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The twilight of the Green Sahara around 4,500 years ago might have been the perfect time to be hunting at Gobero, said Carlo Giraudi, the team's geologist. As water sources dried up throughout the region, animals would have been drawn to pocket wetlands, making them easier to kill. Four middens found on the dunes and dated to around that time included hundreds of animal remains, as well as fish bones and clamshells—not usually part of a herder's diet. "The Green Sahara's climate was rapidly changing," said Giraudi, "but just before the lake dried up, the people at Gobero would have thought they were living in a golden period."

Then they were gone, leaving only bones and a few artifacts to bear witness. On my last day at Gobero, Sereno and his colleagues began excavating a particularly poignant burial containing three skeletons. Several members of the dig team interrupted their own work to watch. Soon a few of the Tuareg abandoned their late afternoon tea and wandered over, and a couple of soldiers joined the group. Evening breezes began to sweep away the desert's intense heat. As the sand was carefully brushed away, a petite Tenerian woman came into clear relief, lying on her side. Facing her were the skeletons of two children. Their molars suggested they were five and eight years old when they died. Each child reached tiny arms toward the woman. Her fragile arm bones reached back to them. Between the skeletons lay a cluster of disarticulated finger bones, implying the deceased had been laid to rest holding hands.

Was this a mother and her children? Had a grieving father posed his family in this gesture of love before covering them with sand? The questions rippled around the graveside in English, French, Tamashek, and Hausa. The skeletons exhibited no clear signs of trauma, though four arrowheads turned up near the bones, perhaps part of a burial ritual. But if their deaths weren't violent, how did they all die at the same time? If it was a disease or a plague, who would have been left to bury the bodies in such an elaborate fashion? Maybe, someone suggested, they drowned in the lake.

Back in Arizona, Stojanowski continues to analyze the Gobero bones for clues to the Green Saharans' health and diet. Other scientists are trying to derive DNA from the teeth, which could reveal the genetic origins of the Kiffian and Tenerian—and possibly link them to descendants living today. Sereno and Garcea estimate a hundred burials remain to be excavated. But as the harsh Ténéré winds continue to erode the dunes, time is running out. "Every archaeological site has a life cycle," Garcea said. "It begins when people begin to use the place, followed by disuse, then nature takes over, and finally it is gone. Gobero is at the end of its life."

In February of 2007, as the team was making plans to return to Niger, hostilities broke out again between some of Niger's Tuareg groups and the government. By December, Human Rights Watch had reported scores of soldiers and civilians had been killed or injured in clashes and by land mines. The government declared emergency rule in the region, prohibiting foreigners from traveling to the Ténéré. Sereno and Garcea were forced to cancel the 2007 and 2008 dig seasons. Meanwhile, the wind blows across Gobero, and the desert continues to consume the last remnants of the Green Sahara.

A veteran of five expeditions in the Gobi and Sahara deserts, Mike Hettwer photographed "SuperCroc" for National Geographic in December 2001.
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