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Stone Age Graveyard Unearthed In Sahara

Paleontologist Paul Sereno talks about the cultures that lived at the site

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Paleontologist Paul Sereno stabilizes a nearly perfectly preserved skull during excavation at the archaeological site of Gobero in Niger. Mike Hettwer/National Geographic hide caption

toggle caption Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

Paleontologist Paul Sereno stabilizes a nearly perfectly preserved skull during excavation at the archaeological site of Gobero in Niger.

Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

Sereno (right) and archaeologist Elena Garcea excavate adjacent burials at Gobero. Mike Hettwer/National Geographic hide caption

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Sereno (right) and archaeologist Elena Garcea excavate adjacent burials at Gobero.

Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

The skeletons of a woman and presumably her two children, ages 5 and 8, were posed in death some 5,300 years ago. Mike Hettwer/National Geographic hide caption

toggle caption Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

The skeletons of a woman and presumably her two children, ages 5 and 8, were posed in death some 5,300 years ago.

Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

Scientists hunting for dinosaur bones in the Sahara have stumbled on an extraordinary discovery: a huge cemetery containing some 200 graves.

Buried in those graves are the remains of people who lived there as long as 10,000 years ago, when this region — the Tenere Desert in Niger — was green and graced with large, deep lakes filled with perch 6 feet long.

The graveyard is the largest from the Stone Age found in the Sahara.

Dinosaur-hunter Paul Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, led the expedition for the National Geographic Society. After his team stumbled on the graveyard in 2000, he brought in other experts, who spent two years studying the skeletal remains. They also found pieces of pottery, fish hooks, stone tools, harpoons carved from animal bone and other artifacts.

Two cultures are believed to have lived in the region, now called Gobero: first, the tall, robust Kiffians, who lived there from about 10,000 until 8,000 years ago. A thousand-year drought followed, before a regreening of the area made it habitable again. Another culture, called Tenerian, then moved in and lived there until about 5,000 years ago. The Tenerians were a physically smaller people whose pottery bears different designs from the Kiffians.

The two "greenings" of the desert were caused by a wobble in the Earth's orbit that brought monsoons farther north and turned what is now one of the driest places on the planet into a verdant lake district. The team found bones from giraffes, warthogs and pythons, as well as fish that the people caught in the lakes.

Many of the burials were puzzling: an adult Tenerian male buried with his skull resting on part of a clay vessel, and another adult male interred seated on the shell of a turtle.

One burial was especially poignant, containing a woman facing the skeletons of two small children, their hands clasped to hers. Clusters of pollen underneath the skeletons suggest they were buried on a bed of flowers.

The discovery is described in the Aug. 14 issue of the scientific journal PloS ONE and in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.

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