hope and a constant source of inspiration to the natives of the Giza Plateau.
The forerunners of the more renowned ancient dynastic Egyptians were an equally interesting group of people who dug out and down into solid rock to build a sacred site of unprecedented scale. Through miraculous feats of engineering and tremendous dedication, megalithic multi-ton blocks were assembled into an enormous temple complex, long before the pyramids were ever even thought of. To accomplish this, a team of around one hundred highly skilled stonemasons worked tirelessly for years, pounding stone hammers into solid rock at a rate of about forty strikes per minute, from sunrise to sunset day in and day out. The huge limestone slabs that were used in this project required the efforts of all the neighboring tribes, leading to the construction of a shared sacred space for hundreds and hundreds of local Saharans. This was a revolutionary time in the development of spirituality, centered around solar-based observances, leading to the construction of similar calendars and clocks worldwide.
Along with this, less than ten thousand years ago, mega paleolakes could still be found in the areas now known as Tunisia, Libya, and Chad. At its largest, Lake Mega-Chad was the most massive inland body of water in the Sahara, covering an area of about four hundred thousand square miles. At the time, the river Mayo Kebbi formed a rather convenient outlet connecting the paleolake to the Niger River and the Atlantic Ocean. This is important because as recently as seven thousand years ago, there were still people living along this vast interconnected waterway. During that period, our ancestors would wait along the shoreline for prey animals who came looking for something to quench their thirst. The stone-age hunters would then kill and quickly butcher the carcasses right there on site.
These were relatively sophisticated pre-literate people with rich, complex lives. Although they were settled farmers who kept livestock, they still lived among dangerously wild animals like elephants, hippos, and crocodiles. So, they formed into small bands of a few dozen people for comfort and safety. This usually consisted of a few extended families, all living together under one roof. The shelters they constructed for this were made of wood, stone, and hide. In addition to this, the ancient Saharans made ostrich shell beads and strung them onto necklaces, bracelets, and anklets to adorn themselves with. They had a different ceremony for every occasion too. As part of this, they even produced cave paintings and built lakeside cemeteries.
Sadly for them, five thousand five hundred years ago, the fully vegetated landscape vanished in the span of about a century. With each passing generation, the land became less and less sustainable. As a result, the scarcity of rain gradually led to an abandonment of the animistic ways of old. After praying for much-needed water to come for years on end, the shamans finally had to admit defeat. The monsoon was too far south for the gods to have answered the prayers of the rain dancers, but they were completely unaware of this. Ultimately, they were forced to flee from their homes, leaving much of their culture behind. They grudgingly migrated east to the Valley of the Nile toward the more fertile ground, in hopes of finding what they needed. This inevitably gave rise to the birth of Ancient Egypt, setting the stage for a whole new pantheon and an altogether different kind of kingdom.