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December 8, 2008

Green Sahara

Photographer Mike Hettwer has been kind enough to share with us some of his photographs depicting what remains of the Green Sahara. About 9,000 years ago, a very wet climate prevailed in parts of the Sahara Desert called the Neolithic Subpluvial period. Lasting several thousand years, this Green Sahara was home to many grassland and woodland animals as well as humans. While on an expedition for dinosaur fossils with paleontologist Paul Sereno in Niger in 2000, Hettwer discovered a burial area containing hundreds of skeletons from two distinct cultures, each thousands of years old - the Kiffian and Tenerian. Also found in the dry and desolate site were hunting tools, pottery, and bones of large land animals and fish. Mike Hettwer's photographs have appeared in 2,500 magazines, newspapers books and web sites - many of these photos are from his article "Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara" in the Sep. 2008 issue of National Geographic. Also included are related photos from other expeditions, and with paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey. (17 photos total)

In the Gobero Area of the Sahara Desert in Niger, a 6,000 year old "Tenerian" skeleton was found with his middle finger in his mouth for reasons that are unknown. The average daily high temperature in this part of the Sahara Desert was 120F degrees (49C), a far cry from the Green Sahara 4-9,000 years ago. (© Mike Hettwer)

In the city of In Gall, Niger, men from the Wodaabe tribe dance and sing at the Gerewol festival just as a massive sandstorm hits. The Gerewol is an annual courting festival where the men try to look as beautiful as possible so they are chosen for mates by Wodaabe women. The women can select up to four men, and a man if not chosen, will be very lonely for the next year. The Wodaabe may be related to the ancient human groups that lived in the Gobero area thousands of years ago. (© Mike Hettwer) #

The Gobero archeology excavation site is an utterly desolate area of the Sahara, so remote that camels are never seen. This wide aerial view of camp shows distant sand dunes, the team's tents and a tiny group of archaeologists excavating skeletons (lower left). Looking at it today, It is hard to believe this was the Green Sahara thousands of years ago. (© Mike Hettwer) #

This cast of a Suchomimus dinosaur seen in Agadez, Niger, was donated to the country of Niger by paleontologist Paul Sereno at the Flamme de la Paix ceremony, that celebrated the end of a five year civil war. Suchomimus was a 110 million year old meat eater with a dinosaur's body and a crocodile's head. Over 20 new species of dinosaurs and crocodiles were found on this three month expedition. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Nigerien Army guards, on hand for protection from possible bandits, watch over the excavation of a 6,000 year old skeleton at a very rich archeology site in the Sahara Desert in Niger. Over 250 skeletons and thousands of tools, weapons, pot shards and ornaments were found in this site in the Gobero area. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Six thousand years ago, a mother and two children died at the same time and were buried here holding hands. Someone obviously cared a great deal, as the scientist found that flowers were placed above and below the bodies. It is not yet known how they died. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Frequent sandstorms blew up to 30 mph during the dig, sometimes quickly covering the skeletons that took a day to excavate. (© Mike Hettwer) #

One of the most well preserved Tenerian skeletons looked as if it had just fallen asleep in the sand six thousand years ago. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Dr. Chris Stojanowski of Arizona State University and an an undergrad student examine a woman who died at age twenty at the very rich Gobero archeology site. (© Mike Hettwer) #

This Tenerian man was found with his head buried in a pot and was affectionately known as "Pot Head". He also had a crocodile ankle bone and a wild boar tusk among the grave goods. (© Mike Hettwer) #

This 8,000 year-old giraffe rock carving in DaBous, Niger is considered one of the finest petroglyphs in the world. The giraffe has a leash on its nose implying some level of taming the animals. It was found relatively recently on the top of a granite hill by local Touaregs and dates to the Kiffian era of 7,000 - 9,000 years ago. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Two Tenerian skeletons almost perfectly preserved, were found early in the excavation process. The skeleton on the left was found with its middle finger in its mouth. The one on the right was buried in a grave where the bones of a previous burial were pushed out of the way. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Interestingly, ancient sand has a memory of when it last saw light. To provide dates for the original lakebed, a hole must be dug to the original lake bottom on a pitch black, moonless night. Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating of the sand completed at a US lab proved the lake bottom was formed 15,000 years ago during the last ice age. (© Mike Hettwer) #

A Wodaabe boy walks the family cows home each night from a well five miles away. The Wodaabe may be the closest modern relatives to the groups found at the huge archeology excavation site. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Renowned dinosaur hunter Paul Sereno fights an 80 mph sandstorm that eventually tore apart the team's tents in the highly deforested Gobi Desert. It was not uncommon for team members to wake with a half inch of sand on their faces in the 36F degree (2C) weather. (© Mike Hettwer) #

Two members of Meave Leakey's prospecting team cut burlap strips that will be soaked in plaster and wrapped around 1.9 million year old hippo skull for protection. Three generations of the Leakey family have found hundreds of 1-4 million year old human fossils for over fifty years in these extremely rich fossil beds. (© Meave Leakey) #

A previous burial was pushed out of the way to make way for this woman's skeleton. There were two football-field-size cemeteries found on this site, where 250 skeletons were found. (© Mike Hettwer) #

 
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