Published: October 2009


Waw Crater

Unseen Sahara

A rare aerial look at Libya's remote Fezzan region, where ancient societies thrived and collapsed as the rains came and went

By Charles Bowden
Photograph by George Steinmetz

An ancient wind is coming up from a place called deep time. The Sahara strikes us as an eternal inferno of dunes and blue sky. We are dazzled by its vistas but fail to notice it as one of the great record-keeping places on Earth. The past survives here and speaks from the sand, rock, heat, and dry winds. It whispers to us about a history of repeated jolts of climate change and of the advance and retreat of humanity.

David Mattingly heads a team of scholars on the Desert Migrations Project, whose work takes us to prehistory. They are time travelers who use four-wheel-drive vehicles to navigate the Sahara looking for traces of our forebears. With special tires deflated to provide extra traction, they conquer dunes up to a hundred feet high. They have opened up a whole new way to see this desert.

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