10 thousand years ago, real giants lived in the then green Sahara, whose height exceeded two meters. 8 thousand years ago they disappeared, and after a thousand years they were replaced by other people - small, but not alien to beauty. At least, they knew how to bury their dead in a beautiful and varied manner.
When paleontologist Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago set out in 2000 to search for new dinosaur bones in the Sahara Desert in 2000, he had no idea that he would return from there as an archaeologist. Arriving in northeastern Niger, Sereno and his colleagues day after day, strip after strip sifted the sand of Tenere - one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world, which even the nomadic inhabitants of the Sahara call nothing but "desert in the desert." There were practically no finds. Towards the evening of the last day of excavations, the scientists were about to leave, and most of them went to the camp, but Sereno still insisted that his team get to the remote hill, promising his employees that the expedition would end on this hill.
Sereno kept his promise, but the end of that expedition was the beginning of a great new work: on the way to the hill, scientists found a whole Stone Age cemetery.
Human bones, perfectly preserved in the African sand, were sticking right out of the ground, and their paleontologist-archaeologist noticed them even from the car, driving up to the cemetery. Sereno himself spoke about this at a press conference organized by the American National Geographic Society, which partially funded the work.
In Niger, in the Gobero region, scientists first returned in 2003 and over the past five years have found about 200 Stone Age graves located on two ancient dunes, each about a hundred meters across; the dunes are just a couple of hundred meters apart. About a third of these graves - 67 to be precise - have been studied in detail by scientists. It is the results of the study of these 67 graves and the numerous bones and artifacts found both in these graves and in their vicinity that constitute the content of the article published in PLoS ONE.
To examine real bones, and not their fossils, paleontologists are not accustomed to. As a rule, they get, in fact, casts of ancient bones, the substance of which has been replaced by another breed over millions of years. Of course, working with "real" material is more interesting, but there are some difficulties as well. For example, in paleontology, it is relatively easy to determine the age of fossils - just look at which layer they were found in. Here, Sereno and his colleagues had to apply carbon analysis directly to the bones themselves.
As it turned out, the bones of people belonging to two cultures at once rest in Gobero.
The first, about 10 thousand years ago, tribes of strong people, hunters and fishermen came here, which scientists attributed to the Kiffian culture. Just two millennia earlier, the last ice age ended, the Earth entered the Holocene, and the Sahara, which remained a dry desert for many thousands of years, was filled with water and life. There was a small lake in Gobero, which, according to archaeologists, attracted people. At the bottom of the lake there were many shells of bivalve mollusks, which people of the Stone Age ate, and turtles and fish were found in its waters up to 8 meters deep, including relatives of the giant Nile perch, the length of which reached 1.5–2 meters. The skeletons of these fish, which are indeed very similar to the perch, which we are accustomed to enlarged many times, were found by archaeologists both at the bottom of the dried lake and on its coast; they also found the tips of the harpoons with which the Kiffians hunted these giants.
There was also something to profit from in the forests that surrounded the lake. Judging by the abundance of animal bones and teeth that scientists have been able to discover, the territories where Niger is now located, one of the most impoverished and joyless states on the planet, 10 thousand years ago resembled a mixture of modern Kenya with South Africa. Elephants, rhinos, giraffes, antelopes and African boars were found here. They were probably all food for the people who inhabited Gobero from about 7,700 to 6,200 BC.
To hunt elephants, rhinos and giant fish, you need to have remarkable strength. And it seems that the Kiffians met these requirements. They were real giants: judging by the skeletons that were found in the graves of the Kiffian episode in the history of Gobero - The height of these people, who lived 10 thousand years ago, often exceeded 2 meters.
A medium height adult inhabitants of the vicinity of the ancient lake was about 1, 8 meters - for both men and women. The Kiffians were not just giants, they were massively built and very muscular., as evidenced, in particular, by prominent marks in the places where muscles were attached to the bone, which remained on some of the thighs extracted from the graves. Often, bones that are several thousand years old can also contain remnants of soft tissue, but in the case of the Sahara Desert, exceptional weather conditions force anthropologists to base their judgments solely on bone analysis.
In order to maintain powerful muscles, the Kiffians had to receive a diet rich in proteins, and this, in the conditions of the Stone Age, invariably had to mean a very intense rhythm of life with constant hunting and fishing. Apparently so these people lived for one and a half thousand years, but about 8 thousand years ago they suddenly disappeared.
According to Sereno and his colleagues, at that moment another drought came to Africa, turning the Sahara back into a desert for a thousand years.
A thousand years later, another period of "green Sahara" began - the last one at the moment. True, the lake, on the shore of which the Kiffians buried their dead, never returned to its original level. According to archaeologists, from eight meters its depth returned only to the three-meter mark. This, however, did not prevent the fish from somehow returning here after a thousand-year drought.
Comparison of the skulls of representatives of the Kiffian (left) and Tenerian (right) population of Gobero. The Kiffian died in adulthood, scientists estimate the age of the skull by the radiocarbon method at 9, 5 thousand years. The age of the Tenerian at the time of death is about 18 years old, his skull is already 5, 8 thousand years old.
People also returned, but they were no longer two-meter giants, but people of an ordinary build, much smaller in stature, 1, 5-1, 6 meters. Apparently, they were not the descendants of the Kiffians, who returned to the once abandoned lands to the shore of their dear lake. The representatives of this culture, which was dubbed the Tenerian by the name of the Tenere desert, were biologically different from their predecessors. According to archaeologists, the skull structure of the Tenerians makes them more similar to the Mediterranean peoples than to the current inhabitants of the south of the Sahara. And on their bones, traces of muscle attachment are practically invisible, which means that in terms of muscularity they were significantly inferior to the Kiffians.
The culture has also changed. The Tenerians, who lived in the Gobero area for almost three thousand years - from about 5200 to 2500 BC, were not purely hunters. They came to the lake, having already learned to graze cattle, although, judging by the preserved bones, they did not refuse fishing either. True, in the shallow lake there was no longer a place for the giant Nile perch, it was replaced by telapia and catfish.
Artifacts from the Tenerian period are also significantly different. Not only clay pots and stone spearheads are found in their graves. The art of the Tenerians was far more advanced, and the rituals more sophisticated. At the same time, they were incredibly diverse: people in the graves are located in completely different positions.
This culture is associated with, perhaps, the most amazing find of archaeologists, which made us remember the ancient Romeo and Juliet, found last year in northern Italy. This time, in the grave, scientists unearthed the skeletons of three people at once - a young woman about 25 years old and two children - probably her children about 5 and 8 years old.
The Tenerei buried the mother and her children on a carpet of flowers.
The paleontologists who turned into archaeologists did not forget their art and were able to see in the grave a huge amount of pollen of completely different colors. In addition, unlike archaeologists who usually take photographs of burials and then take them apart, Sereno and his colleagues used a typical paleontological method. True, there is no solid rock, a piece of which they could carve out together with the bones, on the ancient sand dune. Instead, scientists filled everything with special plastic and removed the entire ancient burial from the ground.
Five thousand years later, children and mother are still reaching out to each other, embracing forever after death. Nothing of the kind is known among prehistoric relics.
The most amazing thing, Sereno and his colleagues believe, is that, despite a thousand years that separated the burials of the Kiffians and the Tenerians, despite the fact that they are in no way related to each other and despite the fact that there is practically nothing in common between the two cultures, both of them chose the same place to bury your dead. The graves of the Kiffians and the Tenerians are mixed and seem to be quite accidentally scattered over two ancient dunes.
At the same time, none of the Tenerian graves disturbed the peace of the dead Kiffians.
This is a very remarkable fact, Sereno and his colleagues believe. Perhaps the ancient graves were marked in some way. It is unclear, however, how the gravestones could have existed for thousands of years, separating the two cultures from each other, but not survived to this day, after 5 thousand years ago, the Sahara finally turned into a desert, the dry land and sand of which perfectly preserved the bones of ancient people.
Perhaps the answer to this question will be given by the study of other burials: two-thirds of them remain intact, and some, possibly, undiscovered.