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.
Article link: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/green-sahara/gwin-text.html