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Scientists Explore Lakefront Property, in the Sahara

Published: January 27, 2004

he paleontologists were driving across the scorched and trackless Ténéré Desert
of Niger, following a low ridge of rock bearing dinosaur fossils. Suddenly,
someone on the team, led by Dr. Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago,
spotted something dark against the tawny dunes.

Getting out of their vehicles, they stepped into sand littered with the
fossilized bones of modern crocodiles, hippos, camels and birds ? interesting
creatures, to be sure, but not exactly the quarry of these paleontologists. "But
then things got really strange," recalls Gabrielle Lyon, a member of the
expedition who is Dr. Sereno's wife and the director of Project Exploration, a
science education group.

As members of the group stood around their vehicles comparing finds, Mike
Hettwer, the expedition photographer, came loping up with news of human
skeletons and stone tools eroding from a hillside.

In search of pieces of the 110-million-year-old Cretaceous puzzle, Dr. Sereno's
team had found what archaeologists in Niger say is a large Neolithic, or Stone
Age, burial and settlement site tentatively dated at 5,000 years old.

"It's a very important site," says Dr. Abdoulaye Maga, an archaeologist with the
Institute of Research in the Human Sciences in Niamey, Niger, who visited it in
2000, shortly after the discovery. "It's the largest site that has been found
and not pillaged." Though he has discovered and excavated a few dozen new
species of African dinosaurs, Dr. Sereno has no experience with prehistoric
human sites like this. He said his team counted 130 skeletons, including one
with the remains of a stone bead necklace and innumerable stone and bone tools.
He suspects, he says, that much more lies buried.

"I'm not afraid of any kind of dinosaur, the uglier the better," he said. "But
here for the first time I got goose bumps because I was looking at my own
skeleton, a modern human."

Dr. Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of California at
Santa Cruz who has discussed the site with Dr. Sereno, said the discovery was a
"big deal" and merited "serious, serious work."

Fearing the site would be looted and ruined, Dr. Sereno initially told only Dr.
Maga and his colleagues about its location. Because financing for archaeological
work in Niger is scarce, no excavation was begun.

When Dr. Sereno returned to the site in November, he saw it had deteriorated so
he and his team spent two days in their two-month expedition mapping it and then
applying a polymer to the surface artifacts to protect them from further
erosion. He is now trying to find financing and other archaeologists to assist
Dr. Maga with the excavation.

No radiocarbon dating has been done yet; Dr. Maga based his dating on the
presence of a thin, discoid knife made of green jasper that is characteristic of
a little-known population, traditionally called the Ténérian culture, that lived
in the area some 5,000 years ago.

Today the Ténéré Desert, a California-size part of the Sahara that blankets much
of Niger and is famous for its 100-mile-long sand dunes, is one of the driest
places on earth and practically uninhabited.

But five millennia ago the environment there was much wetter, and Dr. Sereno
thinks the sediments suggest that the settlement may have been on the shore of a

"I found some catfish skulls, a bunch of them, and there was a little tail, and
I'm blowing the sand off and then I run into the edge of a ceramic bowl that was
around them," Dr. Sereno said. "I was looking at a bowl of fossilized catfish.
Someone in the middle of a meal abandoned this bowl, and it got fossilized."

Dr. Sereno's team identified five distinct areas at the site, including two
large burial places of more than 100 yards in diameter. Besides the skeletons
and the jasper knife, they found several large grinding stones, harpoons and
fishhooks made of bone, fingernail-size arrowheads in many colors, and jewelry,
including a round pendant made of the fluted tooth of the hippopotamus and a
necklace made of ostrich egg shell and stone beads.

Scattered across the site were fish and animal bones, including those of
domesticated cattle. With the exception of a few items they plucked off the
surface and have brought back to show archaeologists, the team did not disturb

While the history of the powerful Egyptian civilization of the same era has been
widely studied, the culture of the vast interior of central Africa has begun to
attract attention only in the last few decades.

"There was a very rich and fascinating cultural manifestation around what is now
the Ténéré desert but then was grassland and marshes," said Dr.
Gifford-Gonzalez. "We're not thinking one culture. We're thinking a network of
people who interacted from the Sudanese Nile all the way across the Sahara."

Indeed, the greenish stone used in some of the arrowheads is probably amazonite,
which comes from several hundred miles away in the Tibesti Mountains of
northeastern Chad, said Dr. Augustin F. C. Holl, an archaeologist at the
University of Michigan and curator of West African archaeology at the Museum of
Anthropology there.

The people who made these tools maintained herds of domesticated cattle, goats
and sheep. But they did not grow crops; they harvested the abundant wild grains
that grew along lakes and streams.

Dr. Holl said the vastness of the cemeteries suggests they may have been used
over many centuries, and perhaps only during the dry months, when small groups
gathered at seasonal lakes. In the rainy season, they would have taken their
herds into the highlands, such as the Aïr Mountains of Central Niger, where many
rock carvings have been found. 

But Dr. Maga in Niger and Dr. Susan McIntosh, an archaeologist at Rice
University in Houston who works in Mali, believe the settlement was probably

"They were clearly fishing part of the time, they had their cattle, they had
their cereals, so this is looking like a pretty comprehensive economy," Dr.
McIntosh said.