Stone Age burials in a green Sahara

In 2000, Palaeontologist Paul Sereno was in Niger looking for dinosaur fossils in the Ténéré desert. He found animal remains alright, but they weren’t dinosaurs. They were people who lived and died there 10,000 – 5,000 years ago when the desert was lush with lakes, rivers and vegetation.

This map shows how the Gobero site was savannah for a while there, even as the Saharan sands still dominated. A shift in the winds brought monsoon rains to the Ténéré, making not just livable, but downright congenial as desert habitats go.

Two distinct peoples lived there at different times, first the Tiffian and then the Tenerian a few thousand years later. The former were taller and buried their dead most likely wrapped in shrouds. The latter smaller and leaner and buried their dead on their sides as if they were sleeping.

Harpoons and fishhooks found on the site suggest both peoples were fishermen, living off the lake that is now sand all the way down to the bedrock.

“At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two more biologically distinct groups of people burying their dead in the same place,” said team member Chris Stojanowski.

The Arizona State University bioarchaeologist added: “The biggest mystery is how they seemed to have done this without disturbing a single grave.”

Sereno did find him some dinosaurs, mind you. Good ones, too.

The site yielded fossils of huge crocodiles and dinosaurs including the complete skeleton of Sarcosuchus imperator, one of the biggest crocodiles that ever roamed the earth some 110 million years ago.

Sereno also unearthed the Nigersaurus, a plant-eating dinosaur with a huge jaw studded with 500 teeth that lived in the same geologic period, the Cretaceous, some 110 million years ago.

Read the full story and see all the gorgeous pictures on the National Geographic site.

Or if you’re really into it, you can read Sereno et al’s paper on their discovery. They’ve got tons more pics, graphs, data, you name it. Srsly fascinating stuff.

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