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Scientists Find Stone Age Burial Ground From Once-green Sahara

August 14, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The original search was for dinosaur bones, but at a site in Niger in the Southern Sahara, scientists came across the bones of an entirely different species: humans.

The site called Gobero contains a cemetery with some 200 graves with skeletons from two distinct populations, dating as far back as 10,000 years, some buried in ritual poses.

Artifacts such as jewelry and ceramics were found, as were harpoon tips and other fishing tools, evidence of a time when the Sahara was green and filled with lakes.

And joining us now is Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago professor and paleontologist who led the team. It was funded in part by National Geographic.

So you go looking for dinosaurs. Sometimes you go looking for something and you find something else?

PAUL SERENO, University of Chicago: You know, that’s really part of discovery, maybe the best part, finding something unexpected.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is an area, I gather, where it was known that long ago was lush. There was green; there was water. What’s the surprise that you found here?

PAUL SERENO: Well, the surprise is that we get much more of the picture when you find hundreds of burials. You get entire bodies. You get stature. You get health. You really get a look at the lifestyle of these people. You get to understand what they were eating, what they’re hunting.

And we actually found a cemetery. We found people that were buried at right about the same time. This was very unexpected in the middle of the Sahara. This is something we usually reserve for sedentary or stable people building pyramids and things like that.

But here, in the middle of the Sahara, we got a cemetery, a very interesting lifestyle. So that’s really what we’re getting out of this.