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The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society


The Sahara and the Power of Human Adaptability


The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society

The Sahara and the Power of Human Adaptability

The Sahara and the Power of Human Adaptability


In November 2021, during the INSEAD Hoffmann Institute’s third SDG Week, a specially curated exhibition on the Europe campus provided visitors with insights into the past through exceptional artefacts. We look at some of these discoveries and how they can inspire us today.  

Inaction is one of the biggest challenges in solving one of the most critical and pressing issues of our time, climate change.

When it comes to climate change, biodiversity loss and the talk of an intangible 2-3 degree rise in temperatures, art can serve as an effective medium to express such intangibility, its pressing nature, and to incite action. The impactful and now viral COP26 address by Tuvalu’s Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Kofe, was an example of politics married to performance art. Kofe stood in the Pacific Ocean, near waist deep in water, on what was once dry land on Funafuti to tangibly demonstrate rising sea levels, and the threat to Pacific Nations.

Art has always been used to encourage, start, or respond to social change, but it has not always been utilized or valued by other disciplines. One such attempt to use art and material culture to produce a new way of thinking about sustainability and technological innovation was during INSEAD’s 2021 SDG Week. Organized by the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society and INSEAD Student Clubs, with support from Accenture Strategy, the 3-day annual event is designed to better understand how business can help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the first time, INSEAD used material culture taking the form of an exhibition to engage with the SDGs. The exhibition titled, Human Adaptability to Climate Change: The desertification of the Sahara was curated for the SDG week by Alain Becker, ex-United Nations Programme Director for the Protection of Minorities, from the Becker collection of the Association Arts Premiers de Peuples Minoritaires based in Saignon, France.

The collections items were given by First Peoples to Becker to be put on display and to educate others about their community. The exhibition examined material adaptions in response to climatic change in First Peoples’ communities. The ingenious and often highly simple inventions show us that adaptations don’t necessarily need to be technically advanced to contribute to real social and physiological changes. Sometimes solutions can be simple, even for larger complex issues and we can be inspired to adopt this thinking where possible when addressing some of the world’s global goals.

The exhibition features items like simple pieces of flint slices from the middle palaeolithic age (between 275,000 and 30,000 BCE). To give that naming and number a historical context, the palaeolithic period sits within the Stone Age, or Prehistory period (the period in history before written language was used). The Stone Age was the period before the Iron and Bronze age, in which early modern humans and our common ancestors such as Neanderthals existed.

These flint objects are not decorative. However, art and material culture should be displayed and celebrated for more than just aesthetic value alone. By displaying these objects, their importance and invention is validated and uncovered to a wider community. The flints themselves are an ingenious invention which altered the human physiology. Flint is now well known for being a material which can be sharpened and used to cut up the flesh of an animal or bird.


Batch of 100 carved Saharan silices from the middle palaeolithic (between 275,000 bce and 30,000 bce)

However, before our early ancestors transitioned to a diet rich in meat, they were mainly herbivores and in dire need of salt, and this deficiency led to infections and illness. As hominins evolved to eventually stand in a vertical position, the accumulation of blood in the lower limbs coming from gravity reduced the amount of blood required for the other tissues, such as the brain in particular.

This meant humans of this time suffered from fatigue to brain failures. The construction of the flint arrow and the ability to hunt and cut up animal flesh is a simple innovation that led to the hunter gatherer and the human race constructing itself. The transition to meat eating has been theorised to have contributed to humans as we know today rapidly increasing brain size and function.                                                                                                                               

The simplest of solutions can have vast physiological impacts on the development of homo sapiens. In order to continue advancing and discovering new solutions, it can also mean taking a step back. The Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of Congo made the choice to revert from metal tipped arrows back to the simpler wooden tipped technology as it fulfilled their needs better.

The quivers in view are made from bark with a cloth strap. Each wooden arrow weighs 1 gram and is shot through a silent blowpipe. The overall lightness of this tool allowed the Pygmies to travel without being loaded down and is effective for hunting small game.

Hunting using modern tools (guns) has made most of the edible fauna in Central Africa extinct, however Pygmy territories are still full of game, at least double that of non-Pygmy territory, indicating that necessity rather than greed is important in nurturing a healthy, sustainable ecosystem. A conscious choice was made to hunt only with wooden arrows to preserve fauna reserves. This just shows how progress may also mean “regression”. The wooden arrows were easily transportable and produced without opening mines or using energy. These arrows show off a technological choice that does not exclude metal tools but limit their exclusive and costly use.


Decorated quiver of 50 single-wood pygmy arrows from 2020, 12 x 45 cm; 384 grams

With the right technology (no matter how rudimentary) solutions can be created to address even the most complex  problems. Biodiversity and climate loss, though a complex problem, should not disregard simple solutions. Exhibitions and art allow viewers to see tangible solutions to otherwise intangible topics, while unlocking sustainable ancestral knowledge. We innovate by thinking differently and Art allows ourselves to do just that. The INSEAD Hoffmann Institute is proud to have hosted an exhibition of this kind and we look forward to continuing to inspire the community at large through art and material culture.


For more on the exhibition, watch this short video and explore this booklet. Also browse our playlist for all the sessions from SDG Week 2021.  

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