Deserts of the World

Contributor: Tara Ondra. Lesson ID: 13387

Hot or cold, coastal or inland, dry or semi-arid, deserts can be found on nearly all the continents. Discover three different deserts as well as the inhabitants of these harsh environments.


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What do you think of when you think of the desert?

Perhaps you think of the following.

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Deserts are all that and more.

  • Have you ever thought about what life is like in the desert?
  • How have different cultures around the globe adapted to the desert environment?
  • How do they survive?

What Is a Desert?

Deserts are large areas of land that receive less than 400 millimeters of rain yearly, making them very dry with little vegetation. However, these ecosystems support unique plants and animals that are equipped to handle its harsh conditions.

Usually, when we think of deserts, we think of a hot environment; but deserts can also be found in temperate and cold environments. Antarctica is home to the largest and driest desert in the world.

Deserts can be found on all continents, except Europe.

world's largest deserts

The desert environment is harsh, so life in the desert is not easy. The people who live in the desert must deal with extreme temperatures while living in a biome that presents very little vegetation and is rather bleak for cultivation.

  • So how do people survive?
  • What do they eat?
  • What are their homes like?

Let's travel to Africa, Asia, and South America to learn about life in the deserts found there. First stop: Africa.

The Sahara

sand dunes of the Sahara

This immense subtropical desert, found in northern Africa, is the third-largest desert in the world (after the Antarctica and Arctic deserts). It is the largest non-polar desert, covering an area of 9 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles).

map of the Sahara

The word sahara comes from the Arabic word for desert, sahra. This is why it is called the Sahara and not the Sahara Desert.

The Sahara reaches across 11 countries and composes 31% of the African continent. Given its size, the Sahara is divided into three zones: Northern, Central, and Southern.

Flora and fauna vary depending on the zone but may include the following.

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Life in the Sahara

People have lived in the Sahara area for thousands of years. Like the one pictured below, petroglyphs trace life back to the last glacial period.

prehistoric petroglyph

At that time, the area was much wetter than we find today. The shifting of the earth's axis thousands of years ago led to the desertification of the area.

(There are differing viewpoints on certain timelines of the earth. Explore these with our lesson under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar.)

Today, the major tribes occupying the Sahara include Amazigh, Toubou, Nubian, Zaghawa, Kanuri, Hausa, Songhai, Beja, and Fula. Arabic dialects are the most common languages spoken in the Sahara.

People in the desert usually live in tents easily transportable to available water sources. They may cultivate crops in irrigated land near an oasis to tend to flocks of sheep, goats, or camels.

Food in the desert is limited. People eat dates from the oasis palms, cheese made from sheep or goat milk, and meat from those animals.

To protect themselves from the scorching sun and blowing sandstorms, people of the Sahara wear long, woolen robes called barracans. The usage of turbans and veils is also common.

The Tuareg people are nomadic sheep farmers often called "the blue people" because their turbans and shawls are colored with an indigo dye that sometimes rubs off on their skin.

Tuareg man wearing the classical indigo turban

To gain a greater appreciation for life in the Sahara, watch the video below, which was filmed in the Mauritania Desert located within the Sahara.

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Next, we're off to Southwestern Asia.

The Arabian Desert

Covering an area of 2.3 million square kilometers (900,000 square miles), the Arabian Desert occupies almost all of the Arabian Penninsula.

map of the Aradian Desert

Unlike the deserts of North America, which are home to cacti, there are no cacti native to this area. However, you can find plants that yield resins used for incense, such as frankincense and myrrh. Acacia trees and date palms can also be found.

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Fauna in the Arabian desert includes sand cobras, vipers, gazelles, Arabian oryx, Nubian ibex, foxes, cats, rodents, various bird species, and insects.

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Life in the Arabian Desert

Like the Sahara, the Arabian Desert has been inhabited for thousands of years. Today, the Bedouins, who are Arabic-speaking nomadic people, roam the area breeding camels and raising horses and sheep.

Western influence in the 20th century and the discovery of petroleum have led many of the Bedouins to settle semi-permanently in villages, towns, or urban areas.

Watch the video below to see how the Bedouins live in this part of the Arabian Desert.

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Time to head south of the equator to South America.

The Atacama Desert

Moon Valley

As the driest desert on earth, the Atacama Desert stretches for 1,000 kilometers (600-700 miles) along the coast of Chile and Peru, bordered by two mountain ranges, the Coastal Range to the west and Andes Mountains to the east.

map of Atacama Desert

This desert is so dry that some places have been without rain for four centuries. Unlike the intense heat of the Sahara and Arabian Desert, the Atacama Desert has a more Mediterranean climate, with temperatures varying depending on the elevation.

Life in the Atacama Desert

Pukara de Lasana

The indigenous people inhabiting the Atacama Desert and the altiplano region of northern Chile, Argentina, and southern Bolivia are known as Lickan-Antay, Atacameño, or Kunza people.

Roots of the Atacameno people can be traced back to 500 AD. Today, we can see a mixture of cultures, including Aymara (from the north), Diaguita (from the south), and Spanish. The latter reflects the occupation of the Atacama over the years by the Incan and Spanish conquistadors, and then Bolivia, Peru, and Chile beginning in the 19th century.

Traditional homes in the Atacama Desert were constructed of stone or volcanic rock.

Along the oases of this desert, some farming is done, including lemons, alfalfa, and potatoes. No camels are found here. Instead, the people of the Atacama Desert rely on llamas and alpacas.

Wild animals found in the Atacama include the following.

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Watch the video below to see this desert up close.

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When you're ready to review and expand upon what you've learned, move on to the Got It? section.

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