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July 13, 2011
Our mini-expedition consisted of the four from China, also Muthengi Kioko (who’s a member of our crew and an excellent driver and car mechanic), and myself. At least that’s the group that left Olorgesailie and navigated the morning traffic into Nairobi. In the city, we met Dr. Tom Plummer, a professor of anthropology from Queens College - City University of New York. Tom and I have had a long association from when he was my PhD student more than 20 years ago. He co-directs the Homa Peninsula projects with me, and has been the leader of that research enterprise over the past decade.
We also met Mr. Blasto Onyango, who heads the fossil preparation lab at the National Museums of Kenya. Blasto grew up about 5 miles from some of our main digs on the Homa Peninsula, and knows the roads, paths, and gullies of the area like the back of his hand. Since he grew up speaking Luo, the local language, he’s also a big help as we meet villagers and curious onlookers during our search for fossils and as we stand around discussing the geology.
Close to where the lake laps up on Kenya’s shore, the ancient sediments are exposed by erosion. They preserve the fossil remains of organisms dating back a little older than 6 million years – an extraordinary time in our evolutionary history. Fossils from other places in Africa and genetic studies indicate that 6 million is near the time of the evolution of our oldest direct ancestor. That oldest ancestor came from a population that split off from the common ancestor our species shared with chimpanzees. That’s how evolution works, creating diverse species as populations change and become separated from one another over time. So the 6-million-year-old deposits we’ll be inspecting over the coming days provide a record of fossils and habitats at the time when, somewhere in Africa, the human group of species began, of which we (Homo sapiens) are the last remaining one.
Chenglong, Huaiyu, Yongxin, and Zhengtang are excited to poke around with us and see what’s here – and to figure out how their expertise in dating sediments and analyzing ancient environments can further our understanding.