July 24, 2004
Last night, we had the pleasure of welcoming several visitors from the Smithsonian Institution to our camp. Dr. David Evans oversees all scientific research at the Smithsonian, and Dr. Cristián Samper is the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Dave's wife Eva and their 16-year-old son Tyler, and Cristián wife Adriana were also here. This was their first time to our field site, and they enjoyed seeing a Smithsonian field operation in action.
As we toured the excavations, they were filled with questions - and we were all filled with excitement as we saw new concentrations of handaxes coming out of the CL1-1 excavation, and fossil bones of a zebra emerging from the sediments of Site 15. We went searching for fossil plants and animal shells at a site about 100,000 years old - pieces of reeds and tree trunks and the spiraled shells of gastropods, all of which lived in a large channel choked with vegetation that eventually turned into a swamp before drying up.
One of the great attractions of Olorgesailie is its beautiful landscape, especially as the rising or setting sun casts shadows across the white lake beds, stark brown cliffs of lava rock, and deep gullies that preserve the remains of past human life. Cristián was especially taken by the surroundings, and ventured out on his own one morning before breakfast just to spend some quiet moments alone at the hominin fossil site. He returned saying that he could really imagine the individual we found last year walking along the ridge toward the highlands of Mt. Olorgesailie. Our visitors learned a lot about the detailed scientific work that we do, but they also appreciated that discoveries about early humans fuel our imaginations as it tells us a little something about our roots.
A bit of imagination was fired up when I took the group to a site we excavated in 1997, the Acheulean quarry site that I mentioned on a previous day. Here we found a place on the ancient landscape where, about 990,000 years ago, a group of hominins visited and tested the volcanic outcrop and began to shape handaxes. The stone artifacts show us the process of how they mined the rock by hitting huge slivers of stone from the outcrop. Then they proceeded to chip away at one side of the stone to test for any imperfections in the rock. If they found even the slightest flaw, they tossed the intended handaxe away. We found even the tiniest fragments and rock dust in one area just below a flat slab of rock. One of the handaxe-makers must have sat on this rock and kept flaking the huge stone slivers with a powerful force, using hammerstones weighing up to 17 pounds. The dust of his or her efforts fell on to the ground below.
When I took the group there, Tyler decided (with much prompting from us) to climb into the finished excavation and sit where that early human once sat. I've done it myself - sitting on the rock slab surrounded by the rock scars produced by the toolmakers gives you an amazing connection with an ancient time and ancestor. As you can see, Tyler began to look the part - or at least his idea of what the ancestor looked like. He made us all laugh!