Olorgesailie 2011 Field Season

Posted on 2011-07-20 by Rick Potts

July 20, 2011

While I’ve been away in western Kenya, the researchers at Olorgesailie welcomed to camp a member of our field team – John Yellen.  John, who just arrived in Kenya from the U.S., is Alison’s husband and has been doing archeological research in Africa for many years. This morning, I received the following update from Katie about the work going on at Olorgesailie: 

Today, Alison and Katie took John to BOK-2 to show him the latest finds in the excavation.  For the past few years, BOK-2 has progressed in this manner:  Just as everyone thought the excavation was about to reach the end of the artifact concentration, another interesting assemblage of stone tools would be discovered.  This has been the case for 2011!The most recently uncovered assemblage,…

Posted on 2011-07-19 by Rick Potts

July 19, 2011

Ever try to find a needle in a haystack? How about a mouse bone in gravel? Jennifer Clark has. Her research, which focuses on microfauna, shows that sometimes big information comes in small packages.Microfauna are tiny bones used to reconstruct paleoenvironments. Examples of microfaunal remains can include small mammals, fish, invertebrates, birds, and reptiles. The bones are so small, in fact, that they are often missed in standard excavation procedure. Instead, her research requires a much more complicated filtering process.Jenny starts by collecting soil from the excavation site which has already been sieved through a screen with 1 millimeter openings ( see Day 19 ). Back at camp, she then uses water and 1 and 1/2 millimeter sieves to filter out even finer grains of…

Posted on 2011-07-18 by Rick Potts

July 18, 2011

It’s Since I’m traveling today by road from Lake Victoria to Nairobi, I’ve asked Katie to post her impressions about camping at Olorgesailie. What’s it like to live in our research camp? By the way, many years ago the Kenyan crew decided on the name for our camp, which (in Swahili) means ‘neat (or excellent) camp’… Here’s what Katie has to say about Kampi Safi.Living outside can be adventurous, as you know if you have ever gone camping for a few days. At Olorgesailie, our team camps for months at a time. This requires a very strategic and organized plan! Just like life anywhere else, we have to cover three basic necessities: shelter, food, and water.For shelter, each person has their own tent. …

Posted on 2011-07-17 by Rick Potts

July 17, 2011

It’s been a brief but excellent visit. The Homa Peninsula is a place of spectacular views of Lake Victoria, some of them right next to equally spectacular archeological sites. The photo to the left shows an example from earlier today.Today our excursions took us across nearly 6 million years of time. We eagerly returned to Kanam West, where we began our brief investigations on the Homa Peninsula four days ago. For a couple hours, we explored the layers where in previous years we found fossils of animal species that lived around 6 million years ago, based on dates at other fossil sites in East Africa. Several layers of gray ash were obvious on the eroded slopes, and we collected bags of the ancient ash to date…

Posted on 2011-07-16 by Rick Potts

July 16, 2011

We’ve had two productive days so far orienting ourselves to the many eroded gullies on the shores of Lake Victoria. Two of the most important areas of the Homa Peninsula are Kanam and Kanjera, located on the northern rim of the Peninsula. These two places have been the source of controversy ever since Louis Leakey, in the 1930s, collected a fossil jaw fragment from Kanam and skeletal remains from Kanjera – and concluded (without much investigation) that our species, Homo sapiens, can be traced into the Pliocene period, which now dates back to older than 2 million years.It turns out that Louis had misidentified the sediment layers in which the jaw and skeletal remains were buried. In fact, the remains included recent burials into soils forming on…

Posted on 2011-07-15 by Rick Potts

July 15, 2011

Back at Olorgesailie, excavations were continuing. The BOK-2 team carried out their second lift this week – lots of stuff is coming out of the ground there. Near the end of the day, Mativo unearthed the most interesting fossil from this excavation so far. In an area dense with stone artifacts, he brushed away some dirt he had loosened and spotted the surface of a bone. With fine tools he meticulously pried away grains of dirt, little by little, uncovering a fragment of lower jaw with a row of teeth of an antelope. Although hundreds of fossilized bone fragments have come from this dig over the years, most are too fragmented to identify. This one’s interesting because it can tell us the specific type of animal…

Posted on 2011-07-14 by Rick Potts

July 14, 2011

Although I’m at Lake Victoria, I’ll be getting nearly daily updates by email from the research team at Olorgesailie. We’re just getting started with our studies on the Homa Peninsula, so for the next couple days, I’ll give you the updates from Olorgesailie.There’s serious preparation going on to carry out a lift of new fossils and artifacts exposed by the excavators at BOK-2. I have a feeling this site will be incredibly productive this year. So Katie wanted to write what I think is a very useful dispatch about the fundamentals of excavation and how we recover things buried in the ground. First of all, how do we keep track of all the artifacts we lift? It’s very simple really. One way to do this, which…

Posted on 2011-07-13 by Rick Potts

July 13, 2011

Today’s our big trip. As I noted on July 9, one reason my four research colleagues from China are visiting is to explore the deposits of the Homa Peninsula in western Kenya, and to discuss how they can contribute to research we plan on the peninsula in the coming years. The Homa Peninsula is the landmass immediately south of the Winam Gulf, an eastern arm of Lake Victoria that protrudes into western Kenya.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…

Posted on 2011-07-12 by Rick Potts

July 12, 2011

Today we picked up where we left off in our geology walk from Sunday, July 10. Do you remember the members? The members are the major geological units of the Olorgesailie Formation, and they occur in a sequence through time.Member 8, where we started today, was the beginning of a time of harsher fluctuations between moist and dry, marked by vivid red colors in the sediment. The red indicates where the diatomite was burned to such a high temperature that the silica skeletons of the diatoms actually melted and fused together. We see evidence in the reddened diatomite of carbonized leaves and stems of marshy vegetation, which accumulated during a moist period. This period of accumulation was followed by intense drying and then burning after the vegetation…

Posted on 2011-07-11 by Rick Potts

July 11, 2011

Wish you could come visit Olorgesailie in person? Well, you can! The Olorgesailie Site Museum, operated by the National Museums of Kenya, is open to visitors year round. This open-air museum contains several bandas (thatched huts) as well as a camping space for visitors to stay at very reasonable rates. Tours of the sites originally dug under the direction of Dr. Louis Leakey and Dr. Glynn Isaac can also be arranged through the Museum guides. (visit the the Museum website for more info)This morning I took the Chinese colleagues and Katie over to the Site Museum where we discussed the archeological sites on display. The Olorgesailie Site Museum was the brain-child of Louis Leakey a few years after he and Mary Leakey, in 1942, had…

Posted on 2011-07-10 by Rick Potts

July 10, 2011

Investigating human evolution is, at a basic level, about time. It’s about what took place as the signature features of our species emerged and accumulated over time. These features include everything from walking upright to language. Sometimes, when people ask me what I do for a living, I say something like, ‘Well, I’m a time traveler.’ Rather than having a time machine, I walk and dig in the layers of sediment that contain an archive of earlier times. That archive includes the traces of tools, bones, behavior, and environment – that is, the kinds of things we study at Olorgesailie.So today, my goal was to take our new visitors from China on a walk through time, across the outcrops that comprise about 700,000 years of the…

Posted on 2011-07-09 by Rick Potts

July 9, 2011

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…

Posted on 2011-07-08 by Rick Potts

July 8, 2011

Muteti Nume was 18 years old when he left home without a shilling. With six younger siblings, his parents were too poor to send him to secondary school. Today, decades later, Muteti is the foreman of my Kenyan crew, and has been working with me for the past 28 years. This post will provide a closer look at Muteti, his life, and how he went from a rural Kenyan farmer to the leader of the Olorgesailie excavation team.Born in the Machokos District two hours from Nairobi, Muteti worked odd jobs on farms to make ends meet. In 1970 he decided to move to Nairobi to look for work, and work is exactly what he found. In less than a year he would meet someone who would change…

Posted on 2011-07-07 by Rick Potts

July 7, 2011

After the lift at Site 15 this morning, I arrived back in camp around 11:30 to find several expected guests. We were joined by my colleague and friend Dr. David Western, former director of Kenyan Wildlife Services, and John Kamanga, the director of SORALO, the South Rift Association of Land Owners. SORALO is a community-based and community-driven initiative that brings local land owners together for conservation efforts and natural resource management. They are composed of a number of nature conservancies across the southern rift. Within the past year, SORALO has started a new conservancy, specifically focusing on Olorgesailie! John Kamanga calls this initiative ‘Conserving the Cradle’.John and David were accompanied by 4 others. And although I was dusty from several hours at Site 15, I immediately joined…
Posted on 2011-07-06 by Rick Potts

July 6, 2011

Remember the last lift from BOK-2 (Day 7), where we lifted 135 artifacts? Well, it was only a few days until the excavation floor was covered with artifacts again! When the excavated artifacts accumulate to a point where it hinders our digging, we must lift again. Today that’s exactly what our team did at BOK-2. Katie and Alison spent the morning taking pictures of each square, mapping the locations of artifacts, and writing labels on over 100 bags. Each individual artifact or bone will be placed in a bag, given an identification number, and archived at the National Museum in Nairobi.The lift itself went smoothly and yielded another 111 artifacts. The most curious object the skilled Kenyan excavators unearthed was a portion…