Olorgesailie 2004 Field Season

Posted on 2004-06-30 by Rick Potts

June 30, 2004

The search for context leads us to excavate every site with great care and to recover every little scrap of evidence that can help us interpret each site. This is why Jenny, with the help of Lynn, Amanda and Jessica, has spent the past few days examining the sediment from the hominin fossil site, AD5/7-1. She's looking for fossils of microfauna. Microfauna are the very small animals, the little rodents, amphibians, and invertebrates that die and leave fossils in a site just like larger animals do. Yet their bones are so small that it's almost impossible to see them when we first excavate. Last year, we saved all of the sediment excavated from the hominin discovery site; and then it was washed in water and put through…

Posted on 2004-06-29 by Rick Potts

June 29, 2004

Three main excavations are under way right now. One is called AD5/7-1, and that's the hominin fossil site. Another is called CL1-1, which has unearthed a concentration of stone handaxes near the Site Museum. And the other is called Site 15, which we mentioned earlier as the place of an elephant, gazelle, and possible zebra butchery. Although Olorgesailie is famed for its great concentrations of handaxes, many of our excavations look for smaller groupings of stone tools and animal bones that give us a somewhat simpler record of early human activity and preservation of the remains. In most cases, the handaxe accumulations occur due to many complex events - matters of both hominin behavior and geological processes. We'll talk about that again another day.

To begin…

Posted on 2004-06-28 by Rick Potts

June 28, 2004

The excavations that were started last week are continuing without problems, so I thought I'd spend a few minutes explaining the geology of the region, as it's somewhat complex but very important for understanding what we're doing here. In the 1940s, Louis and Mary Leakey stumbled upon a large collection of stone handaxes that were eroding out of a hill. They got permission from the local Maasai to cordon off an excavation area, in which they worked for the next few years. This small area now houses the Olorgesailie Site Museum, and is where the Leakeys in the 1940s and 50s, and Glynn Issac in the 60s and 70s did all their excavation.

As Lynn and Amanda learned yesterday, the entire Olorgesailie Formation is made of…

Posted on 2004-06-27 by Rick Potts

June 27, 2004

It's Sunday, a well-deserved day of relaxation for the crew. They've all gone for lunch to Magadi, a small factory town about a 45-minute drive to the south. It's something a little different from camp life. I usually prefer to stay put to enjoy some rest, reading, and the view from camp. Jennifer and Jessica have returned, bringing Amanda Henry, who's a Ph.D. student in paleoanthropology from George Washington University, and Lynn Copes, who's going into her senior year in anthropology at Columbia University. Lynn's also a Smithsonian summer intern working with the Human Origins Program. They're excited to be here, not only to visit Kenya for the first time, but also to participate in our research firsthand.While the rest of us are talking, Jessica likes to…

Posted on 2004-06-26 by Rick Potts

June 26, 2004

Late yesterday afternoon, Dr. Bernie Owen arrived, a British-born geologist who lives and teaches in Hong Kong. His special area is the study of lake diatoms, which are microscopic plants that live in freshwater lakes. He mainly studies ancient diatoms, which can tell us a lot about the characteristics of the lake that existed at Olorgesailie between about 1.2 million and 500,000 years ago. Fresh water was one thing that certainly attracted early humans to this area so long ago. Even though the landscape today is dry and dusty, the thick layers of white sediment are filled with diatoms and tell us that there was once a big source of water here. In fact, these layers are known as diatomites. We've been arranging for a couple years…

Posted on 2004-06-25 by Rick Potts

June 25, 2004

The morning began with the entire crew going to AD5/7-1. That's our code for the name of the site where our team found an early human fossil last season. As you can see in the photos, it's a complete brow ridge and nearly-complete temporal bone (ear region) of a skull, dated about 900,000 years old. During 6 weeks of really careful digging and sieving, we also found nine fragments of the brain case. I talked with the crew about last year's work, and about the paper written by our scientific team. I passed around a copy, and they wondered about all the technical jargon and complicated table of measurements. But they recognized that the geological drawings, the list of other fossil animals known from that time period,…

Posted on 2004-06-24 by Rick Potts

June 24, 2004

By the time Jennifer, Jessica, and I reached camp this afternoon, Kampi Safi was certainly more than a piece of barren land. It was a "tent city", as some of my visiting colleagues have called it in previous years. We received a warm greeting from our crew and from our Maasai friends. Olorgesailie is in the midst of Maasai land, where the local people wrapped in red shukas (robes) herd their cattle, goats, and sheep, and collect containers of water from local sources, which are then strapped to the sides of donkeys that plod back to the Maasai homesteads, or manyattas.

The late afternoon sunlight on the rift valley walls and gullies today was awe-inspiring. To enter the rift from Nairobi, you drive to the southwest…

Posted on 2004-06-23 by Rick Potts

June 23, 2004

Kampi Safi is our research camp at Olorgesailie - and our home for the next two months. It's the starting point each day in our team's research. We're here to dig and look for stone tools, fossils, and geological clues about the early humans of this region, and how they lived and adapted to their surroundings over the past 1 million years or more.The Kenyan crew and I arrived here this morning. Kampi Safi is located off the Magadi road about a mile south of the turnoff to the Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, which is one of the outdoor Visitor Sites of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). "Kampi" means camp; "safi" is another Swahili word that means neat, sharp, cool - a name given to our home…