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Ancient Life in the Western Sahara 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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