email a friend iconprinter friendly iconGreen Sahara
Page [ 6 ] of 7

Garcea paid close attention to these details. In lieu of a written language, such clues are critical to understanding what she described as a culture's "software"—its traditions, value system, and beliefs about the supernatural. The very act of burial contains a message, Garcea told me as she delicately brushed dirt from another Tenerian skeleton. "By infusing the land with the remains of your people, you claim it."

Unlike the Tenerian burials, the bundles of Kiffian bones came with few artifacts to shed light on their culture. But bones and teeth alone can say a lot about the daily lives of a vanished people. Their appearance can reveal an individual's sex, age, and general health, and they hold chemical signatures that, analyzed in a lab, can reveal the kinds of food a person ate and the location of the water sources he drank from.

Even at the site, Arizona State University bioarchaeologist Chris Stojanowski could begin to piece together some clues. Judging by the bones, the Kiffian appeared to be a peaceful, hardworking people. "The lack of head and forearm injuries suggests they weren't doing much fighting," he told me. "And these guys were strong." He pointed to a long, narrow ridge running along a femur. "That's the muscle attachment," he said. "This individual had huge leg muscles, which means he was eating a lot of protein and had a strenuous lifestyle—both consistent with a fishing way of life." For contrast, he showed me the femur of a Tenerian male. The ridge was barely perceptible. "This guy had a much less strenuous lifestyle," he said, "which you might expect of a herder."

Stojanowski's assessment that the Tenerian were herders fits the prevailing view among scholars of life in the Sahara 6,000 years ago, when drier conditions favored herding over hunting. But if the Tenerian were herders, Sereno pointed out, where were the herds? Among the hundreds of animal bones that had turned up at the site, none belonged to goats or sheep, and only three came from a cow species. "It's not unusual for a herding culture not to slaughter their cattle, particularly in a cemetery," Garcea responded, noting that even modern pastoralists, such as Niger's Wodaabe, are loath to butcher even one animal in their herd. Perhaps, Sereno reasoned, the Tenerian at Gobero were a transitional group that had not fully adopted herding and still relied heavily on hunting and fishing.

Page [ 6 ] of 7