The Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara

In October of 2000, Paul Sereno led a small group of paleontologists into the Ténéré desert in Niger, in search of dinosaur fossils.  Since his first expedition, five years prior, he and his team have found remains of exotic species, ranging from a 500-toothed dinosaur to a crocodilian that is similar in size to a city bus. However, in this expedition, when Mike Hettwer, the photographer joining his team, strayed away from the group toward three small sand dunes, it would be one of their biggest finds yet. The three dunes were literally “spilling over with bones.” But, they were not dinosaur bones; they were human.

Within minutes, Paul Sereno and his team were able to count dozens of human remains, some buried with “clay potsherds, beads and stone tools.” Among the human skeletons, they also discovered hundreds of animal remains. However, the remains were of “water-adapted creatures” such as crocodiles, fish, clams, turtles and hippos.  It was then that he realized that they were in the Green Sahara. The Sahara has pretty much been a desert for the past 70,000 years but about 12,000 years ago, there was a sway in the Earth’s axis, causing seasonal monsoons to shift, bringing rains to new areas, which in turn created abundant watersheds across the Sahara, attracting different animals and eventually people.

Up until then, the only thing that archaeologists knew for sure was that about 3,500 years ago, the waters dried up and the people disappeared. Archaeologists actually knew very little about the people of the Green Sahara. Even though he was a “dinosaur hunter,” Sereno was extremely intrigued by this find and began finding as much information as he could on the people of the Green Sahara.  In 2003, he went back to the site and counted at least 173 different burials. But he knew that if he wanted to know more, he needed someone who had a little more expertise in the area. That is when he brought Elena Garcea, an archaeologist, in to help.

When they arrived at Gobero, the Tuareg name they gave to the site, Garcea picked up one potsherd with a “pointillistic pattern” and recognized the markings to be from a nomadic herding culture known as the Tenerians. She then picked up another piece but this time it was decorated with “wavy lines” and identified this piece as belonging to a fishing-based culture known as the Kiffian. What caught her attention was the fact that the Kiffian and the Tenerians lived more than a thousand years apart. Over the next few weeks Garcea and Sereno created a detailed map of the site, excavated eight different burials and collected artifacts from both the Kiffian and the Tenerians.

While observing some of the graves, Garcea noticed differences in their burials. Some graves appeared to be “a tight bundle of bones,” as if the bodies were squeezed into a confined space. These smaller burials were misleading because the individuals buried in them were actually quite large, some estimated to be as tall as “six feet eight inches” with dense bones, indicating that they must have been extremely muscular. On the other hand, other skeletons were much smaller, measuring to only about five feet, six inches tall. Also, unlike the previous graves, these burials contained goods such as arrowheads, beads and even animal bones. However, since neither grave contained any potsherds, they were not sure which ones where Kiffian and which ones were Tenerian.

When Sereno flew back to the U.S., he took the “most important skeletons and artifacts” with him to examine. Through radiocarbon dating, they were able to roughly estimate the age of each skeleton and learned that the “tightly bundled burials” were about 9,000 years old, which is around the time archaeologists believe the Kiffian were in this area, while the smaller skeletons were about 6,000 years old, which is “well within the Tenerian period.”

After their return to Gobero in 2006, Sereno and Garcea began to uncover an increasing amount of skeletal remains. On this trip they found a male skeleton buried with a finger in his mouth, another buried “inside a frame of disarticulated human bones,” and another buried with a “boar tusk and a crocodile ankle bone and his head resting on a clay pot” with parts of his skeleton burned, suggesting the possibility of a burial ritual. Also, the Tenerians were believed to be herders, but they found no remains belonging to goats or sheep among all of the animal bones they discovered. Sereno suggested the idea of the Tenerians being a transitional group that had not fully adopted to herding and still relied on a fishing and hunting lifestyle, but till today it is still not fully understood. However, as they discovered more and more remains, new questions began to form in their minds, especially about the Tenerians.

The Kiffian bones were left with very little artifacts, causing even more questions to go unanswered. However, from their bones bioarchaeologist Chris Stojanowski, was able to tell that they seemed to be “peaceful, hardworking people.” There were not many head and forearm injuries indicating that they did not fight often but from the long and narrow ridges present along their femurs, they had huge leg muscles, suggesting that they were extremely strong. Stojanowski explained that with such huge muscle attachments, they must have ate a lot of protein and participated in a “strenuous lifestyle,” which is both congruent with a fishing-based culture.

Towards the end of their trip, they discovered a grave with three Tenerian skeletal remains, which was believed to be of a adult female and two children. This discovery had them wondering what their cause of death was since they showed no signs of trauma. “If their deaths weren’t violent, how id they all die at the same time?” and “If it was from a disease or plague, who buried their bodies?” Till today, they still do not know the answers to these questions and being unable to return due to conflicts that arose in Niger, the harsh conditions of the Sahara continue to consume what is left of these two lost tribes.

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3 thoughts on “The Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara

  1. Sam Miller

    This is a fascinating read. You did a really good job of summarizing and hitting all the key points in the article “Green Sahara”.
    Since I know absolutely nothing about Gobero, the Tenerians, or the Kiffians, I decided to do a little research on them so that I could better understand the article that you read. I found this other article that explained a little more into the history of Gobero and its inhabitants.
    “Evidence indicates that the Kiffians occasionally had to leave Gobero because the dune tops became inundated when Paleolake Gobero rose to 5 meters or more. But the site was abandoned about 6200 BC when a harshly arid climate dried out the lake; and the site stayed abandoned for about a thousand years”.
    When I read this, I was at first confused. If the Paleolake Gobero had dried out, why did the Tenerians come and live in Gobero with its harsh arid climate and no source of water? That wouldn’t have been a smart move on their part, and yet the Tenerian occupation of Gobero was from 5200 to 2500 BC. So clearly they must have had some way of getting water, but how? My confusion was only momentary, as the article goes on to say:
    ” Humid conditions returned to the region, and the lake refilled”.
    I wonder why the Kiffians chose those sand dunes as the resting place for their dead. Was there some significance of the dunes? If there wasn’t, why did they choose that spot? I believe that the Tenerians chose that same spot for their burials because of the evidence of previous burials from the Kiffians. But I guess we will never really know for sure.

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  2. Hannah Brookhart

    Your last paragraph describing the discovery of the adult female buried with two children sent a chill down my spine. “Who buried their bodies?” What happens when small, nomadic populations begin to die out for whatever reason be it disease, natural disaster, or something else? Someone will be the last to die.

    In the meantime, is it obvious to these people that they are all dying out?
    Do they try to rally, to save their population? Or, do they focus on respectfully dealing with the dead? It seems like the Tenerians were nomadic in the first place, but they chose not to pack up and leave. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of a small dying population. I don’t see their staying put as giving up though. I think that is something humans are generally reluctant to do considering our will to survive. Surely there was someone, or several people who left the site after burying their fellow Tenerians in search of salvation. At what point, though, do they abandon their people? I think it’s fascinating to think about the rationale behind people’s actions in the end – of civilization, of their society, of their own lives.

    Societies don’t just die out all at once (unless it’s a natural disaster type situation), but often times we find situations where everyone is neatly buried. Those who held the society together in the very end are gone. Maybe they found another population to join or maybe they died in the middle of the desert. How much can we know about the end of civilizations without evidence of the very end?

  3. Reginald Jackson

    To be completely honest I found this blog to be awesome! How cool would it be to be on the team let alone be the person who discovered these cultures in this one site? I did find it a little weird that there were two really different culture found at this site. I think that it draws a lot of questions that can and can’t be answered. I also think you did a really good job in summarizing the article to where we can understand the key points and have are able to give responses.

    However, I kind of don’t understand why the Tenerians and the Kiffians were found at the same site and have the cultures they have. I feel that Kiffians who were said to have been really strong a live a strenuous life style but they are fishers. In my opinion I feel that they would be better as herders and hunters since they were explained to have huge muscle attachments and have eaten a lot of protein, but then again I can see why it is they do the things they did. Also I’m kind of curious about the landscape and how it changed over time. There was a fishing culture there first so there must have been a lot of water there right? What happened over the years that made conditions for the Tenerians to live and create a suitable settlement, or a better question is did anything change over the years?

    The last paragraph was a little creepy about the female and the two children. It almost like a mystery that won’t be solved until we find out more or get better technology that can tell us more about the past.

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