Why do Bedouins wear black in the desert?

Sunday, February 24th, 2019

Why do Bedouins wear black in the desert?

The question so intrigued four scientists — all non-Bedouins — that they ran an experiment. Their study, called Why Do Bedouins Wear Black Robes in Hot Deserts?, was published in the journal Nature in 1980.

“It seems likely,” the scientists wrote, “that the present inhabitants of the Sinai, the Bedouins, would have optimised their solutions for desert survival during their long tenure in this desert. Yet one may have doubts on first encountering Bedouins wearing black robes and herding black goats. We have therefore investigated whether black robes help the Bedouins to minimise solar heat loads in a hot desert.”

The research team — C Richard Taylor and Virginia Finch of Harvard University and Amiram Shkolnik and Arieh Borut of Tel Aviv University — quickly discovered that, as you might suspect, a black robe does convey more heat inward than a white robe does. But they doubted that this was the whole story.

Taylor, Finch, Shkolnik, and Borut measured the overall heat gain and loss suffered by a brave volunteer. They described the volunteer as “a man standing facing the sun in the desert at midday while he wore: 1) a black Bedouin robe; 2) a similar robe that was white; 3) a tan army uniform; and 4) shorts (that is, he was semi-nude)”.

Each of the test sessions (black-robed, white-robed, uniformed and half-naked) lasted 30 minutes. They took place in the Negev desert at the bottom of the rift valley between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Eilat. The volunteer stood in temperatures that ranged from a just-semi-sultry 35°C (95°F) to a character-building 46°C (115°F). Though he is now nameless, this was his day in the sun.

The results were clear. As the report puts it: “The amount of heat gained by a Bedouin exposed to the hot desert is the same whether he wears a black or a white robe. The additional heat absorbed by the black robe was lost before it reached the skin.”

Bedouins’ robes, the scientists noted, are worn loose. Inside, the cooling happens by convection — either through a bellows action, as the robes flow in the wind, or by a chimney sort of effect, as air rises between robe and skin. Thus it was conclusively demonstrated that, at least for Bedouin robes, black is as cool as any other colour.


  1. Doc says:

    And doesn’t need washing, or at least not as often, which might just be worth considering in a low-water environment. That is, white is going to get dirty and look it. Black may be equally dirty, but won’t look so bad.

    Did it occur to the investigators to just ask? Cool science and all that, but…one does wonder what the response might have been.

  2. Kirk says:

    Ask? Ask the actual subject of study? My God, man… Have you lost your mind? You can’t simply ask them why they wear black, because they’re obviously too stupid to know why they do that… They’re wogs, donchaknow?

    Actually, what you’re pointing out is one of the big flaws in a lot of the crap we see coming out of the institutional academy, these days. The assumption is, the academic is like a veterinarian, dealing with creatures lacking both agency and reason, so therefore… No possibility that any of them might know what the hell the answer is, or be able to provide the researcher any insight into why they made that choice in the first place.

    One thing I’d have wanted to look at, were I curious about this issue, is the subject of “Well, what about at night…?”, because only a damn fool is out moving around during the daylight hours in the desert, during summer. As well, the other question is, what dye-stuff is available to the desert-dweller?

    Sometimes, you have to wonder at the sheer hubristic self-centeredness of a lot of these people. They look at something like this, define it within the narrow parameters of their understanding of the lives of others, and then go from there, leaping from unjustified conjecture to unjustified conjecture, to reach a peak of unreason that flatly defies logic.

    And, if they’d have just bothered to ask a Bedouin, they might have found a reason for the color choice, one that was quite far afield from their imagined reason of being solely due to the sun.

    Hell, another reason might be contrast, so as to allow the Bedouin to be spot one another in the glare… Or, hide more effectively in shadow. Could be a lot of things, and not being a Bedouin who lives in the deep desert, I’d not be one to speculate without more of a basis of understanding.

    One good point, too–Cultural traditions going back thousands of years generally have really good reasons for existing… Because, if they didn’t work, they’d have been abandoned–And, if they weren’t justified, they’d similarly have been abandoned. Find something of long standing, and you might want to consider just why it’s still hanging around, and whether or not you’re so damn smart for ignoring that.

  3. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Black radiates heat and cools down quickly.

  4. Dragan says:

    Kirk, very funny and true. Academia and science have sold themselves to their sponsors who are not that interested in science or in people becoming smart.

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