For nearly 500,000 years, the Sahara has attracted people from throughout North Africa. Early residents came when the Sahara was lush and teeming with wildlife. As the region became desert, the Sahara's residents turned to livestock herding. And, to trade caravans that brought gold, ivory, salt and slaves north, and commercial goods and metals south. Now, with just 2.5 people per square mile, the region's residents can seem afloat in a sea of sand. Among them are Arabs, Berbers, Bedouins, Fulani, Nubians and Tuareg. The Tuareg, a semi-nomadic group known for their salt caravans and distinctive blue veils, are the region's best-known people.
The origins of the Tuareg are largely unknown. Thought to descend from Berber nomads, the Tuareg first appeared in the Sahara in the 7th century as nomadic herders of camels, goats and sheep. Within centuries, though, they became known for a much more lucrative profession: the trans-Saharan trade caravans. For centuries, the Tuareg ran -- and raided -- the caravans bearing salt, gold, ivory and slaves to the Arab north. They were known as fierce warriors and highly skilled camel riders. But, with the 20th century, their role began to change. Trains and trucks cut into the value of camels for trade routes. Drought and the decline of the salt trade drove thousands of Tuareg south into the Sahel, where they now work as semi-nomadic livestock herders or farmers. They have long struggled against attempts -- first by French colonials, later by independent governments -- to settle and centralize them. Since the early 1960s, Tuareg rebellions have flared sporadically across the Sahara. The latest, in Mali and Niger, ended in the mid-1990s.
The Tuareg speak Tamasheq, a dialect of Berber, a prominent North African language. The Tuareg often call themselves "kel tamacheq" or " people of the Tamacheq language." Tamasheq dates from the 5th century B.C. and is written in a phonetic alphabet called tifinagh. Tifinagh, along with Ethiopia's Amharic, is one of Africa's few distinct alphabets. It can be written from right to left, from left to right or from top to bottom. But the Tuareg are not monolingual. They are very likely to speak Hausa, the language of the dominant ethnic group for much of Niger and Mali, Songhay, a West African language, and, often, French, the language of the colonial era.
The Tuareg were slow to adopt to Islam, and native beliefs still hold strong. In fact, the group's name is thought to derive from an Arabic word meaning "abandoned by Allah." North African Arabs long saw the Tuareg only as superficial Muslims because of sporadic religious instruction and loose intepretation of the Coran. The supernatural world of the Sahara has been mixed with the Tuareg Islamic beliefs. Divination with mirrors, lizards and drawings in the sand is widely practiced. Spirits called "djinns" and "kel essuf" are believed to inhabit isolated areas of the Sahara, and can take on human or animal form to bring good or bad luck to the Tuareg. Talismen are commonly worn to ward off the negative effects of these forces.
The Tuareg's blue veil is one of their best-known insignia. Many Tuareg identify themselves simply as "kel tagelmust" or "people of the veil." It is used not only for protection from wind and heat, but, also, to ward off evil spirits, who supposedly try to enter humans through the mouth. Defying traditional Islam, Tuareg women do not cover their heads and play a central role in Tuareg society.
Matrilineal descent determines social status and, often, political power. Women also have relative economic power: they own a family's residential compound, and can own camels and other livestock.