July 30, 2009

Steep slope, hot sun, and one giant rib

Professor of Paleoanthropology at Lehman College and Research Associate in Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History

RUSINGA ISLAND, Kenya | We’ve been in camp almost three weeks now, and it’s been a terrific season. We’ve found over 800 identifiable fossils, and more come in every day. We also have thousands of scrappy pieces that are being kept for later laboratory work. One aspect of the sites that we’re focusing on is something called the taphonomy, which simply means the study of the various processes that lead to the fossils being preserved and deposited in the way that they are.

Our excavations at the Waregi site continue (see earlier posts), but the main collecting team has switched localities. We were working in an area at the top of the island known as Nyamsingula. It’s an evocative place, overlooking the remnants of a long extinct volcano on the mainland. We collected and logged fossils for more than a week in a series of steep canyons, gullies and ridges. It was demanding (and often precipitous!) work – but extremely productive at the same time. We found everything from tiny rodent teeth to the enormous leg bones of a now extinct relative of the elephant. It was a real pleasure to walk up the floor of one of the deeper canyons, and chance every so often upon a team member excavating out a fossil embedded in the rock, ipod blaring, oblivious to anything else going on. A few days ago I spied one of our student members, Brenda Frazier from Penn State, on a ridiculously steep slope in the boiling sun, quietly hacking out a giant rib for hours and hours without any worry for the drop below. Pretty impressive.

After the dramatic scenery of Nyamsingula, we’re now at a place called Kiahera. It’s very close to camp, and we can walk there in the morning. The slopes are gentle and there’s lots of shade. It would be a bit of letdown if it not for the abundant fossils we keep finding there. We’ve only been there two days, and have already flagged five or six hundred specimens. Not all of them will be good, but that’s a decent haul by any standard. It’s also the place that made the island famous. In 1948, the paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey discovered a partial skull of the early ape Proconsul. It changed the way we think about human and ape evolution and made the Leakeys household names. They went on find many more famous specimens, but it all started right here on Rusinga.

Our CUNY grad students are doing fantastically. Scott Blumenthal has been a real stalwart of the GPS team, tirelessly collecting data points and patiently nursing our rather sensitive equipment through the process. Jenn Hodgson has helped a lot on the more archaeological aspects of the expedition, coordinating with the team of archaeologists at the beginning of the trip, and doing a stellar job at the Waregi excavation. And Julia Zichello (who wrote the last post) has impressed us all with her fearlessness and calm demeanor when collecting fossils on the steepest, nastiest slopes at Nyamsingula.

One thing all paleontologists joke about is that the best finds are always at the very end of the season. We’ve got only a few days to go now, so we’ll see what they bring!