Sahara Cemetery shows a Green Sahara 10,000 years ago
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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 dunefields in northern Niger for dinosaur bones in 2000 when they stumbled across the graveyard, on the shores of a long-gone lake.|
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 at a single site.
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.
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.
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. Scientists already knew that the hunter-gatherer Kiffian occupied the region during a temperate phase. Between 6200 and 5200 B.C., one of the most severe climatic fluxes in that period's history desiccated the land and forced people out, the authors say. Soon afterward a second group arrived, the Tenerian.
"Reasons behind an interruption in local human occupation of the region may have been related to a variety of socioeconomic or cultural changes, and not necessarily to general climatic deterioration throughout the Sahara," he said. But Sereno said that the general climate record, bolstered by lake-core samples and solid animal and pollen evidence, points to this "arid interruption" period that separates the Kiffian and Tenerian.
The new study appears today in the journal PLoS One.
Perhaps most incredible was the 2006 discovery the Stone Age Embrace—a Tenerian woman facing the remains of two young children, their arms posed and hands interlaced. Pollen remnants from underneath the skeletons shows the dead had been laid on a bed of flowers. "This is a landmark burial—there's nothing like it in prehistory," Sereno said.