Jeff Stivers and the "Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara"



Over the past 5 years, Wildland's own Jeff Stivers has been foraying into Ténéré, a vast desolate region within the Sahara desert, in order to excavate the largest Neolithic cemetery of its kind. "The Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara" is now featured in the September issue of "National Geographic: Where Food Begins" and in the scientific journal "Plos One under the title Lakeside Cemeteries in the Sahara: 5000 Years of Holocene Population and Environmental Change." Below, Jeff recounts in his experiances on these truly wild adventures.

"Do ya want to go to Niger next week?" Dr. Paul Sereno, University of Chicago professor, asked me in a playfully, matter-of-fact tone. "Sure, just give me 24-hours to figure it out," I responded. In 2003, while attending Colorado College, I spent the summer helping Dr. Sereno search vast stretches of BLM land throughout Northern Wyoming for dinosaur remains, but I never expected to receive an offer like traveling to Niger! 

I had spent a semester in East Africa the previous year, but how would I prepare for traveling into the Sahara desert and conducting research in one of the most remote regions of the poorest nations in the world?  That remained to be seen. A week later, with my bags in hand, I touched down in Niamey, Niger anxious and excited for the adventure that lay ahead.  

We spent the next 2 months combing late Cretaceous outcrops in search of the next new dinosaur to add to the impressive list that Sereno had already contributed to the scientific community. About a days drive (partially off road) from the closest town of Agadez, Paul asked me if I would be interested in seeing an archaeological site that his team had discovered 3 years prior. With a background as an anthropology and archaeology student I might be able to give a basic assessment of the site.

Upon arrival I was astounded by the sheer number of artifacts we encountered. Whole and partial ceramic jars, large stone mortars and pestles, flakes, arrow-heads, hammer stones, harpoon points and bones from a variety of animals lay as resting vestiges on the desert floor. Paul led us to one of the nearby dunes, where numerous human skeletons were clearly exposed. Many of the remains were in near perfect condition and others badly marred by the b desert wind called the Harmattan that sweeps across northern Africa every winter. "So, what do you think?" Paul said looking out over the site where two larger dunes also sprouting remains lie in the distance. Judging from the types of artifacts, it was obvious that this site was at least Neolithic in age and it was clear that a full-scale archaeological examination was needed. "Are you kidding?" I blurted out, "This is a major site!" We decided to spend 3 full days documenting as much as we could for possible future work. This preliminary analysis revealed over 170 skeletons fully or partially exposed on the surface of the dunes and countless artifacts spread over an area 600 square-meters.

We had arrived just in time, relatively speaking, as the Harmattan was slowly unearthing and sandblasting the skeletal remains out of existence. During two consecutive field seasons in 2005 and 2006, we recovered over 70 individuals, some by using an adopted technique from paleontology where plaster wraps were used to exhume the remains as a whole. This method allowed them to be transported back to the U.S. and studied in a controlled laboratory environment. A detailed analysis provided valuable data on the burial postures, as well as on the contents of the surrounding burial deposits. 

Overall, our research revealed the largest and earliest cemetery discovered in the Sahara. Temporally separated by a couple thousand years, two distinct human populations were identified in the cemetary, both took full advantage of the lakeside resources deep in the middle of the continent. These bones tell the almost forgotten story of the desert tribes whose populations ebbed and flowed with the oscillating climatic conditions of the early Holocene. The history of these peoples, and the story of our dig is featured in the September issue of "National Geographic: Where Food Begins", and in the scientific journal "Plos One under the title Lakeside Cemeteries in the Sahara: 5000 Years of Holocene Population and Environmental Change." 

The months I spent toiling in the desert were some of the most physically demanding and ultimately trying experiences of my life. Working in such extreme conditions--temperatures ranging from 60-120 daily, a limited water supply and 10 hours from the nearest town all bestowed me with a sense of humility and deep respect for our international neighbors. In between the people and places that I encountered and

experienced on my journey, an idea began to kindle in my mind, "How can I help others have real adventure experiences out in the world?" 

The answer came shortly after returning home to Seattle, Washington, where I discovered the travel philosophy of Wildland Adventures, and therein I began a career in adventure travel. Now, as a Latin America Program Director at Wildland, I have the fortunate opportunity to craft authentic travel experiences for others. I invite you to visit out website and get out into this amazing world. 

-Jeff Stivers

Program Director


National Geographic

Plos One: Scientific Journal