Editor’s Note: IHO Director Bill Kimbel received funding from the National Geographic Society for this field research excursion to Hadar, Ethiopia beginning January 2 through February 6. PhD student Lynn Copes has sent these two entries and we hope to hear more when she returns to Addis Ababa and reliable Internet service. The images are from previous field school sessions in the same area.
January 9, 2011
Since my first day in the graduate program, I’ve heard Hadar lore from those who have been here before. It’s a little intimidating to be asked to write about this year’s field season at Hadar, Ethiopia. IHO has been working here for so many years, and so many professors, students, and friends have worked here. I hope one or two of my stories will still be interesting! Coming here myself has allowed me to put faces to the famous names I’ve heard—Mesfin, Omar, Mohamed Amadine—and experience the heat and dust and camaraderie everyone has told me about.
The trip to Hadar from Addis Ababa is long and hot, but thanks to all of the stories I’ve heard from my peers, it felt like a rite of passage that all IHO students must endure! The road is paved for almost the entire way north, but we saw eight or nine trucks tipped over on the sides of the road from people going too fast and trying to bend the laws of physics with the amount of stuff tied to their roofs. Once we got outside of Addis, the landscape started to look a lot like Arizona desert, so I felt right at home! We stopped along the way to get charcoal and mats in Gabanya, and in Mill‚ for gas. The road from Mill to Elowah, where we spent the night, was not paved and bouncing around in the back of a Land Cruiser felt exactly like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, except even bumpier!
Elowah is a truck stop, so it’s quite a big town, given its location in the middle of an unpaved road, 50 km from the nearest gas station. The houses are all mud huts with thatched roofs. There is a restaurant there run by a woman named Setayu, but it doesn’t look like any kind of restaurant you’ve ever seen—while eating, two baby goats ran in, chased by a big sheep! There is a big sign out front that says “Hadar Field School—Home Away from Home” in Afar, which made me smile. Four of us went for a walk down the main road before dinner and collected quite the mob of kids—I think we each had six or seven hanging off us, asking questions. We ate traditional injera bread with lentils pureed into a hummus-like dip and goat meat for dinner. We spent the night at Omar’s and all headed for Hadar the next day
This year’s field season is short and camp is small. The past two trips here have been as part of the Hadar Field School in 2007 and 2009, involving 20+ undergraduates along with professors and teaching assistants. This year, thanks to a grant from the National Geographic Society, four Americans and two Israelis are joining with the Afar for a 26-day excavation at Hadar. We are focusing on two of the most famous localities at Hadar—the 333 and 666 sites. Since 1975, over 250 hominin fossils, representing a minimum of 17 individuals, all Australopithecus afarensis, have been found at 333. We are planning to finish a large sieving job at the site to search the last parts of an unexplored gulley for hominins. In the mid-1990s, the first (and so far, only) hominin from the genus Homo was found in the younger deposits at 666, a site that also has many stone tools. Archaeologist Erella Hovers and her graduate student will be further exploring the 666 locality with the hope that further early Homo fossils have eroded out of the sediments in the past decade.
We do have limited access to satellite internet, so I’ll send another update once work starts in earnest. We’ve been out surveying a few times and come across lots of fossil bovids, pigs, fish, and even some giraffe teeth, but no hominids. My particular area of interest is cranial vault morphology, so I was extremely excited to see what was clearly primate vault bone—a flat cortical shell surrounding trabecular bone (called diploe in the skull)! It took Bill all of two seconds to declare it turtle shell and tell me I’d been staring at diploe for too long. Obviously, we’re all excited to find hominins, and I’ll be sure to let you know first thing when we do.
January 14, 2011
I promised we’d let you know as soon as we found something exciting, and this afternoon, we did! All week we’ve been sieving at 333 and finished clearing out the last unexplored gulley this morning. We have pulled out a few interesting fragments, but they all need further processing before we can tell what they are. Since we didn’t have much more work to do at 333, this afternoon, 15 of us piled in a Land Cruiser and went to survey at the top of the Denen Dora Member, which was deposited just over 3.2 million years ago. We all spread out and began searching the ground for fossils. Amid plenty of fish and pig fossils, Omar Abdullah picked up a weathered fragment of a mandible. The broken molar roots told him it was from a hominin. He called others over, and they all started searching the surrounding area. Only minutes later, Omar picked up the beautifully preserved left half of the same mandible! We’ll return there tomorrow to sift through the sediments to try to recover more of the mandible. Everyone is in high spirits tonight!
Learn more about Lynn and her research interests here.