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Archaeology

An oasis in time

Today's Sahara is arid and inhospitable, but this was not always the case. In the early Holocene (between about 10,000 and 4,500 years ago), monsoon rains created a lush savannah rich in animal and plant life. Complex human societies settled there beside ancient lakes, as demonstrated by a recently reported archaeological site documenting nearly 5,000 years of human occupation (P. C. Sereno et al. PLoS ONE 3, e2995; 2008).

The site, named Gobero and situated in central Niger, contains about 200 burial sites, which, along with several rubbish dumps, provide a record of two distinct periods of human settlement. It was originally occupied 9,500 years ago by a tall, well-muscled people who fished the lake for Nile perch and large catfish with the use of bone harpoons and hooks. These people abandoned the site a little over 8,000 years ago when an extended arid period dried up the lake.

Credit: MIKE HETTWER/PROJECT EXPLORATION

Gobero was recolonized 1,000 years later by a slighter and shorter people who ate clams and small catfish from the now much shallower lake, as well as antelope and other vertebrates from the surrounding savannah. This population had sophisticated burial practices involving jewellery and grave goods, and what appear to be ritual poses. One grave, dated to be about 5,300 years old, contained a woman and two children buried together with clasped hands (pictured). Pollen found in this grave suggests that they were buried on a bed of wool flowers (Celosia).

Occupation of the Gobero site came to an end around 4,500 years ago, when changing climate returned this region to the arid desert conditions that persist to this day.

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Surridge, C. An oasis in time. Nature 454, 953 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/454953a

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