Ellis Locke—Buluk, Kenya #1: How many socks are enough?

Anyone who does fieldwork knows that the work begins long before the wheels of the plane ever leave the ground. Before getting out there and getting those boots dusty, there’s a whole series of hurdles that must be cleared first: securing the correct permits, triple checking equipment, arranging supplies, confirming travel plans, and figuring out what to pack! (How many socks are enough? Is there such a thing as too many socks?)

I’m on my way to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet with Dr. Ellen Miller of Wake Forest University, one of the leaders or “principal investigators” of the Buluk Paleontological Research Project. We’ve spent the last couple months prepping for this field season, and I’m eager to get out there, see the site for the first time, and get to work. But preparation is key because once we leave Nairobi, we’re headed for Buluk, a remote site in East Turkana, Kenya, where we’ll stay for the next two months. While Buluk has been known as a fossil-bearing site since the 1970s, its location has made access difficult. There won’t be cell service, let alone internet, at our camp, but for the next two months I’ll be doing my best to send dispatches for this blog when I can.

Buluk1

Buluk camp during the 2013 field season

Buluk is approximately 17 million years old (Ma), meaning it dates to the early part of the Miocene epoch. The Early Miocene (23 to 15 Ma) was an exciting time in primate evolution! Apes and Old World monkeys (a group called “Catarrhini”) had recently diverged from their common ancestor, and early members of these groups lived alongside more primitive catarrhines in diverse primate communities. Today, Old World monkeys are much more diverse and widespread than apes. If you try, you can probably name all the living apes without much difficulty, but listing all the living Old World monkeys would be a much more impressive party trick! During the Miocene, the tables were turned, and apes were so diverse that to name them all would be considerably more difficult than it is today. These Miocene apes varied in their size, diet, and locomotor adaptations, and there is plenty of debate today over which species are more closely related to the living apes. (For an interesting read about Miocene ape evolution, check out Dr. David Begun’s book The Real Planet of the Apes.)

By comparison, fossils of Old World monkeys are rare for most of the Miocene, and we know much less about their variation during this epoch. Buluk has already played a role in improving this sparse record for monkeys. In addition to fossils of an early ape and a small primitive catarrhine, Buluk has yielded some of the earliest Old World monkey fossils.

buluk2

Fossil-rich layer at Buluk

We hope that continued fieldwork here will help us understand more about these early apes and monkeys and give us a glimpse into the environments and broader faunal communities in which they lived. The mammals from Buluk tell the story of interchange between Africa and Eurasia. While the African continent had previously been isolated, Late Oligocene (approximately 27 to 24 Ma) contact between the Afro-Arabian and Eurasian plates allowed cross-continental exchange of animals. These new immigrants from Eurasia included the early relatives of many iconic African animals such as lions, rhinos, and antelope. At Buluk, some of these new arrivals existed alongside more archaic African animals like hyraxes, elephants, and an extinct group of carnivores called creodonts.

Fieldwork provides the raw material for improving our understanding of primate evolutionary history. The only way to learn about variation in the adaptations of early monkeys and apes is to find more fossils. Fossils from Buluk have already contributed to our knowledge of both the appearance and distribution of these animals, and we’re hoping this field season will continue to improve the Early Miocene fossil record. But first, I have to pack my socks.

Buluk3

Fossil-bearing hills of Buluk

(All photographs courtesy of Dr. Ellen Miller)

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Andrew Bishop—Paraguay #3: A True Learning Experience

Typically I expect my close friends to be happy when they see me and cry when I leave, but sometimes things work differently in the Southern Hemisphere. Our first few days in the Ache communities of Kuety and Arroyo Bandera were spent visiting Kim’s old friends, and each time he was met with a greeting that would seem unusual by U.S. standards, but which is apparently common among South American indigenous groups. Upon seeing Kim, they would embrace him and weep for several minutes as they recall their dead ancestors. This greeting is surprising considering that the Ache do not have a way to say hello or goodbye in their own language. It also stands in marked contrast to the lack of fanfare at Kim’s departure for the States.

Kim Hill and an Ache friend

Kim Hill and an Ache friend—from a previous visit

With the help of my assistant, Germino, I have made a lot of progress collecting data. We have collected about half of our sample and are beginning to look for more young men and women to participate. Data collection can be challenging, as anyone who has done field work can attest. Not only can it be hard to find participants and physically demanding to collect data while bouncing in the back of a Land Cruiser or balancing a computer in one hand and a stack of pictures in another, but it can also be quite difficult to find time to do the interviews. It seems that about half of the time there is a festival, or nobody wants to do anything because of the rain, or someone needs a ride to the clinic in Curuguaty, or we are out hunting in the forest. There is always some distraction (such as the half dozen children that are always climbing on me), and it requires a great deal of focus to keep at it and get the job done.

Making food for the Mother's Day celebration.

Making food for the Mother’s Day celebration.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome is fatigue. I have given the same interview 17 times now, and the interview mostly consists of asking the same questions over and over again about different combinations of animals.

Andrew interviews some men

Andrew interviews some men while his constant companions look on.

What has helped me the most is the genuine excitement I feel as I learn the answers to my research questions! I really enjoy theory, but there is nothing quite like collecting data for a study that you designed and being surprised by your results!

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Andrew Bishop—Paraguay #2: A Honey of a Hunt

It was still wet and foggy when we set out around 10 am into the Mbaracayu reserve. We were on a hunting trip, but almost immediately we had to stop because a broken down tractor was blocking a narrow spot in the road between steep banks of dirt. Not so easily deterred, the Ache decided to cut another lane into the earth with their machetes! In less than half an hour we had a wide enough gap to squeeze past the tractor.

Broken down tractor

Field leader Kim Hill (right) looks on while the men are cutting a new road around the broken down tractor. 

Pushing the car past the tractor

A little help to push the Land Cruiser past the broken down tractor.

Land Cruiser

Squeezing past the tractor.

In the process of digging, we found a machete buried half a meter below the soil (who new the Ache were archaeologists?). We drove several kilometers into the reserve, stopping briefly to look at fresh jaguar tracks (which the Ache spotted from inside a moving vehicle) and spotting an eyra along the way (a small black weasel-looking creature).

Machete

Archaeological “find” in the forest—a machete

When we got to our destination, we set off hiking through to forest at a quick pace. Before long we followed the tracks of a herd of white lipped peccaries. As we got close to the herd, they detected our presence and started smacking their tusks together to make the clicking sound that they are known for. The Ache quietly slipped through the forest, encircling the herd. They fired several shots with their bows before the herd started to run. One peccary came running past us, bleeding from its hind quarters where Tadeo shot it, while the rest took off in another direction. Tadeo trailed the wounded peccary less than 50 meters before we found it hiding in the brush and another man came to finish it off.

It was a large pregnant female, weighing about 45 kilos (nearly 100 lbs.) They gutted her in the field, taking out most of the internal organs except the lungs, and heart. Building a fire, we cooked and ate the liver on the spot, while the older man trimmed the fat from the intestines, and then packed the stomach cavity full of leaves.

Andrew with the peccary

Andrew with the peccary

We waited a while for the other hunters to return, and when they did not, we started hiking back to the truck. Tadeo carried the peccary while his son in law cleared a trail with his machete. We made it about half way back before we heard the other hunters calling us. We crossed through a grassy plain of ankle deep water and then stashed the peccary in a tree. Leaving our gear we ran to find the others.

We found them sitting next to a honey tree, with a Capuchin and a smaller peccary (14.5 kilos or 32 lbs) that they had killed. They built a fire under the tree and took turns chopping the tree until it fell. Keeping low and using fire to avoid the stinging bees, they managed to extract about 5 kilos of honey from the tree, some of which we ate on the spot, and the rest of which we brought back with us. I was really impressed with the hunting skill of the Ache. They move quickly and quietly through very dense forest, they are amazing trackers, and in just a morning they were about to kill two peccaries, a capuchin, and find more than a gallon of honey!

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Andrew Bishop—Paraguay #1: This is field work!

“Now you are getting a real field work experience,” IHO research scientist and project leader Kim Hill said, as we stepped out of the Land Cruiser and saw a huge puddle of oil on ground. The leaking oil filter was just one of a long list of problems that we had to solve to make it to our field site. Since leaving Tempe, Arizona, my seat on a flight had been given to someone else leaving me stranded in Panama, our truck had broken down for two days in Curuguaty, and now we had a vehicle with no oil. This is normal. This is field work.

Ache boy standing by truck

A new Ache friend standing by the puddle of oil under the truck.

Although the trip was very long, we have finally arrived in the Ache communities of Arroyo Bandera and Kuetuy where I will be spending the next three months interviewing people from the Northern Ache about hunting. The goal of our project is to find out whether or not the Ache use hunting as a means to signal information about themselves and what that information might be. We are really interested to find out whether Ache men make hunting decisions with the goal of provisioning their families, showing off, or (most likely) a mixture of the two.

Just to introduce myself, my name is Andrew and I am a doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU working on a field project for ASU’s Institute of Human Origins. I use a human behavioral ecology approach to study the role of hunting and food sharing in small scale societies. With a better understanding of why men hunt, I hope we can unravel the mystery of how hunter gatherers maintain the extensive food sharing that was so important to human evolution. The population that I work with, the Northern Ache, were full time nomadic hunter gatherers until the 1970s, and many of them still hunt actively with bows and arrows today.

Ache children on a tractor

Making new friends with the Ache children.

The Ache are amazingly friendly, and I look forward to sharing some of my experiences with them on this blog. I have already had to get used to a few new things such as eating grub worms and having a dozen or so children holding my hands and following me at every waking hour.  Check back later, as I am sure I will have a lot of new experiences to report from the field!

More soon!
Andrew

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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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