3 February 2004
Neolithic settlement found in Niger
Last year a team of paleontologists, led by Dr. Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago, while driving across the scorched and trackless Ténéré Desert of Niger, spotted human skeletons and stone tools eroding from a hillside. 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. "It's the largest site that has been found and not pillaged." Dr. Sereno 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.
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 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 lake. "I found some catfish skulls 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.
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.
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 permanent. "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.
Source: The New York Times (27 January 2004)