Horses, Giraffes, and Monkeys, Oh My!

Sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, an Internet connection is not what one would hope it would be! So there has been a bit of a delay continuing our story about what we do in the field during our paleoanthropological expedition.

We arrived and set up camp on February 4, and the archaeologists arrived on February 12 to set up the excavation. So in a short time, we have already worked in three separate scientific fields—geology, paleontology, and paleoanthropology.

In the Ledi-Geraru field area, we have many different “drainages,” which group large areas of hills and valleys into sections. These are what we call the “exposures.” In an area that we and the local Afar people call the “Lee (Lay) Adoyta” drainage, we have looked for fossils of mammals, fish, reptiles, and hominins (or extinct human ancestors) for a couple of weeks. It is a small area about 1 by 2 kilometers.

Lee Adoyta Basin

Ledi-Geraru research site in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

Our collection strategy is to have the paleontology crew (seven of us!) survey an area by almost crawling up and down each hill and putting flags next to every bone fragment that they find.

Flagging

After crawling along the surface looking for fossils, flags are placed by each specimen that has been found.

Then we collect the fossils that we can identify to some taxonomic or animal-group level that will give us information about the species, about the group, or about the family. For example, the Bovidae (antelope!) are a family of Artiodactyla (two-toed animals) that are very good indicators of habitat. And the habitat in the past is often quite different from what we see around us today. So, if we find horn cores and teeth, we can identify an animal to a species, such as Connochaetes taurinus (a blue wildebeest). If we find only teeth, sometimes we can identify those teeth to a particular group of Bovidae, such as Alcelaphini or a wildebeest-like creature. This group happens to eat grass and live in more open habitats. Finally, we might find a foot bone such as the astragalus, which we can measure to understand the type of habitat the antelope moved in. So even though we don’t necessarily know the species that donated the astragalus, we can still tell something about the ecology of the ancient region.

After we collect all of the fossils for the day, we come back to camp and rinse the dust off the fossils to gently clean them. If a fossil is in pieces, we glue them back together. We identify each fossil specimen to what it is (femur or leg bone) and what it belonged to (monkey).

Working at Night

After sunset, the work focuses on looking at what was found during the day.

When we collect each one of these fossils, we first assign a unique bar code to the specimen, and then take the GPS coordinates of the fossils so that we can map where every fossil comes from on the landscape. This is important for looking at patterns of where species are on the landscape. Each of these identifications is loaded into our database so we can ask questions about many aspects of the fossil area later.

You can see a public version of what this might look like at the Hadar Geoinformatics Database, which is based on Google Earth. To see this information, follow the directions under “Accessing the HGP Geodatabase” at https://iho.asu.edu/research/HGP. You will need to have Google Earth already downloaded on your computer.

We have been looking for fossils every day since we arrived in the field. We now have over 400 localities (regions where we have collected one or more fossils). Every day, we have fun looking for fossils because it is like a treasure hunt—you never know what you might find! We have experts here that are excited to see fossil horses, fossil pigs, fossil giraffes, fossil carnivores, and fossil monkeys. And all of us get excited if we find an ancient human ancestor—a hominin!

Until next time! If we have good Internet, we will let you know more about those horses, pigs, giraffes, and more!

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In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Group photo

A group photo from the 2014 field season at Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia

Hi! I am Kaye Reed (that’s me, fifth in from the left on the bottom row in the black shirt), and I am a paleontologist with a focus on paleoecology. I am also co-director of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project, which is a group of scientists and students who are looking for fossils—of hominins (ancient human ancestors) and other species—in the Afar of Ethiopia. The Afar is one of the driest, hottest, and dustiest places on earth—but one with MANY fossil exposures. The famous fossil skeleton “Lucy” (scientific name Australopithecus afarensis) was found in the region 40 years ago! (Read more about Lucy here.)

In order to have scientists, students, and Ethiopian officials in the field, we begin planning about six months in advance. For this story, I am going to tell you about getting ready to go to the field. In later entries, we will explain what we do in the field, and what we actually did on particular days.

Getting Ready

First, the team of scientists and students coordinate their flight arrivals into Addis Ababa from the U.S., Europe, and other parts of Africa so that everyone arrives at roughly the same time.

We have an Ethiopian camp crew that has been with us for many years. Before we leave for the field site, they make sure that tents are repaired and that we have enough blankets, and they begin to buy food for about 50 people for a six-week time period! Wait, you thought we were looking for fossils in the arid and desert-like Afar—so why do we need blankets? Sometimes it is in the 50s F at night, so it does get cold.

Camping gear

Mattresses, water containers, and chairs are strewn about the lawn waiting to be packed for use in the field.

This year, we planned to leave Addis Ababa on Saturday, February 1, at 6 am. BUT, the truck that was supposed to come and pack the gear to take to the field on Saturday didn’t come. Mesfin, our camp chief, had to find another truck at the last minute. That truck arrived at 7 am on Sunday morning, and we were all packed and ready to leave at 11:10 am. We got as far as the small town of Adaitu by 9 pm and spent the night in a “hotel.” The hotel consisted of beds, outside, all side-by-side with mosquito netting over them. And one thin sheet. Remember when I said that it gets cold at night? It was REALLY cold and I, for one, didn’t sleep more than two hours. They did make us a nice breakfast at 6 am, and we went to the campsite, which is about 30 minutes away from Adaitu along a dry riverbed called the Woranso.

Loading the lorry

The Ethiopian crew loads the huge truck (called a lorry in Ethiopia) with most of the camping gear. We also have land cruisers that take people and personal gear (clothes and special equipment) to the field.

 

Almost done

The lorry is almost packed and Mesfin, the camp chief, Bill Kimbel, and Ignacio Lazagabaster, a graduate student, discuss what is next.

While other people set up camp, Ramon Arrowsmith, a geologist from the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration, and I needed to go to see local government officials about getting letters to allow us to work in the region. We receive a permit from the federal government, and from the Afar Regional State, and from the local communities. Eight hours later, we were back in camp with all of the letters, and camp was miraculously set up! We had a nice dinner of spaghetti and then collapsed from tiredness into our tents.

We were now ready to look for fossils and evidence of archaeology!!

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Fossil Hunting: Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia

Lee_Adoyta

The forbidding landscape of the Ledi-Geraru research site—it looks empty but may be hiding valuable fossil evidence about our human origins!

IHO is excited to launch a new section of the blog this month that will feature scientists and students working at a field site in the Afar Regional State of Ethiopia, called the Ledi-Geraru research area.

What is a bit different about these new blog entries is that we are reaching out to the secondary school community, primarily middle and high school teachers and their students, to give them a chance to see what “fossil hunting” is actually like in the field.

The Ledi-Geraru field project is being co-led by IHO Research Associate and ASU President’s Professor Kaye Reed, who will start off the blog by showing all the equipment and logistics of mounting a field research camp, along with stories from students and other scientists working in the field for the next four weeks.

Kaye Reed in the field, Hadar, Ethiopia.

Kaye Reed in the field, Hadar, Ethiopia.

We encourage teachers and students to post comments and ask questions, and Dr. Reed or one of the other field scientists will do their best to answer. So, please forward our blog on to friends or post the link up on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a look at some of our past blog entries that were posted by IHO graduate students from the field in South Africa, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

And welcome to the field!

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John Rowan: Addis Ababa #2—Gelada Anyone?

Heading to Guassa

Heading to Guassa

As hinted at in my last post, I’ve just returned from a weekend trip to Guassa, a cold but lush region of the Ethiopian highlands. While most of IHO’s research focuses on a single, highly specialized primate species (if you are reading this, you belong to that very species), I’ll use this blog post to provide a little background on one of our most interesting relatives. I spent the weekend in Guassa observing gelada baboons, and thanks to their passive nature, I was able to get up close and personal with one of Africa’s most amazing primates.

Highlands

The Ethiopian highlands are now sculpted by human activity, primarily agriculture.

Geladas1

The “bleeding heart monkey” foraging for grasses

The gelada is among the rarest living primate species. The only place they are observable in the wild today is in a few of the cool and high altitude afro-alpine mountains of Ethiopia (although their close relatives were once more widely distributed across Africa, as will be discussed later). Their hair is generally a mix of brown, black, and gold, and their face is black with the exception of light pink eyelids. There is a reddish patch of skin on their chest and the tone varies depending on reproductive stage, dominance, and age (they are sometimes called the “bleeding heart monkey”). They are almost completely terrestrial and spend most of their time (up to 70 percent a day) feeding on the ground. Geladas are the only graminivorous, or grass-eating, primate, and 90 percent of their diet consists of high-protein grasses found at altitudes greater than 1700 meters. Unlike some hoofed mammals (like giraffids and bovids), geladas lack a specialized multi-chambered ruminant stomach and instead rely on bulk-feeding and extensive chewing with specialized cheek teeth to digest a diet so high in cellulose.

Geladas 2

Geladas live in social units consisting of a single breeding male (foreground) and up to twelve adult females (background)

The living gelada, Theropithecus gelada, is the single relictual (i.e., a remnant) member of a previously widespread group. The closest living relatives of Theropithecus are Papio (baboons) and Lophocebus (baboon-mangabeys), and Perelman and colleagues found that the last common ancestor of Theropithecus and Papio lived in Africa about four million years ago (mya) based on a well-resolved molecular phylogeny of living primates (a phylogeny is the depiction of evolutionary relationships among a group of organisms; “molecular” indicates the phylogeny was constructed using genetic data vs. anatomical or fossil data). The date of origination suggested by the genetic evidence compares favorably with the fossil evidence, as the earliest species of Theropithecus are found in Koobi Fora, Kenya at 3.94 mya and in the Middle Awash of Ethiopia at 3.9 mya.

Theropithecusbrumpti

Theropithecusbrumpti skull

There are many fossil species of Theropithecus, most of which were much larger than the living gelada. For example, T. oswaldi (2.5-0.25 mya) was a particularly large species, with males weighing over 85kg or 187 lbs in the more specialized Pleistocene representatives (males of the living gelada weigh 20kg or 44 lbs at most). The Hadar species of Theropithecus, T. darti, is almost certainly an early representative of what would eventually become the T. oswaldi lineage. Thus two small ancestors, T. darti and Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species), living side by side at Hadar three million years ago would probably go on to give rise to two of the largest primate species, T. oswaldi and Homo sapiens (humans), respectively.

Interestingly, in another parallel with the human lineage, while Theropithecus initially evolved in Africa it is clear that the group subsequently dispersed into Eurasia during the Pleistocene, as fossils of Theropithecus have been found in Israel and India. Although, these two primates were not alone in their journey out of Africa, as their fellow travelers included species of Oryx (a large antelope), Hippopotamus (hippos), Kolpochoerus (a suid closely related to living African pigs), and Crocuta (spotted hyenas), all of which are of African origin like Theropithecus and Homo.

Okay—that’s enough digressing for now. There’s still more to do in my remaining two weeks in Addis.

John and Gelada

John and some close relatives

Until next time,

John

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John Rowan: Addis Ababa #1—The Token Paleontologist

Editor’s Note: John Rowan has previously posted from a field site in Ledi-Gareru and is now working with specimens at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Just as primary field research is an important component of anthropological work, comparative analysis and lab research—which may not be as exotic or seemingly adventurous as living in a tent in the Afar—can be as satisfying and exciting to our students (and scientists)! So, here is a bit of a twist on “Notes from the Field.” I hope you enjoy it—I think you will!

Hello again!

After a short hiatus in Arizona, I have returned to Ethiopia. I arrived in Addis Ababa five days ago and the city has been buzzing with excitement as the African Union (AU) is celebrating their 50th anniversary at the AU headquarters in Addis this week. Heads of State from all over the continent and all over the world, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, have flown to Ethiopia’s capital to celebrate this historic moment. The traffic is worse than usual as police escorts cut through never-ending lines of cars and pedestrians.

Addis Ababa skyline

Addis Ababa skyline

For the next few weeks I’ll be living in Addis at the IHO house and working in the research collections at the Ethiopian National Museum. Along with AU festivities, the museum is also celebrating the return of Lucy, the famous female skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, as she was returned to Ethiopia less than a month ago from her worldwide tour. Don Johanson, Lucy’s discoverer and IHO founding director, and Zeresenay Alemseged, former IHO postdoc and current IHO affiliate, flew to Addis to welcome back Ethiopia’s paleoanthropological gemstone. (Editor: To see a short (2 minute) Ethiopia television piece on “Lucy’s” return, click here; to see a longer piece (25 minutes), click here.)

Lab at the Ethiopian National Museum

Spreading out in the lab at the Ethiopian National Museum

While the AU and Lucy celebrations are a nice distraction, as the token paleontology student at IHO, I’ll be devoting most of my time here to the nonhominin fossils from Hadar and Ledi-Geraru. Primarily, I’ll be working on the “ungulates,” or hoofed mammals, including giraffes, hippos, suids (pigs), elephants, equids (horses), rhinos, and, in particular, bovids (antelope). In addition to IHO’s fossil sites, I’ll also be working with fossil bovids from the Omo and Middle Awash collections.

As noted above, I am particularly interested in the fossil record of African antelope. Bovids are an excellent group for macroevolutionary and paleoecological studies because they are geographically and temporally widespread, are abundant in Plio-Pleistocene fossil deposits, exhibit tribal dietary and habitat preferences, and are relatively specious, represented by roughly 140 extant species. But what does any of this have to do with human evolution? The data collected during my stay in Addis will help provide the broader ecological and environmental context of human evolution in Ethiopia, along with providing insights into the tempo and mode of evolutionary processes in a mammalian group that overlaps with the hominin lineage in body size, dietary and habitat preference, and geographic distribution. While it may seem bizarre to attempt to gain insights into evolutionary patterns of the human lineage through that of nonhuman mammals, several authors, primarily Elisabeth Vrba (Yale U.), have proposed that most origination and extinction events across mammalian groups have occurred in sync due to known climatic or tectonic changes over the last few million years in Africa (aptly termed the “turnover pulse” hypothesis). This hypothesis implies that hominins should fit to the general pattern of origination and extinction documented in other mammals throughout the African fossil record. Not surprisingly, this appears to be the case. For example, two of the most well-documented turnovers in African fauna occur about 2.8 mya and 1.8 mya, two dates that in human evolution correspond to the disappearance of Australopithecus afarensis (a species that had previously persisted for almost one million years) and the evolution of Homo erectus (an important grade shift in human evolution when many behavioral and anatomical characteristics of humans first evolve), respectively.

The arid-adapted Soemmerring's Gazelle, Nanger soemmerringi

The arid-adapted Soemmerring’s Gazelle, Nanger soemmerringi

Similarly, the commonness of bovids in the Plio-Pleistocene record provides us with insights into mammalian biogeography during this time and allows us to generate hypotheses about dispersal corridors and centers of endemism for rarer taxa that are less common in the fossil record, including hominins. Also, bovids are excellent tools for reconstructing early hominin habitats since they are characterized by distinct habitat preferences based on tribe (tribe is a low taxonomic level of organization—it groups similar animals together below the level of subfamily or family). For example, the recovery of reduncin bovids (e.g., kobs) at fossil sites indicate the presence of well-watered habitats and some waterlogged grassland, while the recovery of aepycerotins (impala) indicate ecotonal habitats where savannah grasses border woodland and more densely vegetated landscapes. The fossil record of antelope provides many other useful tools that help elucidate the evolutionary, ecological, and environmental context of human evolution, but for the sake of brevity this is all that I’ll discuss (for now).

One of Africa's largest bovids, the African Buffalo Syncerus caffer

One of Africa’s largest bovids, the African Buffalo Syncerus caffer

So, that’s all for now—my next post should be coming soon and I’ll talk about my trip to the Ethiopian Highlands, from which I just returned, where we observed some of the rarest monkeys in the world—gelada baboons.

Cheers,

John

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John Rowan: Ledi-Gareru #2—Through Kenya and Tanzania to Ethiopia

Editor’s Note: John has extensive research and field experience. Below is a bit of his story and a little more on what is happening in Ethiopia on this trip.

Issa woman and baby

Issa woman and baby from Tanzania travels.

Last summer, I was invited to participate in the Koobi Fora Field School operated by Rutgers University, George Washington University, and the National Museums of Kenya. On the Laikipai Plateau, I helped lecture on paleoecology with Dr. René Bobe. René and I used the modern Kenyan ecosystem to teach students about taphonomic processes, preservation biases in the fossil record, how to calculate species diversity and abundance from fragmentary remains, and how to identify scraps of bone to the family level. From there, the field school moved north to the eastern shores of Lake Turkana, an area famous for its hominin-rich fossil localities.

teaching in Kenya w Bobe

Teaching in Kenya with Dr. Rene Bobe

At Koobi Fora Base Camp, I lectured on vertebrate paleontology and evolution, exposing anthropologically centered students to a whirlwind tour of 550 million years of vertebrate history. After a week of lecturing, we moved two hours further north along the lake to Ileret, a Pleistocene locality famous for its preservation of Homo erectus footprints. In this last leg of the field school, I assisted Dr. Brian Richmond with the uncovering of more H.erectus footprint layers and the collection of new hominin fossils. With Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer, I helped direct the paleontology team that will provide the ecological context for the environment in which early Homo erectus was living in 1.5 mya.

 

cataloging fossils

Cataloging fossils at Ledi-Gareru 2013

In fall 2012, I entered the evolutionary anthropology PhD program at Arizona State University as Dr. Kaye Reed’s student. Since arriving at ASU, I have directed my research towards understanding the evolution of terrestrial mammal communities in Africa during the latest Miocene (~ 10 to 5 mya) and Pliocene (~ 5 to 2.6 mya). This spatiotemporal setting is important because various climatic factors and faunal migrations into and out of Africa “set the stage” that human evolution eventually played out on (molecular and fossil data suggest that Hominini originated ~ 7 mya). Of all the various fossil localities, the Afar depression and Turkana Basin are perhaps the two most important regions within the entirety of Africa for piecing together the human story. So, my current research interests are in the alpha taxonomy (species recognition and differentiation), phylogeny (evolutionary relationships), and biogeography (distribution) of East African mammals from the Turkana Basin of Kenya and southern Ethiopia and the Afar region of Ethiopia. Through this research I will be able to help define the broader environmental context of human origins in Africa.

chalachew and john

John with Ethiopian-born IHO doctoral student Chalachew Seyoum at the Ledi-Gareru site

Now, back to today—since my last post, we’ve uncovered a lot more fossils, the geologists and archaeologists have arrived (finally), and we’ve entered the home stretch for this field season. In the next few days I’ll shoot over another post on what’s actually going on in camp—things have gotten hectic around here as the days dwindle. I have lots of exciting stories to tell, but for now, I have to get back to surveying for fossils!

Cheers!

John

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John Rowan: Ledi-Geraru, Hadar, Ethiopia

Note from the Editor: This begins the newest entry from our “Notes from the Field” series, this time written by one of IHO’s newest doctoral students, John Rowan. In upcoming entries, you will hear more about John’s research interests. I am so interested to hear about what IHO researchers and the international team of scientists are doing in Ledi-Geraru—and I am happy to bring you that news from John.

Greetings from the Afar of Ethiopia—this entry comes from our campsite in the arid scrubland of the Ledi-Geraru research area.

IMG_2552

Welcome to Hadar!

I arrived in Addis Ababa in late December and spent a few weeks working in the National Museum of Ethiopia on Pliocene faunal collections with IHO professor Kaye Reed. The museum was lively as preeminent scientists like Terry Harrison and Yohannes Haile-Selassie were working in the research collections or preparing to head out into the field.

Lucy site plaque

John in front of the “Lucy” site plaque

The 2013 field season for the Ledi-Geraru Research Project kicked off on January 9 as we packed up and made the eight-hour trek from Addis Ababa to the Afar. Our team here includes Kaye Reed (IHO/ASU), Ramon Arrowsmith (ASU), Brian Villmoare (George Washington University), David Feary (ASU), three ASU PhD students (Erin DiMaggio, Chalachew Seyoum, and Dominique Garello), and local Afar workers (including the famous Omar Abdullah). The rest of our crew arrives at the end of the month and includes Chris Campisano (IHO/ASU), Lars Werdelin (Swedish Museum of Natural History), and Dave Braun (George Washington University). Every participant forms a different piece of a larger puzzle as we try to collectively reconstruct human evolution in East Africa using lines of evidence from geology, paleontology, and archaeology.

Our current focus is to investigate new fossiliferous exposures that should help fill a significant gap in our understanding of human evolution in East Africa. In the Afar, the Hadar Formation ranges from 3.5mya—2.95mya and is overlain by the Busidima Formation from 2.7mya—160,000ybp; however, sediments ranging from 2.95—2.7mya are missing from the sequence due to an unconformity. For paleoanthropologists, this small slice of time is of great importance because it may be the time when our genus, Homo, originates. To throw light on the origin of Homo, the Ledi-Geraru Research Project was initiated by the late Charlie Lockwood, Kaye Reed, and Ramon Arrowsmith in 2002 as an attempt to clarify the transition from Australopithecus and the emergence of Paranthropus (a bizarre evolutionary off-shoot of robust hominins) and Homo. Along with the earliest members of our own genus, the first stone tools may have appeared during this time period.

IMG_2548

New discoveries!

The field is always an exciting place of discovery—so far we’ve already deduced that the animals we’re finding in the Ledi-Geraru research area are very different from those at Hadar. In the Hadar Formation, the uppermost deposits demonstrate a general trend towards a more open and arid environment—a change that is in sync with increasing robusticity in Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species). But, as noted above, after 2.95mya, we’re not sure what became of Au. afarensis or the animals with which it shared the landscape with. Ledi-Geraru is showing us that there may have been ecological changes in the Afar around 2.8mya similar to those documented in the Omo-Turkana Basin of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. We’ve uncovered new monkeys, bovids, hippos, and other mammalian taxa that may represent immigrants into the Afar from other areas or new and unique species that have evolved from the older Hadar fauna.

That’s all for now—more to come soon!

Cheers!
John

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