Stone-Age Graveyard in the Sahara Recalls an Era of Lakes and Wetlands

By Eliza Strickland | August 14, 2008 5:12 pm

Sahara graveyardIn an arid and lifeless stretch of the Sahara, archaeologists have discovered a massive graveyard and remnants of early settlements that hark back to Stone Age days when the desert was wet, green, and habitable. Researchers say the find is a striking reminder that climates and environments can shift drastically over the geologically short time period of 10,000 years.

In an area of Sahara that’s known to nomads as the “desert within a desert,” researchers found evidence of thriving prehistoric cultures and rich ecosystems on the edge of a lake. There were also hundreds of animal bones. In addition to antelope and giraffe, [lead researcher Paul] Sereno quickly recognized the remains of water-adapted creatures like crocodiles and hippos, then turtles, fish, and clams. “Everywhere you turned, there were bones belonging to animals that don’t live in the desert,” said Sereno. “I realized we were in the Green Sahara” [National Geographic].

The cemetery was found in 2000 when Sereno, a paleontologist by training, was hunting for dinosaur fossils in the dunes. Subsequent expeditions revealed not only a graveyard, but also refuse mounds and other indicators of two permanent settlements, one dating from the Sahara’s wettest period around 10,000 years ago, and the second from another fecund era that began around 7,000 years ago.

The initial inhabitants, the Kiffian culture, were tall hunters of wild game who also fished with harpoons carved from animal bone. Later, a more lightly built people, the Tenerians, lived there, hunting, fishing and herding cattle. An examination of their fossilized skeletons indicated that both cultures lived and ate relatively well [The New York Times]. Researchers believe that the Tenerians left around 4,500 years ago when weather patterns shifted and pushed seasonal monsoons farther South, causing the region’s lakes and wetlands to dry up.

The report, published in the journal PLoS ONE, details findings from some of the 200 graves already discovered. “The most amazing find so far is a grave with a female and two children hugging each other. They were carefully arranged in this position. This strongly indicated they had spiritual beliefs and cared for their dead,” says [researcher Elena] Garcea [New Scientist].

Image: Mike Hettwer, National Geographic Society

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Human Origins
  • Mame A. Thioye Sall

    it is amazing to discover that the desert of sahara was wet one day, long time ago and people use to live and interact overthere.

  • Michael W. Morgan

    I wonder if the people of those cultures were arrogant enough to think they were responsible for the climate change. Obviously, there were far too many factories and powerplants spewing out their greenhouse gasses that caused. Al Gore…where were you then.
    Seriously there is a aadjunct to this if you think about it. Surely these people thought their gods were punishiing them for some wrong they did. It is a religious thing. How does that differ from the New Religion of today…Enviornmentalism. We pray to the priests of the Greenhouse Gas and sacrifice our economies to end the coming inevitable result of a thermal world.
    How far have we really progressed?

  • Matthew Humphrey

    What an idiotic comment from Michael W. Morgan, above. Just because climates have changed drastically in the distant past, long before the Industrial Revolution, does not invalidate the reality of anthropogenic climate change, today. Obviously there can be more than one cause for warming and desertification. Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the Earth’s history would already have known that there have been cycles of warming and cooling in the past. What is different about the current situation is that these prior natural events cannot account for the present warming trend and the increasing atmospheric levels of CO2 that are driving it. Human activity is to blame, whether or not the commenter can bring himself to believe it.

    And then we get the old “environmentalism is a religion” bullshit. It seems as though Morgan is getting his talking points, as well as his scientific “information” from Rush Limbaugh. I don’t know anyone who “pray[s] to the priests of the Greenhouse Gas”. It’s more like recognizing reality, for me, however much I wish it were otherwise. And if we Americans fail to seize the economic opportunities presented by the climate crisis, you can be sure that the Japanese, the Chinese and the Europeans will be glad to take up the slack for us.

    “How far have we really progressed?” For some of us, not much at all.

  • RedCharlie

    Actually, most cultures, including our own, DID think they caused all sorts of bad stuff, including earthquakes, droughts, pestilence, plagues, wars, famines, etc. I think the exact mechanism was that too much adultery, buggery, idolatry, heresy, liberalism, hairspray and other sorts of fun were causing a hole to open up in the protective layer of piety and unquestioning subservience in the upper noosphere. This hole caused an increase in the amount of ultraconservative radiation which basically fried everybody who couldn’t afford to sacrifice 99 virgins in order to make up with God, who was really pissed off that we kept tearing holes in his noosphere.

    Or something like that.

    These days the offending activities seem to involve driving your car, but no research has shown that sacrificing virgins actually helps (even if you do it by running them down with a Hummer). I wonder if anyone has tried sacrificing trolls instead?

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