Day 28 – 7/13/14

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

Note: This is going to be a long entry.

The 13th (day 28) was an interesting day because I got a chance to pursue a personal project not related to the field school. As a budding primatologist and lover of world mythology, [1] I’ve been collecting primate stories from all over the world in the hopes of one day archiving them on an internet database that can be accessed by both scholars and layman alike. I have a background in East and South Asian studies, so most of the stories that I have come from China and India. Oddly enough, I had zero material from Africa before leaving for the field school. That is why, while there, I approached Dr. Audax Mabulla, a professor of archaeology at the University of Dar es Salaam and the head of antiquities in Tanzania, for permission to record Maasai elders telling stories about primates. I had asked him about this early in the field season but didn’t think anything was going to come of it since he rarely visited camp. Then, while the field school students were washing fossils on the morning of the 13th, he approached and asked me to accompany him to deliver government papers for our planned safari the following day. Dr. Mabulla notified me that we would stop off at a Maasai settlement on our way back and that a Maasai translator would be waiting for me there.

After the paperwork was taken care of, we drove to a small settlement on the outskirts of Endulen, the same area where we had attended the Maasai market. Dr. Mabulla got out of the truck and disappeared into what looked like a bar in order to find the interpreter. This gave me time to take in my surroundings. I saw a shanty town comprised of simple wooden buildings lining a road of red dirt. Apart from the bar, there was a feed mill and a cell phone provider mixed in with personal residences. Maasai stood on their porches or in the street conversing—many of them had their eyes locked on me. Goats and their kids roamed freely. The entrance of the settlement was protected by the shade of nearby trees, while the exit opened up into rolling green hills exposed to the sun. Dr. Mabulla emerged several minutes later with the interpreter in tow. He was a handsome young man wearing an extremely flashy western-style dress suit in various shades of purple. His attire contrasted with the simple plaid shuka wraps worn by the older individuals in town. He introduced himself as Joshua Olembario, a college-educated tour guide who had grown up in the area.

The mountain view from the back of the settlement (screen capture).

Joshua gave me a primer on Maasai beliefs before we approached five elders, all of whom agreed to tell their stories (one verbal and four on camera). [2] Most of what Joshua said was echoed by the elders, but I learned a little something new with each interview. Overall, I learned that the Maasai classify all wild animals and plants in familial clans similar to humans. They believe that it is forbidden to kill any wild animal because they all belong to God. [3] However, those clans that pose a threat to the Maasai and their livestock, such as big cats and hyenas, can be dispatched if the situation demands it. All monkeys and apes belong to the Lukumai clan. It is especially taboo to injure or kill a member of this clan because they are related to humans and thus share many similarities with us. The baboon, for example, is said to marry, have a nuclear family, and even care for and discipline their children just like their human cousins. Other similarities include begging for food with an outstretched hand and seeking out Maasai warriors for refuge from leopards. They also lactate as an apology if they startle a human in the forest (the Maasai believe humans do this too). Killing a Lukumai carries the heavy fine of forty-nine cattle to presumably be paid to community elders. The wealth of the Maasai is tied up in their livestock, so this punishment guarantees that no one will ever willingly break the law.

These gentlemen were the first two Maasai elders that I interviewed
with Joshua’s help (screen capture).

The translator Joshua and a Maasai eldress, the third person I interviewed
(screen capture).

Clemens, the fifth and last Maasai elder (screen capture). He was my favorite
interview because he was so animated while telling stories. He picked up
English when he was invited to stay in America for a year during the 1970s.

One Maasai eldress I spoke with said that she believed the Hadza (a.k.a., Hadzabe) people evolved from baboons. They are one of the last hunter-gatherer groups in the world and live a life considered to be primitive by Maasai standards. Dr. Mabulla was surprised to learn of her story because the Hadza actually eat baboons as a part of their diet. The meat is considered to be a delicacy with medicinal properties. However, due to the morphological similarities between humans and baboons, the Hadza believe that they must be “brave” when aiming their bow and arrow at the monkey.

Dr. Mabulla was also surprised to learn that the Maasai place all primates in the Lukumai clan for this is actually a human clan name. It is one of the six founding Maasai clans. They are Lukumai, Laiser, Molelian, Mokesan, Tarosero and Mamas ita (Berntsen, 1973: 12). There were originally five clans according to one version of the Maasai creation legend. In the beginning, the creator god Naiteru-kop married two women, each who respectively lived to the right and left of the gateway to his domain. The first wife was given red cattle, while the second was given black cattle (this may point to some color-coded dichotomy between good and evil). [4] The former eventually gave birth to three sons, while the latter gave birth to two. Each would become the founder of the five clans. This means that three of the clans (Molelian, Mokesan, and Tarosero) fall under the moiety of the red cattle and the other two (Laiser and Lukumai) fall under the black cattle (Allan, 1990: 179). All monkeys and apes therefore fall under the moiety of the black cattle since they belong to clan Lukumai. Being placed in such a clan shows just how important primates are to the Maasai.

A juvenile baboon (photo by Alexa).

Dr. Mabulla and I returned to camp about an hour after lunch had started. Following our afternoon break, the field school students drove to Kelogi Hills, a collection of massive rock formations known for the presence of tribal rock art. There, Dr. Mabulla gave us a brief lecture in which he explained that East Africa has the second largest collection of rock art in the world next to Europe. There are around 400 sites in Tanzania alone with rock art, some of which fall under UNESCO. A survey of these sites reveals four categories of rock painting: Hunter-gatherer, Pastoral, Bantu-Speaking art, and Maasai Olupul traditions. The Hunter-gatherer rock art goes back at least 5,000 years and has three modes of expression. The first is stylized human figures involved in daily activities, such as men hunting and groups of women digging (presumably for water and/or underground vegetation). Animals, primarily giraffes, are represented naturalistically. The second is mythical figures with elongated half-human-half-animal forms. These could represent shamans. The third is geometric designs consisting of concentric circles and lines. This category is known for its red color and fine lines that were most likely produced with some form of brush. [5] Pastoral art goes back 3,000 to 4,000 years and consists primarily of cows and other animals painted in red and white colors. [6] Bantu-Speaking art goes back 2,000 years and consists of stylized humans and fingerprints painted with a dirty white color. [7] Maasai Olupul art goes back hundreds of years and consists primarily of symbols associated with warriors (e.g., shields). This category of art is painted by Maasai warriors during month-long excursions into the bush where they take part in Olupul, a meat-eating feast around a camp fire.

An example of the beautiful rock formations at Kelogi
Hills (photo by Alexa).

A super ritzy hotel in the area (photo by Alexa).

Dr. Mabulla lecturing (photo by Andy).

The point of our visit to Kelogi Hills that evening was to look at an example of Maasai Olupul art that had been produced within the last two to three centuries. It was situated on the broad face of a natural rock shelter located at the top of a tall geological formation. The group hiked up a very steep incline covered in oldupai grass and sticker bushes to reach the summit. There, we saw a faded composition of two stylized shields and a bell flanked by animals on both sides. The shields were parallel rectangles with rounded corners. Each was outlined in white and decorated with black half circles in each corner and red and black lines running down the middle. The bell, a stylized double chevron painted in white, was situated to the left of the shields. The flanking animals were red. Those to the right were identified as giraffes based on their long necks. Those to the left, however, couldn’t be identified due to being too weathered. Dr. Mabulla noted that the colors were derived from ash (black), ochre (red), and crushed stone (white).

The natural rock shelter decorated with Maasai Olupul art (photo by Heather).

Dr. Mabulla describing the features (photo by Heather).

The largest shield next to a 10 cm scale bar (photo by Heather).

The second largest shield with scale bar (photo by Heather).

Charles suggested that we climb a neighboring rock formation as the sun started to set. The much taller summit required us to scale a nearly vertical rock face in order to reach the top. We emerged onto an uneven plateau bestrewn with boulders. This elevated vantage point gave us a sweeping view of the surrounding area—we could see for at least ten miles in every direction (maybe more). We were so high off the ground, in fact, that the people in the Maasai kraal beneath us looked like ants. Everyone took this opportunity to snap photos of themselves and/or the beautiful landscape. The Triforce ™ climbed out onto a natural stone pillar for a team photo. Now, I’m not afraid of heights, but I was a little scared because Rachel and Heather were a little too rowdy in that moment. Add to that strong gusts of wind and you are almost guaranteed a health insurance premium increase. Luckily I was able to avoid falling to my death thanks to cat-like balance and reflexes honed over many years. Before leaving, the students took a group photo with Dr. Mabulla. We returned to camp shortly thereafter. Thus ended our last full day at the field school.

The climb up (photo by Heather).

The view from the top (photo by Andy?).

A zoomed photo of the Maasai kraal beneath us (photo by Rachel).

The Triforce ™ team photo (that is my “hurry up and take the picture because
I don’t want to die” face).

Me attempting to push Rachel off the cliff because she was talking smack.

Our last group photo. (Starting from the left) Rachel, Me, Heather, Dr. Mabulla,
Meghan, Adam, Andy, Alexa, Kat, Curran, Zach, and Cindy.


[1] When I say “myth”, I’m using the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word: “A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events”. I pass no judgement on the validity of any story classified as a myth. Cultural relativity teaches us to view each story from the point of view of the originating culture, whether in the past or present. Therefore, the Greco-Roman creation story is just as valid as that for the Judeo-Christian religion. The same can be said for the Maasai creation story.

[2] Each elder was compensated for their time. I had actually forgotten to bring money with me since we left camp in such a hurry. I am indebted to Joshua for both making the introductions and fronting me the funds to pay the elders. I later repaid him the total amount plus interest.

[3] I neglected to ask if the deity in question was a local god or if it was the god of the Judeo-Christian religion. I know at least one elder that I interviewed was Christian (or was at least formerly Christian). See note four below for more information on Maasai deities.

[4] I can’t take credit for this hypothesis. It was suggested here and explained here. The supreme creator deity Ngai has two manifestations: the black benevolent form is known as Ngai Naroke, while the red angry form is known as Ngai Na-nyokie. I am not sure if Ngai is synonymous with the previously mentioned creator god Naiteru-kop.

[5] Dr. Mabulla noted that the red color was Ochre, which was most likely combined with animal fat to make paint. Shells containing 100,000 year old ochre paint were discovered by archaeologists in Blombos cave, South Africa. It was been suggested that the substance was used for decorating the body.

[6] Notice how the subjects portrayed are those most important to the people of their given time period. The hunter-gatherers depict hunting scenes and naturalistic animals because this was their primary means of subsistence as semi-nomadic people. The pastoralists, on the other hand, depict primarily cows because they were so important to such sedentary people.

[7] Bantu-speaking art is named in honor of a West African people who migrated to East and South Africa displacing local hunter-gatherer groups when they moved into the area.


Allan, K. (1990). Discourse stratagems in a Maasai story. In Current approaches to African linguistics: Volume 7 (pp. 179-191). Dordrecht: Foris Publications.

Berntsen, J. L. (1973). Maasai and Iloikop: Ritual experts and their followers (Master’s thesis). University of Wisconsin—Madison.

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Days 26 and 27 – 7/11 – 7/12/14 (skip days 24 and 25)

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

It was a mad dash during the last few days of the field season to process as much earth as possible. The Spanish researchers opened up a new area across the road from the DS dig site on the evening of the 10th (day 25). Subsequent digging on the 11th (day 26) revealed a large cache of fossils and lithics on a scale not even seen at PTK. There was so much material, in fact, that the well-traveled road running between DS and the newly opened area had to be diverted since trucks have unknowingly been driving over a paleoanthropological goldmine for some time. (A new route was established with a series of boulders lining the detour). Most importantly, this flurry of activity led to the discovery of more hominin material (I can’t mention specifics at this time). It was excavated on the outer edge of the trench that Rachel, Heather, and I had been digging at the past couple of days. We weren’t present at the time, though, as Charles had tasked the field school students to clean and label fossils. However, I believe that The Triforce ™ would have discovered the hom fossil if given enough time. Either way, I can now say that I’ve worked at three dig sites where hominin material was recovered. Not too many Anthropology undergrads can say that.

The new route passing by the extended DS dig site (and Heather being a nut).

Everyone congregating around the newly opened area.

Curran and I livened up the occasion with a musical number.

Each one of those pins is a fossil or lithic. This is only one section of the new find.

An example of some of the larger material (long bones, ribs, and hammer stones).

A hardy golf clap for David. The discovery wouldn’t
have been possible without him.

On the evening of the 11th we received an in-depth lecture on stone tool technology by Dr. Fernando Diez-Martin, a professor of Prehistory at the University of Valladolid, Spain.

The perfect photo op since Mary Leakey was one of the pioneers of lithic
research in Olduvai Gorge.

A 1.5 million-year-old Acheulean hand axe.

The 12th (day 27) saw the field school students backfilling the various dig sites. (Believe it or not, after weeks and weeks of excavation, each site is covered over to protect it from the elements until the next field season. This is also done to protect the local people and wildlife from accidentally getting hurt by falling into an open pit.) I was one of several students tasked by Charles to backfill BKE after breakfast. It was covered over in a layer cake of a tarp, powdery debris from the screen, large rocks from the surrounding rubble, and copious amounts of sand from a nearby dry riverbed. After lunch, a group of students and workers backfilled DKE. The Spanish researchers took care of their own dig sites.

The BKE dig site before backfilling.

BKE after backfilling.

That evening we received a lecture on the genus Homo by Manuel. He discussed noted type specimens associated with Olduvai Gorge and compared our recent hominin finds with those discovered during previous seasons.

Me standing in front of a projection of a neanderthal skull. Everyone
said that it would make an awesome shirt (photo by Alexa).

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Days 22 and 23 – 7/7 – 7/8/14

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

The 22nd would be my first day at the soon-to-be opened BKE dig site next to BK. Charles randomly selected Rachel, Heather, and myself to help him break ground. The rest of the field school students were tasked to help the Spanish researchers at PTK and DS (DK was officially closed for the season). The area where we were to dig was a flat rock shelf located at the intersection between two steep-sloping hills covered in rubble that had rolled down from top. The shelf was covered in knobby rock pillars that would have impeded excavation, so these were removed by the worker’s pick axes. [1] Wiping away the powdery debris with brushes revealed hints of fossil and lithic material encased in a hard, concrete-like substrate.

Charles split the shelf into thirds, assigning Heather to section H, me (Jim) to section J, and Rachel to section K (the letter I was skipped. Rachel hated this classification system for obvious reasons). Rachel was upset that I was put into the area designated section J because she had claimed it as her own once she saw bits of fossil and lithic material therein. This is especially true considering the events that would transpire (see below). I removed a total of five items, comprising mostly lithic shards, from the 1.4 million-year-old strata. The largest object was a fist-sized quartzite hammer stone with a light purple color. Releasing it from its ancient prison required a hammer and a screwdriver acting as a chisel. Only a small portion of the lithic was exposed, so I thought that maybe it was just another shard. I explored the strata around it and found, however, that I had to give the stone an ever increasing berth. I felt like a sculptor chiseling away on a piece of marble, revealing the masterpiece hidden within. As the noted Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475–1564) once wrote: “Not even the best of artists has any conception that a single marble block does not contain with its excess” (Michelangeo & Saslow, 1991: 302).

The BKE site after several days of digging. The dark spot in the middle is
where the hammer stone was pulled from.

Me with the hammer stone (this is what it looks like when dust blows into your eyes).

The stone partially encased in strata. The purple color is washed out.

The underside where it popped loose from the strata. The color is more apparent.

Toiling over the hammer stone prepared me for my greatest achievement at the field school: personally excavating hominin material. Students and professionals alike dream about digging up hom fossils, and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. [2] I am not permitted to mention specifics at this point since the analysis has yet to be published (I’ll update the blog when this happens). Anyway, the material was transported back to camp where Charles consulted with Manuel in the lab. It was during lunch that the latter announced the find to the entire camp and congratulated all of us on the accomplishment. I had insisted that everyone get credit. Rachel technically found it—only a small fraction of which was visible–while we were brushing off the rock shelf; I painstakingly excavated it over the course of several hours; and Heather used her skill in osteology to identify it.

Our three-person team took the name “The Triforce” ™ because amazing things happened when we were digging together. Yes, we are all very, very humble.

The Triforce ™ (Rachel, myself, and Heather) ready for action.

The Triforce unfortunately did not get to return to BKE on the 23rd day. Instead, we were sent to dig at DS for a third day. The Triforce was placed in another trench that had been opened up in our absence. We discovered plenty of fragmented fossil and lithic material, but nothing is quite the same once you’ve dug up a hom fossil (it’s like eating a gourmet hamburger for lunch and then having a bowl of cereal for dinner.) Rachel and I spiced up the dig by shooting pictures for a planned “Sexy Paleoanthropologists of Olduvai Gorge” calendar. We were both the month of July. What do you think?

Mr. and Ms. July (photo by Heather).

We returned to DS after lunch for a second round of digging. There, we were graced with the site of a herd of giraffes (Swahili: Tweega) walking up the road. Such animals are an extremely common site in the Gorge, but some of these individuals were monstrous in size. It looked like a herd of modern day Brachiosaurs. One thing I learned from my time in Tanzania is that the giraffes they have in zoos are Lilliputian in comparison to their wild counterparts. In addition, I learned that an animal can be so big that you don’t even notice them. Let that sink in for a moment. Some of the giraffes I saw during my stay were so big that they blended in with the trees. Their legs looked like tree trunks.

The herd of giraffes seen from DS.

An example of the numerous giraffes seen at camp (photo by Alexa).


[1] The workers’ skill with the pix axe is almost magical. They can quickly clear away large areas of rock without damaging any fossils.

[2] Zach jokingly attributed my luck to the mouse that had gotten inside of my tent the previous night. Oddly enough, the mouse (or rat) is symbolically associated with “wealth and abundance” in Chinese culture (Welch, 2008: 142-143). So, if I were a superstitious sort, I could say the mouse did indeed bring me wealth, a wealth of Hom material!


Michelangelo, B., & Saslow, J. M. (1991). The poetry of Michelangelo: An annotated translation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Welch, P. B. (2008). Chinese art: A guide to motifs and visual imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub.

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Days 20 and 21 – 7/5 – 7/6/14 (skip day 19)

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

Note: This entry has lots of pictures.

The 20th day was my second time back at the DK dig site after having dug at DS once and PTK for a week prior to that. After lunch, Charles split the field school students up into two groups. My half accompanied him to a giraffe carcass located not far from camp. It had only been eaten in the last week or so. (As previously mentioned, examining the manner in which predators process and discard bones is important Taphonomy, or the study of how fossils are made.) This gave us an opportunity to examine a recent kill, while also getting more practice time with the total station by plotting the animal’s individual parts.

Said parts were scattered over a short distance on a dry field where Maasai would graze their goats. Connective tissue still held long sections of the neck vertebrae together, as well as a few of the leg joints. Other than that, the remains were picked clean. An area of dirt was stained black from where the carnivores had eaten the entrails. The hide, for the most part, was still in one piece and had been tanned by the elements (people joked about making a leather jacket out of it). Most surprisingly, the hooves were sitting next to the carcass like a pair of slippers. Even though I knew they were made from keratin, the same substance as your fingernails, I always thought hooves were somehow extensions of the bone. Well, I learned that giraffes are even-toed ungulates, meaning that every foot has two digits that fit inside of the hard covering like fingers in a glove. These digits can be pulled from the metaphorical glove by predators when the giraffe is eaten.

The plotting of the carcass was finished by the other half of the field school students on a separate day.

Maasai grazing their goats in the dry field where the giraffe was found.

The extent of the remains.

The total station as seen from the carcass.

The skull.

My size 11 (wide) hiking boot for size comparison.

Part of the mandible.

The pelvis, some neck and back vertebrae, a long bone, a rib, and
the other half of the mandible (visible behind the neck vertebrae).

A different view of the pelvis.

Thoracic vertebrae.

Bones from one half of the hind limbs.

A scapula, long bones, and some loose ribs.

Scapula size comparison with my boot.

More long bones and loose ribs.

The remaining hide in comparison to my boot.

The slipper-like hooves.

The 21st day was a big change from the everyday dig-lab-lecture formula. Julio and his PhD candidate Bob split the field school students up into two-person teams and tasked us to collect dirt samples from strategic locations plotted on a map. Each team was given a handheld GPS and shown how to not only plot the coordinates, but to also take an elevation for each sample. The samples were to be placed in a plastic bag and marked with the plot number and the elevation. The point of the exercise was to collect material that would help Julio calibrate his chronometric technology back in Calgary.

I was initially paired with Zach; we traversed miles of open savanna, climbed numerous rocky cliffs, and waded through an ocean of hellish oldupai grass in order to locate our samples. Oddly enough, the computer-generated points were sometimes nonexistent. For instance, there were many times when points were located several paces out from the edge of a cliff. This meant that we either had to walk on air like Wile E. Coyote to achieve our objective, or we could just simply take a sample from an area as close to the original spot as we could get. Those of us who grew up watching Looney Toons will know that gravity is a cruel mistress, and so we chose the latter option instead. Altogether, we were gone for 4 hours and collected a total of 45 samples. I later volunteered to go back out with Heather and Andy after lunch. We collected a total of 17 samples.

An ocean of hellish oldupai grass.

Zach with a sample. The GPS is blurry. I believe it is a
Garmin eTrex 10 Handheld GPS.

Heather, Andy, and my shadow on our way to the next point.

I was exhausted after a long day of hiking, so I went to bed promptly after dinner. However, my slumber was disturbed by the sound of rustling inside my tent. [1] Then I felt something move down my back. Now, I’m not a skittish person by nature, but, considering that this was Tanzania and I wasn’t familiar with all of its dangerous creepy-crawlies, I might have jumped a little. I quickly turned on my lantern, but didn’t see anything. This caused me to think that I had maybe dreamt the whole thing in low REM sleep, the time when sleep paralysis commonly occurs. But then something horrid stepped out from the shadows. It was a stomach-churning, psyche-shattering beast of Lovecraftian proportions. I managed to snap a few pictures before I ran screaming from my tent. Those wishing to gaze upon the creature should make sure they are sitting down. I would hate for one of my readers to pass out from shock and hit their heads on any nearby blunt objects.




Isn’t she just the cutest little thing?! [2] My uninvited guest needed to be removed from the premises before she hurt herself. The only problem was that the mouse was amazingly fast. I figured she was scared, so I talked to her with a gentle voice—the same voice I use for talking to pets and small children—while trying to grab a hold of her. Tori thought I was talking to myself and asked if I was okay. I told her about the situation, and so she and Adam (both of whom camped near me) quickly ran to my tent. They greatly enjoyed the spectacle of me trying to catch a mouse. In the end, I was able to herd her inside of an empty ziplock bag. I immediately handed it off to Adam and he released her into the grass.

The mouse was humanely released shortly after this picture was taken.


[1] As I explained here, my original tent had been murdered by a freak wind storm that blew through the gorge. Since that time, I had to bounce back and forth between the dorms and tents borrowed from researchers not currently using their own. Manuel eventually offered me a chance to stay in the dorms for the remainder of the field school, but I decided against that because it wouldn’t have been fair for me to do so while all of the other students had to sleep in tents. I opted instead to stay in a tent borrowed from Charles’ friend Ryan. He had left his tent behind when he departed for America.

I feel I must use this space to publicly thank not only Ryan, but also Dr. Gail Ashley for loaning me their tents.

[2] I would later learn that this type of mouse actually climbs through trees like a squirrel.

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Day 18 – 7/3/14

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

The 3rd was my first day of digging at a newly opened site in view of the Olduvai Gorge Museum (across the Gorge from camp). It had been discovered by David, so it was officially named DS (David’s Site). I’ve previously gushed about his uncanny ability to spot lithic tools that had eroded out from nearby rock faces and rolled down to become almost indistinguishable from the surrounding rubble. This new site was discovered in the course of a geological survey. He was following an eroded portion of tuff 1C of Bed I when he happened upon a previously undiscovered area with a large collection of fossils and lithics lying exposed on the surface. There was enough loose material to fill up two whole buckets!

The first day of digging at DS yielded more material (in both size and quantity) than several days at DK. I felt like a child on Christmas day; I and others around me were constantly finding bits of ribs, long bones, and lithic tool shards.

David would make a bad ass Bond villain (photo by Heather?)

The freshly opened DS dig site.

For our evening lecture, Manuel took all of the field school students to the BK dig site (not to be confused with DK). [1] This was the first place that the Leakey’s had excavated before they made their monumental find of the Zinj skull at the FLK dig site during the 1950s. BK lay on the upper level of Bed II, which dates to around 1.5 MYA. The site is most famous for its abundance of megafauna fossils, such as the massive ram-like Pelorovis antelope. Most of the fossils show evidence of being processed with lithic technology, while a smaller portion have teeth marks from animals. This shows that hominins in the area had primary access to the kills, meaning they were actively taking down prey as hunters as opposed to picking over remains as scavengers. As a result, most of the long bones are missing from such assemblages because they would have had the most meat. Experimental evidence suggests that our early ancestors were disarticulating a beast and then transporting the limbs back to basecamp where they would have processed the meat (this is known as “secondary articulation”).

The BK dig site originally excavated by the Leakeys.

Manuel lecturing.

Fossil fragments eroding out from the rock face. This material
is possibly leftover from hominins crushing bones for marrow.

Manuel gave us time to walk around by ourselves, but he told us to stay in groups since leopards were known to frequent the area. We roamed the landscape finding all sorts of fossils and modern material exposed to the heavens. As usual, the majority of it comprised bovid remains (modern skulls and loads of loose fossil teeth), but we found a modern giraffe metatarsal, several bulky fossils from some type of megafauna (possibly hippo), two chunks of fossil elephant tusk, and handfuls of croc teeth and random fossil fragments. The tusk material was the most interesting to me because it was almost indistinguishable from stone. There was also a large pile of hammer stones that had been collected from the area in years past.

A wildebeest skull.

Part of a very weathered wildebeest mandible. I think it has character.

A giraffe metatarsal that has been gnawed on by predators.

Megafauna material, some of which might come from a fossil hippo.

A section of the fossil elephant tusk (a.k.a., me threatening to beat up
Andy for photobombing the picture over and over again.

Rachel holding one of her baby teeth (a giant fossil croc tooth).

A pile of hammer stones.

Some of us eventually split off from the main group and headed for a wooded area next to the dig site because some Vervet monkeys had been spotted playing in the distance. With the exception of Alexa, none of us could get a clear shot—the zoom on my overly expensive camera is horrible—so we decided to channel our inner ninja and creep closer for a better picture. This was an exercise in futility, however, as the monkeys were very skittish and scattered at the tiniest noise. And once the group finally reached the area where they were active, we were greeted with the most unpleasant smell of urine. It was so strong that we could hardly breathe. Luckily, the time had come to return to camp.

My photo of the Vervet monkey (indicated by the yellow arrow).

Alexa’s photo of the monkey.

The hike back up to the trucks from BK.


[1] To avoid confusing BK with DK, I took to calling the former Burger King and the latter Donkey Kong.

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Day 17 – 7/2/14

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

Note: This entry is going to be light on much needed landscape pictures because
my camera was unfortunately acting up during the trip.

The 2nd was to be our first and only middle of the week break. This is because everyone had been pestering Charles about visiting the massive Maasai market. But since it was only held on certain days, we had to go that day and forfeit our usual Sunday off (a sacrifice everyone was willing to make). We also used this as an opportunity to visit the neighboring Laetoli dig site, which is famous for housing 3.7 million-year-old fossilized hominin footprints associated with Australopithecus afarensis, a human ancestor. Considering the paleoanthropological importance of the latter, we decided to visit Laetoli first. The extremely long drive took us over miles of rolling green hills; Maasai settlements dotted the landscape. The roads sometimes cut through the hills, creating high earthen walls flanking the vehicles. This resulted in frequent bottlenecks involving cattle. The Maasai use these roads to herd their livestock, but problems often arise when trucks come along. There were many times when the animals couldn’t just pull off to the said of the road, so they had to run shoulder to shoulder and snout to rear until an opening presented itself. It happened so much during the drive that I felt like I was on a sled being pulled by a team of cows instead of huskies.

Our first stop was a small hospital in the town of Endulen to seek medical attention for an injured worker. As mentioned in a previous entry, Ibrahim had hurt his leg in a fall during the hike down to the DK dig site.

A picture of Ibrahim. He always dressed like a professional golfer.

Our next stop was the Laetoli basecamp where we met with some representatives of the University of Colorado Denver who showed us the way to the dig site. The famous 3.7 million-year-old hominin track way has been buried since 1979 to protect it from the destructive hands of time (I had previously learned this at the Olduvai Gorge Museum). Despite this, I was still very excited to visit the site; it’s not every day that someone gets to stand where our hominin ancestors walked nearly four million years ago. The track way is currently covered in a mound of rock, sand, and fabric. It looked like a long black cigar. Excavations had begun to the left of the elongated mound revealing fossilized animal tracks, including lions, zebras, and large birds, trapped in the same volcanic ash layer. One of the researchers, Elicia Abella, a PhD student in anthropology, explained that said tracks had been protected over the millennia by a thick layer of soft, spongy earth. This layer easily peeled off from the fossilized ash beneath.

The elongated mound covering the Laetoli track way.

Everyone standing by excavations to the left of the mound.

Elicia showing us the spongy earth that protects the fossilized ash layer.

A fossilized lion print (color corrected for contrast).

Fossilized zebra and bird prints (color corrected for contrast).

Fossilized rain (color corrected for contrast).

After finishing at the dig site, we drove up the hill to the Laetoli Museum. It was a small, nearly empty building with only two physical exhibits: a small glass case with fossils and a cast of the hominin trackway situated in the center of the room. The museum relied heavily on posters to convey important information to visitors. It was interesting to see how the material was presented in both English and Swahili. This shows that an effort is being made to include the local people in the learning environment since the track way and any fossils found in the area are a part of Tanzania’s cultural heritage. Western researchers and tourists do not (and should not) have a monopoly on Laetoli.

The museum exterior.

The museum interior.

The bilingual welcome sign.

A cast of the 3.7 million-year-old hominin tackway.

A detail from one of the many bilingual educational posters.

A sign claiming Laetoli as a piece of Tanzania’s cultural heritage.

We traveled back to the Laetoli basecamp where we shared our prepared lunch with the rest of the research team. The field school students were very impressed with the camp. The forested area in which they lived provided plenty of shade from the sun and acted as a shield against the wind. This allowed them to reside in giant tents like the one I USED to have…sniffle. Their meals were prepared on grills, whereas ours were prepared on an open fire. Most surprisingly, they had an entertainment room set up in their lab. They would drink beer and watch satellite TV during their time off. How crazy is that?!

Our next trip was to the Maasai market situated on the outskirts of the town of Endulen. As the trucks halted, Charles warned us not to take any pictures of the local people because years of objectification by Western tourists had left the Maasai people bitter (the only way they would allow said pictures is if you paid them money first). Words fail to grasp the magnitude of such a market. Imagine if you will a large, amorphous creature in a constant state of flux—pulsing, moving. Its individual parts comprise hundreds of people selling livestock, foodstuff, clothing and footwear, jewelry, souvenirs, decorations, tools, and weapons; its skin is a kaleidoscope of brightly-colored fabrics in the most vibrant shades and patterns imaginable; its breath smells of spices and manure; and its countless mouths converse amongst themselves, some speaking human languages, while others bleat and bray like goats and donkeys. It is a strange beast indeed.

This panorama taken in Kenya is similar to what I saw (copyright Jerry Riley).

The field school students walked around in a group that occasionally split off into pairs. I accompanied Rachel because she was THE haggling master. Some of the people she haggled with that day were taken aback by her skill, others shook with rage. But, in the end, these men would collapse to the floor in a pool of their own bodily fluids. Rachel was kind enough to slip the money that she owed them into their cold, clammy hands before hauling away all of their goods. I kind of felt sorry for them. One minute you are a confident businessman, and the next you are crying on the ground like a baby. They probably still have nightmares about the pretty American girl who nearly haggled them to death.

That day, I purchased some beautiful fabrics for my family. All of it fit into a plastic bag. Rachel’s purchases, however, had to be transported by a convoy of tracks called in from miles around. The drivers worked in shifts until everything had been delivered to camp.

(One of her newly acquired items was a Maasai spear like the one I had purchased at the Olduvai Gorge Museum. She later suggested that we turn the camp into a Lord of the Flies-type scenario since we boasted the most weapons. I jokingly agreed until she started referring to me as “Piggy”. It was then that I knew I would be the first to go.)

I think every American should visit an open air market in a foreign country at least once in their life. We are so used to living among a majority group who can readily identify foreigners by the way they dress and speak. This time I was the strangely-dressed foreigner who couldn’t speak the language(s). [1] Being in a situation like this is extremely humbling and forces one to expand their world view. Let’s face it, Americans live most of their lives in a whitewashed environment, and so their lack of exposure to the outside world causes some of them to rely solely on phenotype and stereotypes to form pictures about concepts they are unfamiliar with. Traveling abroad can help dispel any negative misconceptions about foreign people and their cultures. A well-traveled person who has read about and experienced many foreign cultures outside their own can truly be considered a global citizen.

We traveled back to the Laetoli basecamp after finishing at the market and ate dinner with the researchers. The group then returned to the field school as the sun started to set.


[1] My Taiwanese friend told me a joke yesterday. It serves as a good example of how foreign cultures see Americans.

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American.

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Days 15 and 16 – 6/30 – 7/1/14

This post is brought to you by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.

The 30th was my sixth day of digging at PTK. The first third of our afternoon lab consisted of a lecture on bone identification by Charles. He grabbed several boxes from the lab containing the remains of various animals, including wildebeest—the lab has a large collection of their skulls—gazelle, hyena, honey badger, and baboon. He gave us a quick overview of the major types of bones and then had us compare the similarities in bone structure between all of the species. This exercise was meant to teach us the importance of identifying a fossil even if we don’t yet know the species. For instance, a long bone with a C-shaped head is a metacarpal, while that with a square-shaped head is a metatarsal. Although these are characteristics of bovid long bones, using shapes is just one of many ways to identify a fossil in general.

Charles lecturing.

A (Thomson?) gazelle skull.

A hyena skull and partial mandible.

A honey badger skull.

A partial baboon skull. This was one of three partial examples.

The second third of the lab consisted of a team exercise. Charles tasked us to work together to build a wildebeest skeleton from bones loosely packed in a box. We laid everything out in order from head to toe. The skull was placed on an adjoining table for lack of space. We used the slots in the picnic-style table to hold the spines of the various vertebrae in place. The scapula, ribs, and limbs were placed parallel/perpendicular to the vertebrae, while the pelvis was placed at the bottom. I enjoyed the overall exercise because it helped to see how such an animal goes together. Wildebeest remains are common in the Gorge (as are bovid fossils), but they are rarely ever found assembled. Skulls are more common since everything from the neck down tends to be eaten and/or dragged away by predators and scavengers.

Building the wildebeest.

I’m Captain Pelvis. (Don’t judge me. I wasn’t the first or the
last to do it. I blame Charles).

The last third of the lab consisted of a bone identification contest. Charles split us up into two teams; mine took the name “Bad to the Bone”, while the other took “Bone Saw McGraw and the Unfused Spheno-occipital Synchondroses”. The object of the game was to identify more bones than the opposing team. Each side was given a set amount of time to identify a single piece. Then the other team would try. Those not taking a turn had to face the opposite direction (though, not everyone followed this rule…cough…CURRAN). Some of the bones were missing parts, which made them difficult to identify. I felt a bit out of my league since my anthropological focus was primate behavior. Those with a background in osteology (Heather) and paleoanthropology (Curran) were clearly better suited for this exercise. My team started off strong, but the other team ended up winning thanks to Curran’s almost inexhaustible knowledge of bones. The winners were originally promised soda at dinner, but Charles was kind enough to buy for everyone.

That evening we received a lecture on molecular archaeology by the newly arrived Dr. Julio Mercader, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calgary in Canada.

July 1st was very special because it was my first birthday outside the United States. This would be my seventh day of digging at PTK, but, instead of riding down in a truck, I chose to walk down with Manuel, Julio, and his doctoral candidate Bob, a pleasant chap from Chicago. I took this time to introduce myself to Julio as I had read some of his previous work that used starch residue to date Chimpanzee stone tools back 4,300 years. I learned that he and Bob were accompanying us to PTK to collect starch grain samples to help calibrate their chronometric technology back in Calgary. The dig site had already been set up with a number of strategically placed starch grain-capturing strips. In addition, the field school students were required to wear similar strips attached to our clothes. Other than that, it was a normal day of digging.

David gave us a lecture that evening on the geomorphological reconstruction of the FLK-Zinj layer. His research involved a complex combination of stratigraphic and topographic data. He showed how a previous attempt by a different research team was off by a whopping forty-one degrees!

I had a pleasant surprise after dinner. Julio had apparently learned that it was my birthday and asked the camp chef to make me a cake. It was brought out from the back and everyone sang happy birthday to me. How many people can say they’ve had a group of world renowned scholars from America, Canada, Spain, France, and Tanzania throw them an impromptu birthday party?

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