Paleontologist Paul Sereno of the University of Chigago and his team made an unusual discovery while successfully exploring for dinosaurs in the Tenere desert of of northern Niger. The veiled Tuareg who served as guides, roam this barren, desolate region, and conflict with the government of Niger and the harsh conditions means that little research has been completed here. Often sites are robbed of their evidence before they can be hauled out and studied.
The team had uncovered exotic species such as Nigersaurus, a 500-toothed plant-eating dinosaur, and Sarcosuchus, an extinct crocodilian the size of a city bus. By the year 2000, the team had uncovered 20 tons of dinosaur bones and other prehistoric animals.
Human Burial Site Discovered in the Green Sahara
As the photographer, Mike Hettwer, explored three small sand dunes he saw many bones on the surface. He took photos and ran back to the others. As the group viewed the dunes they discovered dozens of skeletons in just minutes. On a trip back to the human site in 2003, Sereno found as many as 173 burials (and later over 200)-- a stupendous find for a Neolithic burial -- but he was not funded for this and needed greater archaeological expertise to assist him. Much evidence was yet to come about the people interred here and their Green Sahara environment.
Among the human bones they found clay potsherds, beads, stone tools, arrowheads, axheads and grindstones. There were also hundreds of animal bones. These revealed much as in addition to antelope and giraffe there were water-bound animals such as crocodiles, hippos, turtles, fish, and clams. They named the site Gobero after the Tuareg word for the area.
Although the Sahara had been barren for about 75,000 years as it is today, from about 12,000 years ago, in the midst of the desert period, the Sahara bloomed. A shift of the earth on its axis caused monsoons to move north to the Sahara. It was lush with rich water sources from Egypt to Mauritania, and as wildlife became plentiful, the people followed.
People of the Green Sahara , as it is called, learned to domesticate cattle as cliff drawings illustrate. By 3500 years ago, the monsoons had vanished and so did the people.
Digging Up the Distant Past
In 2005, Elena Garcea, an experienced archaeologist from Italy agreed to join Soreno. Amidst a spectacular burial ground, Garcea immediately spotted tiny potsherds which she recognized as being Tenerian, a nomadic herding culture that lived during the latter part of the Green Sahara era, some 6,500 to 4,500 years ago.
Then Garcea found more potsherds belonging to the Kiffians, a fishing culture that lived during the earliest wet period, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. Pottery from two distinct and distant cultures found together. They were able to uncover burials from both cultures. The Kiffians were buried in tight bundles, but some measured 6’8” tall. The Tenerians were smaller, about 5 and a half feet tall, and were buried on their sides.
Near the dunes was a dry lake bed. There they discovered fishhooks and harpoons as well as the remains of the gigantic Nile perch, which could weigh 300 pounds or so, and other large water animals.
Due to civil disturbances, the crew had to cancel the 2007 and 2008 seasons. There remain approximately 100 burials to uncover. In the meantime, genetic testing is being done to see if it can be determined who the descendants of these peoples might be.
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