Ancient burial. Three skeletons have been discovered in a Saharan cemetery.

Mike Hettwer, 2008 National Geographic

Secrets of a Green Sahara

About 5300 years ago, near the center of modern-day Niger, a woman and two children died; how it happened is unclear. They were buried carefully on a bed of flowers--the woman, the 8-year-old, and the 5-year-old cuddled in a last embrace.

Millennia later, paleontologist Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago in Illinois and his team were looking for dinosaurs when they discovered the trio's remains. "It brought tears to our eyes," Sereno said at a press event yesterday at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Carbon dating revealed that the skeletons belonged to Tenerians, a people who lived in a region known as the Gobero when the Sahara was a lush savanna. Further excavation unearthed an entire cemetery--the Sahara's largest. The team also found the remains of Kiffians, who lived in the area 5000 years earlier, Sereno said.

The Gobero site also contained pottery shards, flower pollen, jewelry, and fossils that should help scientists fill out the picture of both groups. For example, skull measurements show that Kiffians stood more than 2 meters tall. And marks left by muscle attachments reveal that the Tenerians and Kiffians were fairly healthy, said team member Christopher Stojanowski, a bioarchaeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. The findings are reported online this week in PLoS ONE.