As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Paleontology Meets Archaeology
Posted Aug 14,2008

Hettwer_2Not only are multiple burials like this rare, but Paul Sereno and his team
have gone a step futher by preparing both the upper and lower sides of this
burial as a two sided cast, creating a unique display. The upper side, shown here on the left, shows what is assumed to be a mother (on the right), clasping the hands of her children. Photograph by Mike Hettwer.

Back in 2000 photographer Mike Hettwer was wandering around the fossil strewn desert of Niger near where Paul Sereno, whose expedition he was photographing, was excavating dinosaurs and giant crocodiles. Hettwer stumbled across an unexpected treasure trove of fossils. Today Paul Sereno announced the stunning discovery. Another dinosaur? No. This time it is a Neolithic graveyard containing the bones of dozens of people who lived between 10,000 B.C. and 5,000 B.C.. Sereno and his colleagues say it may be the largest collection of Neolithic bones ever discovered at a single site in Africa. And no, these people did not live with dinosaurs, the geology shows that the burials are on a Neolithic "island," which dates back about 12,000 years, in a desert that has otherwise been scoured down to Cretaceous sediments over 100 million years old. You can read all about the significance of the people living at the Gobero site in our National Geographic magazine article in the September issue. But you may not read elsewhere about the extraordinary methods Sereno used to collect and protect archaeological remains from this site.

Sereno is a vertebrate paleontologist and is accustomed to wrapping fragile dinosaur remains in plaster "jackets" as a way to protect them for transport them to a laboratory where they will be opened and "excavated" under microscopes and dental drills. This is the treatment he prescribed for a few of the two hundred or so human burials unearthed at Gobero, with the consent of the project's co-director, archaeologist and Sahara expert, Elena Garcea. This contrasts to what is most often practiced by archaeologists in the field, which is that human remains are exposed by careful brushwork and noodling with small tools and then removed, bone by bone, to be carted off for study in the lab.

The results, as Sereno presents them, are spectacular. Two such jacketed specimens steal the show. The first is a young woman who lies in fetal position with a hippo-bone arm bracelet on her upper arm, the earliest example of this found in situ, according to Sereno. The second is what will undoubtedly become famous as the first example of a Neolithic triple burial. The threesome is likely a mother buried with her children, an eight-year-old and a twelve-year-old. If that were not heart wrenching enough, Sereno and colleagues have shown, through pollen analysis, that it is likely that the threesome were laid on a bed of beautiful flowers. The display of the triple burial is remarkable. It has been prepared as a two sided display, where viewers can get a look over and under the burial. This two sided approach is reminiscent of how some mammal and fish fossils from the famous Messel site in Germany are displayed.

Hettwer2 This photograph shows the state of the fossil as it was found. Notice that
the skulls of one of the children and the mother are quite eroded. Artist
Tyler Keillor was able to reconstruct the missing skulls and some extremities to create the cast shown at the top of this post. Photograph by Mike Hettwer.

There are certainly up sides and down sides to Sereno's unusual approach. The up side is that we now have a memorable and evocative display that will be preserved indefinitely. The downside is that the bones might not be easy to study, since they are fixed in position. This does not overly concern biological anthropologist Chris Stojanowski, who has studied the Gobero bones and is a coauthor of the paper released today in PLoSOne. He feels that the jacketing method is actually a good technique for protecting the fragile fossils. The biggest problem, he says, is that the technique requires time and budgets far beyond those of the standard archaeological project.

What do you think of Sereno's approach?

For lots more information about this project, check out Sereno's Project Exploration web site.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (5)
Filed Under: archaeology


Aug 14, 2008 3PM #

How wonderful! Where and when can I see the artifacts from the site in person?

Aug 14, 2008 3PM #

Awesome find! Great work guys/ladies. On a lighter note - should we blame global warming for turning the Sahara into a desert?? Is Al Gore in route for a press conference.

chris sloan
Aug 14, 2008 3PM #

Brett: In general, when it is warmer, it is also wetter, and when it is cooler, it is drier. It is never really that simple, but it is a useful guide to remember. The situation in the Sahara is linked to the monsoons, whose moisture decreased as the Earth gradually cooled. So, roughly speaking, the cooler, drier idea works there.


Rebecca Reeder-Hunt
Aug 14, 2008 3PM #

This is an amazing find! Isn't it interesting how we constantly have to revise what we think we know about life on Earth. The story about the possible flower petal burial bed is incredibly touching. I applaud their cast approach in this case, too.

Tammy Raetz
Aug 14, 2008 3PM #

I didn't know where else to make this comment. It seems as though someone else should have proposed this theory already: The Tenerian "burials" are clearly in sleeping positions. I have slept with my own children in just the same positions when camping. The skeletons are covered by sand. The Sahara is known for giant sandstorms. It would be interesting to know if the bones are in the same plane or stratum. Why has no one suggested that a community went to sleep one night and were buried by a catastrophic sandstorm? The sand over top had to come from somewhere. Rather than grave goods, the bits of bone, arrowheads, etc. may have been on or in the clothing, or nearby in their small shelters, long since disintegrated. I would like to read one of the excavating scientists' response to this.

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