Stone Age burials a chance find

August 15, 2008|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The tiny skeletal hand jutted from the sand as if beckoning the living to the long dead.

For thousands of years, it had waved unheeded in the most desolate section of the Sahara, surrounded by the bones of hippos, giraffes and other creatures typically found in the jungle.

A chance discovery by American scientists has led to the unearthing of a Stone Age cemetery that is providing the first glimpse of what life was like during the still-mysterious period when monsoons brought rain to the desert and created the "green Sahara."

The more than 200 graves explored indicate that, beginning 10,000 years ago, two distinct populations lived on the shores of a huge lake, separated by a 1,000-year period in which the lake dried up.

Among the scientists' surprising discoveries has been a burial of a mother and two children with fingers intertwined, a find that puts a human face on the little-known people who enjoyed a brief visit to an Eden in what is normally one of the most forbidding places on Earth.

The first to settle the area was a group of tall, powerfully built hunters, gatherers and fishermen called the Kiffian, Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago paleontologist, said at a news conference yesterday.

The group who followed the Kiffian was a physically smaller band of pastoralists called the Tenerian, who relied on fishing and hunting but also herded cattle, he said.

In addition to the graves, researchers found a large collection of the remains of meals, tools, pots and other artifacts - the detritus of everyday life.

The findings were published yesterday in the online journal PLoS One and in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.

The Sahara has been a desert for untold millenniums. But about 12,000 years ago, a wobble in Earth's orbit and other factors caused Africa's seasonal monsoons to shift slightly north, bringing rains to the Sahara and greening it from Egypt in the east to Mauritania in the west.

About 8,000 years ago, the rains retreated, leaving the region once again arid and abandoned. A thousand years later, the rains returned for two millenniums before retreating again.

The newly discovered site, called Gobero after the Tuareg name for the area, lies deep within Niger's Tenere Desert, a large region within the still larger Sahara. The site lay unobserved and untouched because it was literally "in the middle of nowhere," Sereno said. "There is absolutely no reason for anyone to go there."

Sereno and his team had been looking for dinosaur bones when they stumbled across the site in 2000.

Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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