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Ancient Life in the Western Sahara Desert

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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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