Thursday, August 14, 2008

Stone Age Cemetery in Sahara Yields Evidence of Early Hunters

When Paul C. Sereno went hunting dinosaur bones in the Sahara, his
career took a sharp turn from paleontology to archaeology. The
expedition found what has proved to be the largest known graveyard of
Stone Age people who lived there when the desert was green.

In its first comprehensive report, published Thursday, the team, sponsored by the National Geographic Society,
described finding some 200 graves belonging to two successive
populations. Some burials were accompanied by pottery and ivory
ornaments. A girl was buried wearing a bracelet carved from a hippo
tusk. A man was interred seated on the carapace of a turtle.

The
most poignant scene was the triple burial of a petite woman lying on
her side, facing two young children. The slender arms of the children
reached out to the woman in an everlasting embrace. Pollen indicated
that flowers had decorated the grave. [Image by Mike Hettwer/National Geographic]

The sun-baked dunes at the
site known as Gobero preserve the earliest and largest Stone Age
cemetery in the Sahara, Dr. Sereno’s group reported in the
current issue of the online journal PLoS One. The findings, the
researchers wrote, open “a new window on the funerary practices,
distinctive skeletal anatomy, health and diet of early hunter-fisher-gatherers, who expanded into the Sahara when climatic conditions were favorable.”

The initial inhabitants at Gobero, the Kiffian culture, were tall
hunters of wild game who also fished with harpoons carved from animal
bone. Later, a more lightly built people, the Tenerians, lived there,
hunting, fishing and herding cattle. An examination of their fossilized
skeletons indicated that both cultures lived and ate relatively well.

From an analysis of the skeletons and pottery in those two seasons,
scientists identified the two successive cultures that occupied the
settlement. The Kiffians, some of whom stood up to six feet tall, both
men and women, lived there during the Sahara’s wettest period,
between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. They were primarily
hunter-gatherers who speared huge lake perch with harpoons.

Elena
A. A. Garcea, an archaeologist at the University of Cassino in Italy,
identified ceramics with wavy lines and zigzag patterns as Kiffian, a
culture associated with northern Africa. Pots bearing a pointillistic
pattern were linked to the Tenerians, a people named for the
Ténéré Desert, a stretch of the Sahara known to
Tuareg nomads as a “desert within a desert.”

Christopher M. Stojanowski, an archaeologist at Arizona State University,
said the two cultures were “biologically distinct groups.”
The bones and teeth showed that in contrast to the robust Kiffians, the
Tenerians were typically short and lean and apparently led less
rigorous lives. Perhaps, Dr. Stojanowski said, they had developed more
advanced hunting technologies for taking smaller fish and game.

The
shapes of the Tenerian skulls are puzzling, researchers said, because
they resemble those of Mediterranean people, not other groups from the
southern Sahara.

Dr. Sereno said in an interview that both
cultures, the Tenerians in particular, appeared to have settled into
semi-sedentary lives in a more or less year-round community. Families,
he said, are not usually part of mobile hunting parties, and yet many
of the burials at the site are of juveniles. The abundant refuse mounds
also attested to long-term occupation. - New York Times