Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Modern technology creates ancient desert maps

Geographic information systems (GISs) and Earth observation (EO) have helped map human settlement over 5 000 years across a large area of the Sahara Desert.
Modern technology creates ancient desert maps
Pastoral dispersion and settlement of indigenous peoples and nomadic tribes offers important insight into how communities grew and gave birth to collective identities. One case where this is true is in north Africa’s Sahara Desert, across which the Tuareg people had dispersed over the last few thousand years.

In this context, the EU-funded PASTORALMOD (Modelling pastoral adaptation in arid lands: An ethnoarchaeological approach) project studied pastoral adaptation in deserts over the last five millennia. It applied a novel ethnoarchaeological approach, as well as EO technologies and GIS modelling, to a wide area in the Sahara Desert between Algeria and Libya.

The team also employed geostatistical techniques on previous data on human occupation to advance archaeology and ethnoarchaeology in remote and potentially unstable regions. As a result, they produced a model that revealed farming patterns, social attitudes, ancient sites, once-existing riverbeds, past vegetation and the spread of human settlement in a relatively inhospitable environment. The use of hyper-resolution imagery enabled remote investigation of around 3 000 km2.

Although it was generally a challenge to obtain baseline data for the Sahara Desert, the PASTORALMOD team managed to form a picture of cultural landscapes that are under threat. Such information helps improve our understanding of man-made impacts such as mining, oil drilling and agricultural expansion. The project’s work has also facilitated archaeological mapping and palaeohydrological (riverbed) mapping in an area of political instability.

An important project outcome is that the methodology and technique can be transferred to other areas, especially deserts, in order to evaluate human settlement and dispersion. PASTORALMOD results were released in a workshop on the topic held in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2017.

Related information


Earth observation, human settlement, Sahara Desert, PASTORALMOD, pastoral dispersion
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