Ancient Cemetery Found; Brings "Green Sahara" to Life

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
August 14, 2008

Dinosaur hunters have stumbled across the largest and oldest Stone Age cemetery in the Sahara desert.

Paleontologist Paul Sereno and his team were scouring the rocks between harsh dunes in northern Niger in 2000 when they stumbled across the graveyard, on the shores of a long-gone lake. (See photos.)

The scientists eventually uncovered 200 burials of two vastly different cultures that span five thousand years—the first time such a site has been found in one place.

Called Gobero, the area is a uniquely preserved record of human habitation and burials from the Kiffian (7700 to 6200 B.C.) and the Tenerian (5200 to 2500 B.C.) cultures, says a new study led by Sereno of the University of Chicago.

The "watershed" find also offers a new window into how these tribes lived and buried their dead during the extreme Holocene period, when a grassy Sahara dried up in the world's largest desert.

Coming across such a site "sends a tingle up your spine," said Sereno, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"You're not looking at [dinosaurs], you're looking at your own species."

One of the most striking discoveries was what the research team calls the "Stone Age Embrace": A woman, possibly a mother, and two children laid to rest holding hands, arms outstretched toward each other, on a bed of flowers.

Sereno and colleagues have also made several dinosaur discoveries in the region, including the bizarre cow-like dino Nigersaurus and the bus-size SuperCroc.

Green Desert

A wobble in Earth's orbit—along with other environmental factors that occurred about 12,000 years ago—brought intense monsoons to the Sahara, greening the desert and attracting a wave of human inhabitants, according to Sereno and colleagues.

Continued on Next Page >>


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