August 14, 2008

Kiffians and Tenerians from the Sahara

From the NY Times:
From an analysis of the skeletons and pottery in those two seasons, scientists identified the two successive cultures that occupied the settlement. The Kiffians, some of whom stood up to six feet tall, both men and women, lived there during the Sahara’s wettest period, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. They were primarily hunter-gatherers who speared huge lake perch with harpoons.


Elena A. A. Garcea, an archaeologist at the University of Cassino in Italy, identified ceramics with wavy lines and zigzag patterns as Kiffian, a culture associated with northern Africa. Pots bearing a pointillistic pattern were linked to the Tenerians, a people named for the Ténéré Desert, a stretch of the Sahara known to Tuareg nomads as a “desert within a desert.”

Christopher M. Stojanowski, an archaeologist at Arizona State University, said the two cultures were “biologically distinct groups.” The bones and teeth showed that in contrast to the robust Kiffians, the Tenerians were typically short and lean and apparently led less rigorous lives. Perhaps, Dr. Stojanowski said, they had developed more advanced hunting technologies for taking smaller fish and game.

The shapes of the Tenerian skulls are puzzling, researchers said, because they resemble those of Mediterranean people, not other groups from the southern Sahara.

PLoS ONE 3(8): e2995. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002995

Lakeside Cemeteries in the Sahara: 5000 Years of Holocene Population and Environmental Change

Paul C. Sereno et al.


Approximately two hundred human burials were discovered on the edge of a paleolake in Niger that provide a uniquely preserved record of human occupation in the Sahara during the Holocene (~8000 B.C.E. to the present). Called Gobero, this suite of closely spaced sites chronicles the rapid pace of biosocial change in the southern Sahara in response to severe climatic fluctuation.

Methodology/Principal Findings

Two main occupational phases are identified that correspond with humid intervals in the early and mid-Holocene, based on 78 direct AMS radiocarbon dates on human remains, fauna and artifacts, as well as 9 OSL dates on paleodune sand. The older occupants have craniofacial dimensions that demonstrate similarities with mid-Holocene occupants of the southern Sahara and Late Pleistocene to early Holocene inhabitants of the Maghreb. Their hyperflexed burials compose the earliest cemetery in the Sahara dating to ~7500 B.C.E. These early occupants abandon the area under arid conditions and, when humid conditions return ~4600 B.C.E., are replaced by a more gracile people with elaborated grave goods including animal bone and ivory ornaments.


The principal significance of Gobero lies in its extraordinary human, faunal, and archaeological record, from which we conclude the following:

  1. The early Holocene occupants at Gobero (7700–6200 B.C.E.) were largely sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherers with lakeside funerary sites that include the earliest recorded cemetery in the Sahara.

  2. Principal components analysis of craniometric variables closely allies the early Holocene occupants at Gobero with a skeletally robust, trans-Saharan assemblage of Late Pleistocene to mid-Holocene human populations from the Maghreb and southern Sahara.

  3. Gobero was abandoned during a period of severe aridification possibly as long as one millennium (6200–5200 B.C.E).

  4. More gracile humans arrived in the mid-Holocene (5200–2500 B.C.E.) employing a diversified subsistence economy based on clams, fish, and savanna vertebrates as well as some cattle husbandry.

  5. Population replacement after a harsh arid hiatus is the most likely explanation for the occupational sequence at Gobero.

  6. We are just beginning to understand the anatomical and cultural diversity that existed within the Sahara during the Holocene.



Crimson Guard said...

Personally I think the Tenerians shouldve been more healthier than the Kiffians. Fish and a farming guaranteed higher grade protein and continuous supply of nourishment on daily basis. Hunting large game is never a sure thing and wont exactly turn you into a superman either.

pconroy said...

Interestingly, New Scientist says that the Kiffians were up to 2 metres tall - or 6' 6" - while the NYT says 6' - I think Nick Wade got his math wrong?!

pconroy said...

So were the Kiffians associated with the Rif Berbers, who are sometimes called Riffians?

pconroy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pconroy said...

I see that National Geographic states that one Kiffian was 6' 8".

I wonder where the herding Tenerians came from - could they be from the Near East and maybe R1b*, then headed south after the Sahara reverted to desert, to become the Northern Cameroonians of today?

Kosmo said...

Wow. Rush Limbaugh just talked about this on his radio show. (That might not mean much to folks not in the U.S.) Talk about cultural penetration.

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

No one mentioned DNA.Are they gonna DNA test these NorthAfrican bones? I read the tall ones were a North African People,but the short thin ones were Mediterranean- looking. Is there any salvagable DNA in bones thousands of years old? The Cheddar man was 12,000 years old and DNA was still able to be extracted out of his tooth to show his Momma's Origin.

Unknown said...

I saw the skulls, great find.

One thing leaves me confused. Why does the article state they look like Mediterraneans and that it is puzzling they don't look like Sub Saharans.
Firstly, what is so puzzling about it? The skulls were found in the Sahara not the South Sahara, unless they are stating that other remains found in that area were "Sub Saharan" while these were not I don't understand what the "confusion" would be here because Saharan skulls were not similar to SUB Saharan skulls...

Further, these skulls are unlike any other Mediterranean skull I have seen, and by Mediterranean I deal primarily with the old term coined towards European groups. So, exactly what group of Mediterraneans are they claiming they have affinities to?
The word Mediterranean used here then leaves ME puzzled, since it describes all ethnicities bordering the Mediterranean sea including negroid and mixed populations like present day Egyptians, Berbers and nomadic tribes.
What then are the racial affinities the article is adhering to?

My personal opinion lies in the notion that they may have have been a mixed race people. Perhaps this is what the article is hinting at itself, it might be puzzling that they can't seem to pin point any one racial category to assign the skulls to so simply class them as "Mediteranean" by description of geography instead of racial anthropological groupings.
Similar to the Natufian skulls which were described as Mediterranean with negroid characteristics, this group too may have undergone a similar means of demic diffusion.

We won't be able to tell until the DNA samples are presented. I suppose we will wait another 8 years.

Unknown said...

I was looking at the picture of the Kiffian skull, and it seemed to me from the one picture I could find that it seems to have some Neanderthal-like features (square orbs, low forehead vault, brow ridges, nasal opening shape, chin shape, robustness). I have seen no pictures of the back, bottom or side of the Kiffian skull.

Do you think the Kiffian people could have had some Neanderthal contributions?

kiffian skull picture link:

Kosmo said...

Pete, thanks for posting the pic. Yeah, I'd agree with you. That frontal bone looks very much Neanderthal to me. I wonder if anyone else is talking about this?

Certainly the two populations are very, very different from each other.

pconroy said...

I think the Kiffians look a little Neanderthal like, but a lot Cro-Magnon - that why they might be related to Berbers and Guanche from the canary Islands (especially Tenerife) - who were tall and powerfully built also.

dave in boca said...

The Cro-Magnons migrated south into N. Africa long ago & they [or their Nordic descenants?] are ancestral to the Berbers & Tuareg among others in N. Africa.