Ancient Life in the Western Sahara Desert

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Western Sahara Desert Archaeology

Blima Erg - Dune Sea in the Ténéré Desert
Blima Erg - Dune Sea in the Ténéré Desert. Holger Reineccius

Although much is known of the ancient history of the eastern fringes of the great Sahara desert in Africa, where the Egyptian civilization rose and flourished, there are vast tracts of archaeologically unexplored regions of the Sahara itself. With good reason--the Sahara is made up of 3.5 million acres of deeply dissected mountains and vast seas of sand dunes, salt flats and stone plateaus. In west Africa, one of the most unfriendly places is the Ténéré Desert of Niger, the "Desert within a Desert", where extremely hot temperatures---summer days reach 108 degrees F---allow for virtually no vegetation.

But it was not always this way, as recent excavations at the site of Gobero in Niger indicate. Gobero is a cemetery site, including at least 200 human burials located on top of a ridge or set of ridges, sand dunes with a hard calcrete-fringe. These burials occurred in two periods of settlement: 7700-6200 BC (called Kiffian culture) and 5200-2500 BC (called Tenerean culture).

There, explorations by a team led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and University of Chicago paleontologist Paul C. Sereno, have illuminated some small part of the last 10,000 years of the Saharan ecosystem.

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Ancient Changes in the Sahara Desert Weather

Map of the Climatic Changes in the Sahara Desert
Map of the Climatic Changes in the Sahara Desert. ©2008 National Geographic Maps

Changes in the Sahara Desert weather patterns have been identified by scientists using geochronology and archaeological traces of lake depths and climate change, most recently by high-resolution sediment cores.

In the Ténéré Desert of Niger, scientists believe that today's hyper-arid conditions are similar to what was in place at the end of the Pleistocene, some 16,000 years ago. At that time, sand dunes accumulated across the Sahara. By ca 9700 years ago, however, wet climatic conditions prevailed in the Ténéré Desert, and a large lake grew at the site of Gobero.

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West Saharan Excavations at Gobero

Excavations at Gobero
Paul Sereno (right) and archaeologist Elena Garcea excavate adjacent burials at Gobero. Mike Hettwer ©2008 National Geographic

Figure Caption: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Paul Sereno (right) and archaeologist Elena Garcea excavate adjacent burials at Gobero, the largest graveyard discovered to date in the Sahara. Two seasons of excavation supported by the National Geographic Society revealed some 200 graves.

The site of Gobero is located on the northwestern rim of the Chad Basin in Niger, on a sea of sand dunes covering mid-Cretaceous sandstone. Discovered by paleontologists looking for dinosaur bones, Gobero is located on the tops of calcareous-fringed, and thus geologically stable, sand dunes. At the time of the human use of the dunes at Gobero, a lake surrounded the dunes.

Paleo-Lake Gobero

Called paleo-lake Gobero, this body of water was freshwater, with depths varying between 3 and 10 meters. At depths of 5 meters or more, the dune tops were inundated. But for two long periods of time, Lake Gobero and the dunes was a fairly comfortable place to live. Archaeological investigations at Gobero have revealed middens--ancient trash heaps--containing clams and the bones of large perch, turtles, hippopotamus and crocodiles, giving us a picture of what the region must have been like.

The main part of the Gobero site includes perhaps as many as 200 human burials dated to two occupations. The oldest (7700-6200 BC) is called Kiffian; a second occupation (5200-2500 BC) is called Tenerean. The hunter-gatherer-fishers who lived and buried people on the sand dunes took advantage of the wetter conditions of what is now the Ténéré Desert.

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The Oldest Cemetery in the Sahara

Kiffian Fish Hook from Gobero
Kiffian Fish Hook from Gobero. Mike Hettwer ©2008 National Geographic

Figure Caption: Likely used to hook huge Nile perch in deep waters some 9,000 years ago in a "green Sahara," an inch-long fish hook carved from animal bone is among hundreds of artifacts discovered at the Gobero archaeological site in Niger. Dozens of fishhooks and harpoons found at the site, some stuck into the bottom of the ancient lakebed, tell of a time when Gobero was a lush fishing and hunting ground inhabited by crocodiles, hippos and pythons.

The earliest substantive human use of Gobero is called the Kiffian, and it represents the oldest multiple cemetery in the Sahara desert. Radiocarbon dates on human and animal bone and optical luminescence dates on ceramics provided the research team with dates of between 7700-6200 BC.

Kiffian Burials

Burials belonging to the Kiffian phase of the site are tightly-flexed, and given the position of the bodies, each individual was probably tied up like a parcel before burial. Tools found with these burials and in midden deposits associated with the Kiffian phase including microliths, bone harpoon points and fishhooks like the one illustrated. Kiffian potsherds are plant-tempered, with a dotted wavy-line and zigzag impressed motif.

Animals represented in the midden include large catfish, softshell turtles, crocodiles, cattle, and Nile perch. Pollen studies show that vegetation at the time of this occupation was an open, low-diversity savanna with grasses and sedges, with some trees including figs and tamarisk trees.

Evidence indicates that the Kiffians occasionally had to leave Gobero because the dune tops became inundated when Paleolake Gobero rose to 5 meters or more. But the site was abandoned about 6200 BC when a harshly arid climate dried out the lake; and the site stayed abandoned for about a thousand years.

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Tenerean Occupations at Gobero

Triple Burial at Gobero
Triple Burial at Gobero. Mike Hettwer ©2008 National Geographic

Figure Caption: The skeletons and artifacts of the exceptional triple burial at Gobero are preserved in this cast exactly as found by Paul Sereno, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. Pollen clusters found underneath the skeletons indicate the bodies had been laid atop flowers, and the burial also contained four arrowheads. The people died without any sign of skeletal injury.

The final substantial human occupation of Gobero is called the Tenerean occupation. Humid conditions returned to the region, and the lake refilled. Radiocarbon and OSL dates indicate that Gobero was occupied between about 5200 and 2500 BC.

Burials in the Tenerean occupation are more varied than in the Kiffian period, with some tightly bound burials, some recumbent, and some, like this multiple burial of a woman and two children, intertwined with others. Physical analysis of the skeletal material make it clear that this is a different population from the earlier Kiffians, although some of the artifacts are similar.

Living in Tenerean Gobero

The Tenerean people at Gobero were probably partly semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer-fishers, with some amount of cattle herding. Pottery with stamped impressions, projectile points with deep basal notches, bracelets and pendants of hippo ivory, and pendants made of a fine-grained greenstone were discovered in association with Tenerean burials. Animal bones found include hippos, antelope, softshell turtles, crocodiles and a few domestic cattle. Pollen studies suggest that Gobero was a mosaic of shrubland and grasslands, with some tropical trees.

After the end of the Tenerean period, Gobero was abandoned, except for some transient presence of nomadic cattle herders; the final desertification of the Sahara had started and Gobero could no longer support long-term habitation.