Day 14 (July 9, 2011): An International Team

July 9, 2011

Rick Potts and Zhu Rixiang Here I am in China with a wonderful friend and colleague, Professor Zhu Rixiang, who is the head of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Beijing. Rixiang couldn’t make the trip to Kenya with his colleagues this time; I greatly look forward to hosting Research colleagues from China arrived today, an event I’ve long awaited. Besides our team’s research in Kenya, I’ve worked at paleoanthropological sites in China since 1994. Over the past decade, my main projects in China have been with a terrific group of scientists from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, located in Beijing. Together, we’ve traveled the country from north (the Nihewan basin) to south (the Yuanmou basin), testing the geological age and the magnetic properties of the sediments at sites offering the oldest known evidence of early humans in East Asia. We’ve collected thousands of geological samples, eaten hundreds of meals together, debated the results of our analyses, written manuscripts for top scientific journals, and built solid friendships. Because they are geologists, I’ve long wanted them to see one of the great geological wonders on Earth – the East African Rift Valley – and to take them on a tour of my Kenyan research. Now’s the time, at last – their first visit to East Africa!

So Jenny and I drove to Nairobi yesterday afternoon to make some preparations for our guests’ visit. The plan is, in a few days, for me to drive my Chinese colleagues out to western Kenya; it’s 9 hours away from Olorgesailie, and we can’t leave Olorgesailie short on field vehicles – so we got a rental vehicle and Jenny drove it back to camp.

A bit after 9 pm, my guests walked out of baggage claim of Kenyatta International Airport. Dr. Guo Zhengtang is an expert on ancient environments. He has studied a vast area of central China called the Loess Plateau. His studies have defined environmental shifts in that part of the world going back more than 21 million years.

Dr. He Huaiyu has built the argon dating laboratory at the Institute in Beijing. She’s really excited to see East Africa since it’s one of the best places in the world where the ash and debris erupted from ancient volcanoes can be dated precisely by the argon method.

Deng Chenlong and PanYongxin standing in a terraced valley I worked with Pan Yongxin (left) and Deng Chenglong in 2005 at the Yuanmou fossil site, in Yunnan Province, China. Here, my two colleagues are examining sediments and collecting samples to test the magnetic properties of the layers. Through their efforts, Finally, Drs. Deng Chenglong and Pan Yongxin are experts in the magnetic properties of sediments. In any given place, the north-south orientation of magnetic particles from one layer to the next can be matched to the well-dated, worldwide sequence of shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. So Chenglong’s and Yongxin’s magnetic measurements of sediments help to figure out the age of fossil and archeological remains found in those same sediments.

These four colleagues are world-class scientists, very knowledgeable about many aspects of geology. In the study of fossils and artifacts, it’s all a matter of recovering things found in the ground – so geology is the foundation of our research.

What at a great reunion as we spotted one another at the airport! Although I wanted to get them settled for the evening, we could hardly stop talking about our families, friends, research, and life in general. Our first stop tomorrow is in the Rift – to Olorgesailie, their first visit to a tented research camp in Africa. We’ll explore the geology and the nature of our Kenya team’s research there in the Rift Valley of southern Kenya. And after 3 days at Olorgesailie, we’ll drive to western Kenya, a place called the Homa Peninsula, where we’ve had a team working off-and-on for some years near the shores of Lake Victoria. We’ll spend a week by the ‘Great Lake’ of Africa.