Excavations Show a Lush Life in the Sahara

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

The archaeological site at Gobero in the Eastern Sahara is not going to rewrite the history of Stone Age man, or even the history of settlement in North Africa, where desert and lake have played tag with each other for eons.

But it does illustrate how much amazing stuff is still out there in plain view on our planet's surface, waiting for the patient and the lucky to find it.

An international team of archaeologists yesterday unveiled findings from graveyards and settlements occupied at different times over a 5,000-year period by two groups of people.

"Part of discovery is finding things that you least expect," Paul C. Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, said at a news conference at the National Geographic Society. "When you come across something like this, it sends a tingle up your spine."

The site, which contains at least 200 burials, was found by chance in 2000 while Sereno was looking for dinosaur bones. The encounter, in an unusually remote section of central Niger, lasted less than an hour. It would be three years before Sereno could survey the discovery, let alone dig into it.

Three expeditions later, his team of American, African, French and Italian researchers has uncovered one of the larger Neolithic sites in Africa and one with an unusually rich collection of artifacts and animal, plant and human remains. They are starting to sketch a picture of Gobero's ancient environment and inhabitants.

"I have never seen such an exceptional site as Gobero. It is actually eight sites where people not only buried their dead but actually lived, as well," said lead archaeologist Elena Garcea of the University of Cassino, in Italy.

The older occupants, who inhabited the site from 9,700 to 8,200 years ago, were part of what is known as Kiffian culture. They lived on the shore of a large, shallow freshwater lake surrounded by savannah. They knew a good place when they found it and appear to have been largely sedentary.

They hunted gazelles and other animals of the savannah. Some graves contained shells of turtle species that are still eaten in the region. One refuse heap contained the vertebrae of a Nile perch that was about six feet long.

Their hand-shaped pottery was decorated with geometric incisions, their barbed harpoon points and fishhooks graceful and well-made. They buried the dead tied tightly in a fetal position, although the binding material long ago disintegrated.

The people were healthy. Several skeletons show signs of healed fractures. One man stood 6 feet 5 inches tall.

But who they were is a mystery. The graves were flooded for centuries and the bones fossilized. They aren't likely to yield DNA that will help answer the question.

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