August 2, 2004
Alison and John returned from their safari today with their children, Elizabeth and Alexander, and Elizabeth's friend Sarah. This is the first time that Elizabeth and Alexander have visited Olorgesailie, but it's certainly not the first time they've visited Africa.
John and Alison have worked in Africa since the 1960s, developing excavations in Botswana, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and Ethiopia. In many of these places, they've had to stay for long periods of time, up to a year or more at once. This was far too long to leave their young children with relatives back in the States, so Elizabeth and, later, Alexander came along to some exotic places. It wasn't always easy for them. In fact, the first place where Alison and John worked was in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. They were interested in studying the modern hunter-gatherers, called the !Kung, who have lived in the area since at least the Late Stone Age, and have left many archaeological sites. When John and Alison began their study, there were no paved roads in Botswana except for a mile or so in the capitol. There were neither large hardware stores to buy excavation supplies nor good supermarkets for food. They had to stock up before the excavation in Johannesburg, South Africa, and drive four days north into Botswana, to Maun, the largest town near the !Kung territory, where you could get flour and cornmeal and powdered milk, but not much else. From there, it was another two-day drive to the site. As you can imagine, they couldn't make this trip often. Their field season was long, and, all in all, they spent about seven years in the bush, excavating Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age sites. It was a difficult place to bring a child, but Elizabeth coped with the situation. At about a year and a half, she was just learning to speak, and her presence around the !Kung children helped her learn Jun/wasi (the language of the !Kung) fluently. She also gave her parents unique insight into !Kung society, by explaining to them the children's activities and point of view. (By the way, the ! and / and other such marks in the language of the !Kung refer to clicks made with the tongue, lips, and cheeks.)
Later, after Alison and John had finished their work in the Kalahari, they worked in what used to be known as Zaire at a site called Katanda, along the Semliki River. They were a bit closer to goods and services, but they also had more troubles with animals. Like here at Olorgesailie, they had an outdoor kitchen covered by a tent, and every night they would put their food on high shelves to protect it from the animals. One night, a rather persistent hyena managed to get the crate of margarine off the shelf and stole the margarine cans. He couldn't get them open, but he chewed many holes in the metal cans, and then crushed the cans so the margarine squeezed out. The next morning, Alison and John found a trail of crushed margarine cans leading to the hyena's den. Not only were the hyenas a bother, but hippos in the river below the site were also troublesome. Hippos spend the day in the water and leave the river in the evening to graze on the plains overnight. At Katanda, the trail from the water to the grazing area led right past the excavations. If the dig crew was even a bit late leaving the site in the evening, there was great noise and commotion from the river where the hippos were grumbling and waiting to get out of the water. They were also territorial, so one time when Alexander and Elizabeth went wading in the river, they got chased out by an angry hippo.
Happily, here at Olorgesailie, things are a bit easier since there's no lake filled with hippopotamuses, the hyenas usually keep their distance, and snakes and scorpions don't come around camp very often. Well, I suppose there are a few dangers here - you always have to be careful in the African bush!