Digging Into Ancient History

William Harcourt-Smith, assistant professor of anthropology at Lehman College and a resident research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, has been working on two Africa-based research projects. Last summer he directed a field project in Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria, that focuses on the evolution of the earliest apes, which lived 18 million to 20 million years ago.

“We were searching for and recovering the fossilized remains of these apes, plants and animals,” says Harcourt-Smith. “The site gives us an incredible glimpse into what the environment and biodiversity was like back then.”

In Tanzania, he worked as part of a team on a 120,000-year-old site made up of more than 350 preserved footprints, which were all made at the same time in a wet volcanic ash layer by a large group of archaic humans.

The prints “give us a chance to work out the possible group composition — males vs. females vs. children — by measuring their sizes,” says Harcourt-Smith, who spent the fall and spring working on both projects and returned to Kenya in the summer for more data.