The climate deterioration after the most recent African humid period (AHP) is a notable past example of desertification. Evidence points to a human population expansion in northern Africa prior to this, associated with the introduction of pastoralism. Here we consider the role, if any, of this population on the subsequent ecological collapse. Using a climate-vegetation model, we estimate the natural length of the most recent AHP. The model indicates that the system was most susceptible to collapse between 7 and 6 ka; at least 500 years before the observed collapse. This suggests that the inclusion of increasing elements of pastoralism was an effective adaptation to the regional environmental changes. Pastoralism also appears to have slowed the deterioration caused by orbitally-driven climate change. This supports the view that modern pastoralism is not only sustainable, but beneficial for the management of the world's dryland environments.