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Southern Africa

Southern Africa

Deserts of southern Africa: The Namib and Kalahari

The oldest deserts in the world

Much of southern Africa is made up of two great deserts. On the coast, the Namib forms a barren strip of sand sea, with dunes up to 300 metres high, and bare gravel plains. The Namib is the oldest desert in the world, and the first settled by people. Inland, the Kalahari 'thirstland' is an immense tract of deep sands and acacia savanna covering 500,000 square kilometres. These are different deserts, with different possibilities for people, but with shared histories.

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The hyperarid Namib Coast, southern Africa. Photo: Karel Tomei. The Namib sand sea, southern Africa. Photo: Karel Tomei.

A surprising richness

Are deserts barren of life? Most are not. Would you expect to find an elephant, or a lion, in a desert? Yes: if you are in the Namib or Kalahari. The deserts of southern Africa have the greatest diversity of life of all the world's deserts. More than 200 species of animals are found only there. Many are desert specialists. Wide-ranging animals also make these deserts their home, including gemsboks, elands, rhinos, elephants and lions.

South Africa
The Namib sand sea, southern Africa. Photo: Karel Tomei. Storm over the desert, Namibia, Africa. Photo: Michael Martin/Look.

The gemsbok (Oryx gazella): A desert-adapted antelope

If desert antelopes controlled body temperature by sweating, they would quickly lose more water than they can drink. Gemsboks solve this problem in a special way. They stop sweating and let their body temperature rise to 45 degrees Celsius: a temperature that would kill other animals. Gemsboks survive because they have a blood-cooling circulation network in their nose that keeps the brain cool. G/wi Bushmen celebrate the gemsbok in dance and in ceremonies surrounding a girl's transition to womanhood.

Archaeology in the Namib and Kalahari: What does it tell us?

In the 1980s, an archaeological team deep in the Kalahari Desert made a surprising discovery. Digging into the sandy floor of a rock-shelter in the Tsodilo Hills, they came down onto layers of fish bone, the remains of bone fish harpoons, and the bones of wetland animals such as reedbuck and lechwe (Marsh antelope). Further work showed that, hidden in the bush surrounding the hills, was the shoreline of an ancient lake. Today the Kalahari is a hot, dusty 'thirstland'. But once it bore great lakes, extensions of today's Okavango swamp. In the Tsodilo area, the ancestors of the Kalahari Bushmen were San fishermen.

By 20,000 years ago, Later Stone Age groups were well-established in the Namib, in the northern Kalahari and on the southern edge of these deserts. From at least 4000 years ago, Later Stone Age sites have rock engravings in the distinctive style of the San, examples of the small bone and stone tools that made up the lightweight composite tools used by San hunters, as well as eggshell flasks and beads, and tortoise-shell bowls.

About 2000 years ago, Bushmen around the Okavango Delta started to obtain sheep and goats from northern neighbours. As herds grew, people moved west or south, skirting the Kalahari Desert, looking for new pasture. They spread a new way of life across southern Africa. In the Namib, hunter-gatherer communities were already intensifying their use of the desert: trading pottery from the north; harvesting mussels, dried fish and !nara melons on the coast, and grass seeds and honey in the interior. By 1000 years ago, they also had sheep, and pottery shaped like skin bags. These new communities of Indigenous stock-keepers are sometimes called Khoekhoen. The Dutch called them 'Hottentots' with reference to their language 'Khoekhoegowab' that was filled with clicks. Individual groups had their own names: one of these, Aonin, or 'people at the extremity', are known in Afrikaans as 'Topnaar'.

By 1960, San people who still lived off the land by hunting and gathering were mainly to be found in the Kalahari Desert. Here, there was little demand for land by herders or farmers. These desert people shared the technology and intellectual traditions of southern African San, but adapted them to a more meagre life in the desert. To live as a hunter in the Kalahari, you need to cover a large area to find enough food. This affects all other aspects of your life from the number of people who camp together, to the lightweight equipment you carry.

In 1999, the South African government gave the Khomani San ownership of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park.

Extremes contains further stories and archaeological artefacts relating to the Indigenous groups who call the Kalahari and Namib their home.