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.
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.
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.
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.
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!