Date palms and reeds fed by an underground aquifer fringe the shore of Umm al Maa, one of about a dozen salty pools in the Ubari Sand Sea—reminders of the ancient Lake Megafezzan.
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.
In the southwest part of Libya, a region called Fezzan is the beating heart of the Sahara, an inaccessible place full of sand seas, wadis, mountains, plateaus, oases, and mystery. Between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 an estimated 100,000 people farmed and thrived here, in an area that typically receives less than an inch of rain a year and many years none at all.