Time Traveling to a Green Sahara

“You see those tiny rocks there? Those used to be plants,” said Dr. Paul Adderley, a soil scientist who was giving me a tour of Gobero, a 10,000 year old world in the middle of Niger’s Sahara desert.

We were standing on a low ridge looking across the barren earth stretching far beyond the horizon. As the wind kicked up, a sheet of sand moved across our feet.

“When this was a lake, there were reed-like plants living in the shallow areas along the banks. These plants left mineral deposits forming the little black rocks you see today.”

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Fossilized plants along the edge of a Holocene lake.

 

Plant remains are not the only things that have been revealed by the shifting Saharan sands. As we walked down into the depression that had been a lakebed during the early Holocene period (approximately 11,700 years ago), we scanned the ground covered with rock-like debris. Fragments of fossilized turtle shells, the scattered skeleton of a hippopotamus, and the needle-like bones of fish lay on the desert floor in much the same position they had taken after falling to the muddy depths of their ancient home millennia ago.

Amongst the petrified bones were stone arrowheads in a multitude of colors and broken pieces of harpoon made of bone. The animals of the Green Sahara were not alone.

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An ancient metate possibly used to grind wild rice.

 

On the other side of the lakebed at the top of a gentle rise, hundreds of people lay buried just below the ephemeral surface. Two paleontologists were lying on their sides gently brushing the sand away to reveal the knee of a tightly wrapped skeleton.

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“Gobero is extremely apropos,” Paul Sereno, the University of Chicago paleontologist leading the expedition, told me later under twinkling stars after dinner. “It witnessed the passage of two peoples who flourished and were vanquished by climate change.”

About 12,000 years ago, Africa’s seasonal rain patterns shifted slightly to the north creating a wetter environment in the Sahara. From 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, tall hunters known as the Kiffians exploited Gobero’s verdant lake and buried their dead along its shores. As the climate became arid and the lake disappeared, all life abandoned the area for the next 1,000 years.

When humidity returned to the region and the lake once again teemed with plants and animals, a shorter, more gracile group of cattle-herders known as the Tenerians took up residence at Gobero where they lived from about 6,500 to 4,500 years ago.

Like their Kiffian predecessors, the Tenerians left behind a legacy of arrow heads, harpoons, potsherds, stone metates, and unique burials at the top of the gentle rise along the shores of the lake. Mysteriously, they buried their dead beside the Kiffians without disturbing the earlier sites.

But once again, the lake dried up and its residents disappeared. Gobero has remained part of the dry, inhospitable Sahara ever since.

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As the shifting sands expose more artifacts, time is running out to learn as much as we can from the ancient inhabitants of Gobero.

 

“Gobero’s story is important to today’s world in which we see climate change,” continued Dr. Sereno. “How do people react to climate change? Will we be able to adapt?”

As industries around the world pump toxins into our waterways and spew pollutants into the air, the story of Gobero is a reminder of how fragile our existence is on this Green Planet. Without water, we cannot survive.

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With the muted light of the full moon behind him, Dr. Sereno concluded, “Both (the Kiffians and the Tenerians) lived off the fat of the land – fish in the lake, animals who came to drink – as long as they could, and when it ended… they moved somewhere else… and the story here ended.”

Driving back to modern civilization across the trackless Sahara, I thought about the fact that unlike these early Saharan peoples, we do not have anywhere else to go.

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Barcan dunes in the distance.

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