Population density of Africa (2000)
North Africa is a collective term for a group of Mediterranean countries and territories situated in the northern-most region of the African continent. The term "North Africa" has no single accepted definition. It is sometimes defined as stretching from the Atlantic shores of Morocco in the west, to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea in the east. Others have limited it to the countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, a region known by the French during colonial times as “Afrique du Nord” and by the Arabs as the Maghreb (“West”). The most commonly accepted definition includes Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, as well as Libya and Egypt. “North Africa”, particularly when used in North Africa and the Middle East, often refers only to the countries of the Maghreb and Libya. Egypt, due to its greater Middle Eastern associations, is often considered separately. North Africa includes a number of Spanish possessions (Plazas de soberanía), notably Ceuta and Melilla. The countries of North Africa share a common ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity that is unique to this region. Northwest Africa has been inhabited by Berbers since the beginning of recorded history, while the eastern part of North Africa has been home to the Copts. Between the A.D. 600s and 1000s, Arabs from the Middle East swept across the region in a wave of Muslim conquest. These peoples, physically quite similar, formed a single population in many areas, as Berbers and Copts merged into Arab society. This process of Arabization and Islamization has defined the cultural landscape of North Africa ever since.
The distinction between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa is historically and ecologically significant because of the general barrier created by the Sahara Desert for much of modern history. The Sahara is the dominant feature of the North African landscape, and stretches across the southern part of the region. The Sahara serves as a geographical boundary between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa and marks a transition zone from the largely Arab identifying population of North Africa to black Africa of the south. From 3500 BC, following the rapid desertification of the Sahara due to gradual changes in the Earth's orbit, this barrier has partially culturally separated the North from the rest of the continent. The overwhelming majority of the North African population is concentrated along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines and the Nile river, while the Sahara desert is one of the most sparsely populated places on Earth.
The Sahara desert has therefore played an important role in the history of North Africa. As the seafaring civilizations of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and others facilitated communication and migration across the Mediterranean Sea, the cultures of North Africa became much more closely tied to Southwestern Asia and Europe than Sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamic influence in the area is also significant, and North Africa is a major part of the Muslim world.
Some researchers have postulated that North Africa rather than East Africa served as the exit point for the modern humans who first trekked out of the continent in the Out of Africa migration.