The Sahara has undergone a series of wet periods, the most recent occurring c.5,000–10,000 years ago; it was not until c.3000 BC that the Sahara transformed into its present arid state. There is dispute as to whether the desertification of the region has continued into historic time. Those who support this theory contend that increasing aridity is the reason for the recorded advance of desert conditions into areas under cultivation in Roman times in the north and more recently (since the late 1960s) in the south. Opponents of this view explain such changes as being the result of alterations in land-use practices and neglect of water-supply and irrigation systems.

The camel was introduced probably in the 1st cent. AD and facilitated occupation by nomads (first the Berbers, later the Arabs), who lived in interdependence with the oasis dwellers, providing protection against enemies in exchange for supplies of food and water. A profitable trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves from W Africa, salt from the desert, and cloth and other products from the cities on the Mediterranean coast was carried on by the nomads. The first European explorers to travel in the Sahara were Friedrich Horneman in 1805 and Mungo Park in 1806. Some areas of the Sahara remain virtually unexplored, although a network of air and automobile routes now crosses the desert and links the major oases and mining areas.

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