Paul Sereno
Big Brains podcst

An Archaeological Riddle In the Sahara with Paul Sereno (Ep. 23)

A UChicago paleontologist puts aside dinosaur hunting when he discovers a never-before-seen ancient society.

Paul Sereno
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

When dinosaur hunter and paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered an ancient mass gravesite in the sands of the Sahara, he knew he had to excavate and save that history and heritage.

Sereno has always said paleontology and archaeology are adventures with a purpose. If the discovery of that ancient society is his greatest adventures, his new project to bring it back to the people it belongs to could be his greatest purpose.

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Paul Rand: Hidden away in the basement of a building at the University of Chicago, sits one of the largest collections of Niger heritage in the world. And the person in charge of caring for it, Prof. Paul Sereno.

Paul Sereno: Basically my life story is one of chance and circumstance. The slightest step to another direction might have led me down a different road.

Paul Rand: When you first meet the paleontologist, it’s hard not to make comparisons to another famous University of Chicagoan: Dr. Indiana Jones.

Tape: Forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and X never, ever marks the spot.

Paul Rand: Sereno wears a heavy leather jacket that covers a ruffled and unbuttoned collared shirt. He even puts on a cowboy hat on occasion. And just like that iconic movie character, Sereno has spent his career digging up and studying the lost history of our world, with a main focus on dinosaurs.

Paul Sereno: Darwin was the first to actually sketch a tree as the graphical image of how life evolves. And what I wanted to do was paint the twigs and branches of that tree in more detail than anyone had ever done for dinosaurs.

Paul Rand: Sereno has traveled all over the world hunting down dinosaur fossils, but his greatest find in the African country of Niger, at a place called Gobero, was one of his most surprising discoveries: It concerned the bones of a different animal entirely: humans.

Paul Sereno: What does the word “discovery” mean? Does it mean finding something that you expected? I don’t think so. I would classify Gobero as one of my classic discoveries.

Paul Rand: One of Sereno’s favorite quotes is that “paleontology is an adventure with a purpose.” If Gobero is his greatest adventure, his next project might be his greatest purpose.

Paul Sereno: When I dug up those skeletons, I made an agreement with them, “I am not gonna let you get destroyed.” And if I have no place to bring anything back to, they’re gonna stay here, but they don’t belong here. They belong there, so then I have to find a home for them.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains: A podcast about the stories behind the pivotal research and pioneering breakthroughs reshaping our world. On this episode, Paul Sereno and the deeper purpose of paleontology. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: Many of us remember our first trip to a natural history museum. The mysterious tug of connections to our ancient ancestors. The awe and grandeur we felt standing underneath those giant dinosaur skeletons, but for Paul Sereno, his first trip to a natural history museum would completely change his life. Because he wasn’t always going to be a paleontologist.

Paul Sereno: I found myself in art. I was gonna be a studio artist. But there was something else going on that was very deep-seeded that I have to say in hindsight, I was attracted to primitive art. I was attracted to it. My style gravitated toward this. It was almost as if I wanted to paint on rock, which it looked like. I had a big portfolio. Everyone thought I was an artist, but I had a secret life: I was actually a biology major. I hadn’t completely committed myself to the studio at the time that I followed my brother in his jaunts to visit graduate schools and walked in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, whereupon I was completely consumed.

Paul Sereno: It would take me even a long time to fully understand what impacted me so much because I wanted to understand it a little bit more as, “Oh, I saw artists and I saw scientists and I saw biology and I saw geology and you know what it was, it was the adventure and creativity of science. It wasn’t a dry love of fossils. No. I really saw something that was just so tangibly exciting, I could not do anything else but this. I had to be a part of this.

Paul Rand: So Sereno put down the art supplies and picked up paleontology. Here we get his master’s at Columbia University, in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History—the same museum that inspired him to enter the field. But as it became time to enter his Ph.D. program, he started having second thoughts.

Paul Sereno: I had a crisis. I couldn’t connect it to anything real. I remember sitting in the turret, looking across Central Park. Diana Ross had just finished the concert there. There was mayhem. People were running around, the police for running around, and I thought I could study fossils for the rest of my life and what difference would it make? I can’t lead a life like that. I said I’ve got to study something more relevant, but before I could really accomplish that, I designed the most adventuresome dissertation that took me around the world. Around the world in eight months.

Paul Rand: OK.

Paul Sereno: I left for China. China was just opening up. We didn’t even recognize Outer Mongolia. I was the first American scientist to get into Outer Mongolia. For a scientist to get back to Roy Chapman Andrews’ beds, I fell to my knees and felt the red sand. Got on the Trans-Siberian. I spent a month in then the Soviet Union’s Moscow and Leningrad. Came through the wall. I shot 500 rolls of film. I shot people, I shot fossils and I realized that this is something that people care about. They care about their own history. They care about their deeper history.

They care about the fossils in the hills by them.

Paul Sereno: You see people, they wanna be proud and they wanna dream. This is why there’s so many museums. It’s continuing. Our field is alive.

Paul Rand: That journey showed Sereno that paleontology and archaeology really were adventures with a purpose. Understanding our heritage, and where we come from, shapes our relationship to the world and ourselves. It connects our story to the grand story of humanity and our planet, and Sereno has discovered some massively important chapters of that story.

Paul Rand: Do you remember there was a first discovery of yours, and when you’re out in the field, what was your first discovery? And what did that feel like when you finally did something on your own and you discovered your first fossil?

Paul Sereno: It was exhilarating to the point of just causing me to break down. Although I had traveled the world, I had never led an expedition, and like so much of science and the intellectual adventure at universities and elsewhere, there’s no courses on what you actually really need to do. There’s no Expedition 101.

Paul Rand: OK.

Paul Sereno: How do you lead an expedition to another country that speaks a different language and there’s no vehicles, and this you have to learn on your own. If I was gonna study dinosaurs, and I wasn’t wedded to dinosaurs. I had gotten to like them at the American museum, but I wasn’t wedded to them. I felt, “Okay. If I’m gonna study this group, I’m gonna start from the beginning.” The beginning is in South America. Fossils found by a very famous paleontologist, the father figure in our field, Romer who used to be here. He started his career here at the Walker Museum. I decided that I would walk in his footsteps. I’d go back to this Valley of the Moon, this gorgeous valley that I had never seen.

Paul Rand: And that’s where?

Paul Sereno: In the foothills of the Andes in Argentina. Northwest Argentina. And if he found fragments 30, 35 years ago, maybe I could find more. When I arrived, the senior Argentine scientists led me into the field and connected me with what would then be some students who didn’t speak any English. And when he left us two days later, to do our fieldwork, 300 miles into the wild, he gave the Sign of the Cross to one of his students, and he said, “May God be with you.” He didn’t think we’d survive.

Paul Sereno: But it was sort of how it happened. And I’ve had half a dozen instances of this on different continents, at different times with improbable, incalculably improbable, spectacular discoveries.

Paul Sereno: You say you’re gonna find something…

Paul Rand: And you didn’t find it.

Paul Sereno: ... and you find it.

Paul Rand: Yep.

Paul Sereno: Or it finds you. However it happens. And this was one of them, because we had gone down this valley, we had no aerial photographs, we were under-staffed. We were under-equipped in every possible way. But we were determined and we had ... It was a very complex badlands. And I went at the end of one day, when we were preparing to move further down the valley—this valley of 75 miles searching for this Shangri La dinosaur. And I came to a ridge top, and I didn’t see any footprints on the other sides so I saw this little pocket. It bothered me. Sun was setting, we move the camp. Then came a Sunday. We had worked every single day since we arrived.

Paul Sereno: And I said, “Listen, I don’t know, there’s a Bermuda Triangle back there. I’ll take whoever’s willing.” On our first day off, two-thirds of the team came. I set my backpack down when we got to the spot. Driving backwards to check a spot that I didn’t ... Something was there. And I walked up to it, which was the first skull and skeleton and I screamed and everyone heard it and they thought, “Okay, either he’s fallen off something or he’s found it.” It was the skull of Herrerasaurus. And It ended up gracing the cover of Discover magazine. And it was-

Paul Rand: What year was that?

Paul Sereno: ... the first skull of an early dinosaur found. 1988. We would later find an ash bed nearby and date it. We now know it to be 232 million years old. It had come to the surface after a quarter of a billion years, had eroded down to the top of the skull so that I could find it and then know instantly I had found the first dinosaur.

Paul Rand: And that was your big first find.

Paul Sereno: Yeah. We had done it. We’d pulled it off.

Paul Rand: The Herrerasaurus would be the first in a long line of big discoveries, but Sereno’s most unexpected find wouldn’t be a dinosaur at all, but something even more mysterious. That’s coming up after the break.

[Capitalisn’t ad]

Paul Rand: In the early 1990s, Sereno started making trips into the Sahara.

Paul Sereno: That is a place I wanted to experience. I wanted to cross it once in my life. It was, in fact, the least explored continent, the least explore desert, the least explored place on land, for fossils on the face of the planet.

Paul Rand: Wow.

Paul Sereno: And that’s what sent me there.

Paul Rand: It was during one of his journeys across the desert in the year 2000, that Sereno and his team spotted something odd out in the sands.

Paul Sereno: Because archaeologists are very surprised when I meet them. Why did you stop to take even notice? Most people would’ve just stepped over—I’m hunting for dinosaurs and super-crocs. And that’s true. And when you go back and you look at the game-changing discoveries that were made, it’s often by people who are looking for something else. And they found something.

Paul Rand: Yeah. And they’re smart enough to recognize them.

Paul Sereno: And it bugs them.

Paul Rand: Yeah. Isn’t that something?

Paul Sereno: When I said I’m gonna find that early dinosaur, my first one. Where Romer had found the back end, I’m gonna find the front end. I predicted it. I walked into the valley, and I found it. That’s less of a discovery.

Paul Sereno: Well, while wandering out looking for dinosaurs, I bumped into some fossil humans. And these were so well-preserved and so exquisite in different rocks. They were in what we would call paleo-dunes, so they were in old dune. They weren’t even hard rocks, but they were completely fossilized.

Paul Sereno: I knew very little about the archaeology of the Sahara, but we knew that there were humans there. We’d picked up little pottery pieces here and there. But it’s a different story when you stare into the eye sockets of a human, and you look around and there’s another one over there, there’s another one over there. We had stumbled on something. Now I didn’t know how uncommon it was. I didn’t know how old it was, and so I came back to the University of Chicago and went to the library to find out. And I couldn’t find much of anything.

Paul Sereno: I would go back across the site, then we realized how big it was. We stopped counting at 230 skeletons. And it was an enormous site. At that point, I wanted to collect enough to interest archaeologists.

Paul Rand: This is a burial site, you’re assuming?

Paul Sereno: Some kind of bizarre site that had just hundreds of burials. Yeah, they were ... There was a graveyard, there was a burial ... It was a long-term living site, but how long? No one had ... There was nothing like it in the archeological record. When we came back three years later, we looked at a photograph we had taken. We realize the skull that I had looked into the sockets of, was pulled apart. It was being weathered. Time was ticking.

Paul Sereno: And so I soon began to realize that this site was adopting me. I couldn’t let it weather away, it was too important. And I diverted my research into archaeology.

Paul Rand: How old do you feel like these skeletons were?

Paul Sereno: To my tremendous surprise, the site had humans that were 10,000 years old.

Paul Rand: Wow.

Paul Sereno: But it also had humans that were 5,000 years old and 4,700 years old, and they were buried side by side.

Paul Rand: In proximity.

Paul Sereno: To try and wrap your head around this, this is the 5,000 years, 10,000 to 5,000 years ago, that proceeded the laying of the Egyptian stones to build the Pyramids, which happened about 5,000 years ago. It’d be equivalent to you finding your grandfather’s burial next to Tutankhamun. That’s how much time was at the site that we had discovered in the middle of the desert.

Paul Rand: Wow.

Paul Sereno: So no one had ever found a site. That presented us with a massive riddle, which took us a while to figure out. Why would Gobero exist for 5,000 years? Incomprehensively long compared to any other site that had been found before, which is a matter of 100 years or 200 years. We learned, first of all, we put faces on the people of the Green Sahara. We have known since the ice melted and departed from Chicago and lots of places in the world and the retreat of the glaciers 10,000, 12,000 years ago, that climate change, a normal and natural, big cyclic climate change. After that climate change, the largest and for the longest time inexplicable climate change on the face of the planet, was the drying of the Sahara.

Paul Sereno: It was for the first 5,000 of those last 10,000 years, an oasis paradise. And 5,000 years ago, with one blip in between when it feigned drying up and then came back again. It was where the action was. The Nile Delta was too wet. It was flooding all the time. The monsoons were coming across the Indian Ocean, charging north several hundred miles, for reasons the climate modelers have only now been able to understand. And it pulled back, and when it pulled back, it left the world’s largest desert, which is expanding to this day.

Paul Sereno: Then we have wayfarer that are coming through. The last one I’m gonna excavate in a month or two. And later this year we found them at the very end of our field season. He was a wayfarer, you often don’t get burials of these people, but we managed to get once.

Paul Rand: What’s a wayfarer?

Paul Sereno: A wayfarer is somebody who is coming through the Gobero area, but unable to really settle there because there wasn’t enough water, enough resources, and they became then the wayfarers, the nomads that they are today. But when you have a graveyard, those are not nomads. They’re living there. A graveyard is one of a half a dozen signposts of stability in your habitation, in your society. There was a subtle but very long, hundreds mile-long fault in the dinosaur rock that underlay that site that, that created a logjam of rock and the ground water was pulling against it.

Paul Sereno: And so no matter what happened with regard to rainfall, there was always water at Gobero. And water is life. That’s a phrase in the Sahara. And that meant. That solves the riddle of why these people always were there.

Paul Rand: When you’re digging up dinosaurs or other things and then you find human bones, is it a different reaction? A different feeling?

Paul Sereno: Very much so.

Paul Rand: Yeah, what is the difference?

Paul Sereno: You know, digging up a dinosaur. The more bizarre, the weirder, the better. The bigger, the smaller. It’s got a giant sail. There’s a detachment. You’re just so excited that while some people might shudder because it’s so big and terrific and terrible or exotic, we delight in that thing.

Paul Rand: Yeah.

Paul Sereno: When you’re digging up a human, you are digging up your history. This is the history of your species, and I’ll never forget digging up my first human and I’m coming to grips with this, looking at the skull. And the hair raised on my back a little bit. It was that this is my story.

Paul Rand: Yeah.

Paul Sereno: And how thrilling to dig up a piece of that story. I collected the most preserved, the most articulated, manipulated post burial in pre-history. It was two children and a woman holding hands. I remember. I made a little note. “Possible triple burial” Because they saw three heads coming to the ground. They were suspiciously close, and it was. And I remember digging this up and thinking it was an emotional ...We had people literally in tears looking at these kids. I mean holding hands with this woman, facing them, and should we be the only people to see this? And then we’re gonna what, like every other archaeologist pull these bones apart, even though I didn’t know what was underneath them?

Paul Sereno: And then put them in a shoebox, and we’ll have a great photograph in National Geographic Magazine, I couldn’t do that.

Paul Rand: Sereno was brought back to that crisis at the beginning of his career. If paleontology is an adventure with a purpose, what purpose would all this history and heritage serve sitting in his lab? So he decided to do something about it. That’s coming up, after the break.

[Graham School ad]

Paul Rand: After years of collecting artifacts from Africa, Sereno was in a crisis about what to do with his discoveries.

Paul Sereno: You work at a place for 25 years. You cross the desert, you fall in love with the people, with the landscape. When I dug up those skeletons, I made an agreement with them. I am not gonna let you get destroyed. And if I have no place to bring anything back to, they’re gonna stay here. But they don’t belong here. They belong there, so then I have to find a home for them.

Paul Rand: Home for these buried people was the country in which they were discovered: Niger.

Paul Sereno: One of the world’s poorest nations.

Paul Rand: OK.

Paul Sereno: Yet one of the world’s most hopeful nations, especially today. This was the nation we think about our Mexican U.S. border. This was the nation at the center of the migration route from all of West Africa through the center of the Sahara to Europe. They’re a country that’s largely desertified, and yet they’re a country with resources, including water and oil and the two greatest uranium mines. Their country is struggling with their population. They’re a small country by most standards. Most of it is located along the river in the south of the country.

Paul Rand: And they’re right above Nigeria.

Paul Sereno: They’re right above Nigeria. To the east you’ve got Chad, to the West you’ve got Mali and Burkina Faso, to the south you’ve got Nigeria. And so, you’re surrounded by countries that actually are less stable than this particularly poor country with good relations with Europe and North America.

Paul Rand: The buried people of Gobero are the ancient history of that country. Being connected to and understanding your history is a fundamental part of being human. But the people of Niger have been separated from that history for a long time. And Sereno’s seen first-hand, what it means to them to be reconnected to that heritage when he’s given tours of his lab.

Paul Sereno: I have seen grown men in tears. I have seen an ambassador tell me to my face after coming through my lab, “I think I understood Niger for the first time today.” Niger’s ambassador to the United States. Ditto for the president’s daughter, she was so excited. This is something for them to celebrate. This is world heritage. It has left them breathless when they see the beauty, the extent I have taken off the continent of Africa, more fossil humans and more dinosaurs, approximately 100 tons—than all other Western people combined.

Paul Rand: Wow, 100 tons.

Paul Sereno: But I did that because I feel and felt that, of course, I’m going to bring these people and these dinosaurs back.

Paul Sereno: It’s your patrimony.

Paul Rand: Right.

Paul Sereno: But there has to be a place to put them and currently there isn’t.

Paul Rand: There are no cultural museums in all of Niger. And Sereno says, he wants to help change that.

Paul Sereno: And in the backyard of the people where I made all of these discoveries, these nomads who shepherded me, who protected me, who gave me the understanding of the desert. What do you want? Well, if you could imagine this, there is a place as big as North America, as big as the United States called the Sahara that has cultures that go back millennia, whose crossroads is Agadez, and there’s not one cultural institution for their language—written and spoken—music, traditions or even they’re dinosaurs and humans because they want those too. And so I felt we’re gonna create that.

Paul Rand: Wow.

Paul Sereno: And where will it be? It’s gonna be at Agadez. This is the salt trades hub. This is the crossroads of the Sahara. And then down in the capital, I’m gonna build a museum. Like the likes of which people haven’t seen. And this is not to build institutions modeled on others. These are cutting-edge. And so the cultural institution is gonna be built symbolically, like an oasis surrounded by water with an orientation to the desert. You walk back into the Green Sahara and then back further into deep time to see the dinosaurs, and it would orient you and the tourists are the future because there will be a better time for this country.

Paul Sereno: And the pavilion of the capital. I want it to be the first near or zero-energy natural history museum in the world.

Paul Rand: When do you ... Where is it, on the drawing board at this stage?

Paul Sereno: No.

Paul Rand: Beyond the drawing board.

Paul Sereno: Beyond the drawing board.

Paul Sereno: I had been working with local and Nigerian and Chicago’s very talented architectural pool, for the last decade to come up with these ideas.

Paul Rand: My gosh.

Paul Sereno: Yeah, so both of those are together. We’re gonna launch a website in a month.

Paul Rand: In a month?

Paul Sereno: We’ve been working on it for a while. We held, we brought 20 at the Neubauer Collegium here on campus. They funded this very unbelievable project, which I dub “Niger Heritage.” They brought 25 Nigerians—from architects to artisans to prime ministers—to meet counterparts here to concoct these institutions and projects, which I really do believe will be globally trend-setting. And it will change the way people think about museums.

Paul Sereno: To have that. Where do you think you’ll start shovel in and how long does it take?

Paul Rand: Optimistically, we have a budget and we are talking to the IMF, to the Defense Department, to the University folks, to everyone to come together to make this a reality with a shovel in the sand or in the ground in 2021.

Matt Hodapp:  Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. Our show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.

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