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"Perhaps the Tenerian found the Kiffian burials and recognized this place as sacred," Garcea offered. "It's possible they thought these bones belonged to their own ancestors."

The search for answers could not wait long. Gobero held at least 200 burials, which would take several field seasons to excavate. But the constant desert wind was eroding the site year by year, scattering the bones down the sides of the dunes. An even more dire concern was looters. Officials in Niger have identified close to a hundred Stone Age sites in the T�n�r� and report that nearly all were looted before they could be excavated. Often Tuareg traveling in camel caravans find the sites and scavenge artifacts to sell to dealers in Agadez, who in turn sell them illicitly to tourists. Though the Niger government has outlawed the sale of antiquities, only Gobero and one other site remained unlooted.

Members of the dig team suspected that a few of the soldiers were picking up artifacts as they patrolled the site's perimeter. When confronted by Sereno, they denied it. One night by the Tuareg fire, I asked one of the guides whether he thought anyone might pilfer artifacts. He shrugged. "When you are hungry and your children are hungry, what can you do?" Another confided to me that over the years he had collected a small number of artifacts during his travels in the desert. He produced a leather pouch that held an array of gemlike arrowheads and a beautiful knife chipped from the strange green stone. "These are not for sale," he said. "They are for my children. It is their history. I want them to see it before it is all gone."

SERENO FLEW HOME with the most important skeletons and artifacts and immediately began planning for the next field season. In the meantime, he carefully removed one tooth from each of four skulls and sent them to a lab for radiocarbon dating. The results pegged the age of the tightly bundled burials at roughly 9,000 years old, the heart of the Kiffian era. The smaller "sleeping" skeletons turned out to be about 6,000 years old, well within the Tenerian period. At least now the scientists knew who was who.

In the fall of 2006 they returned to Gobero, accompanied by a larger dig crew and six additional scientists. Garcea hoped to excavate some 80 burials, and the team began digging. As the skeletons began to emerge from the dunes, each presented a fresh riddle, especially the Tenerian. A male skeleton had been buried with a finger in his mouth. Another had been interred inside a frame of disarticulated human bones. Among the strangest was an adult male buried with a boar tusk and a crocodile ankle bone and his head resting on a clay pot. Parts of the skeleton appeared to have been burned, hinting that an elaborate ritual had accompanied his burial.

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