Digging into the “Green Desert” of Niger’s Holocene Past

After the massive media buzz surrounding the last paper published in PLoS ONE by Paul Sereno, in which he and colleagues described the anatomy and behaviour of Nigersaurus taqueti (dubbed “the Mesozoic cow” by the press), you can imagine that we were quite excited to receive another paper from the University of Chicago Palaeontologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.

Sereno and his team had originally been on a dinosaur-hunting expedition in the Ténéré Desert in Niger (which is where the Nigersaurus fossil was discovered) when they happened on a large, Stone Age graveyard. In the new PLoS ONE article, Lakeside Cemeteries in the Sahara: 5000 Years of Holocene Population and Environmental Change, the researchers outline the findings from a series of new archaeological sites at Gobero, dating from the Holocene and preserving the earliest Saharan cemetery from around 9500 years ago, as well as burials from two separate periods of occupation spanning more than 5000 years. Arid conditions forced the initial occupants to abandon the area a little over 8000 years ago but with the return of more humid conditions, around 6600 years ago, the region was repopulated by a more gracile people who left behind elaborate grave goods, including animal bone and ivory ornaments, many of which are pictured in the paper.

One of the graves contained the skeleton of a small Tenerian woman facing the skeletons of two small children (a photograph of this by Mike Hettwer, captioned Stone Age Embrace, has been widely used alongside many of the news stories on the article). Samples from the grave contained pollen clusters, suggesting the individuals had been laid to rest on a bed of flowers.

Some of the accompanying images are part of the published paper (and so can be reused in line with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License); other images, along with more information about the expedition can be found on the Project Exploration website (Project Exploration being a nonprofit science education organization that makes science accessible to the public—especially minority youth and girls—through personalized experiences with scientists and science). Any users registered on the PLoS ONE site can, of course, post notes and comments and rate the paper online.

Understandably, the article received huge amounts of coverage in the media and in the blogosphere (despite “Bigfoot”’s efforts to steal the spotlight). As well as making the front page of Slashdot, the story was the top Associated Press science story on Thursday (it was also one of the overall top stories), it was in Yahoo science news’s most viewed list on Friday, and in the New York Times most-emailed list. There were several hundred news stories on Google News, so here are a few highlights of the coverage (see also Knight Science Journalism Tracker and A Blog Around the Clock):

News:

New York Times – Graves Found From Sahara’s Green Period
Washington Post – Excavations Show a Lush Life in the Sahara
Los Angeles Times – Archaeologists get a glimpse of life in a Sahara Eden
Reuters – Stone Age graveyard shows Sahara was once green
National Geographic – Ancient Cemetery Found; Brings "Green Sahara" to Life
Scientific American – Paleontology's Indiana Jones
New Scientist – Stone Age mass graves reveal green Sahara
Nature News – Back when the desert was green

Blogs:

Wired – Saharan Snapshot of Stone Age Life
Pharyngula – I Wish I Was a Paleontologist
Greg Laden’s Blog – Stone Age Graveyard Reveals Lifestyles of a Green Sahara
Stones, Bones ‘n’ Things – Paleontology Meets Archaeology
Anthropology.net – The Kiffian & Tenerean Occupation Of Gobero, Niger: Perhaps The Largest Collection Of Early-Mid Holocene People In Africa
Metafilter – Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara

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