Olorgesailie 2011 Field Season

Posted on 2011-07-05 by Rick Potts

July 5, 2011

 Olorgesailie has been a research site since 1942, when the great pioneers of East African archeology Louis and Mary Leakey first excavated and described handaxes and fossilized bones from here. Before that, J.W. Gregory, a famed geologist, reported handaxes while walking south to Lake Magadi.  Subsequent researchers, besides the Leakeys, included Robert M. Shackleton, a geologist who mapped the Olorgesailie sediments in wonderful detail, and Glynn Isaac, who directed the Olorgesailie excavations in the 1960s and later revolutionized the study of early human archeology by emphasizing the behavior of human ancestors rather than the classification of tools. Today, I am running my 27th field season at Olorgesailie.So, after all these years, what has been discovered? Which questions have been answered? And, most importantly, which new questions have…

Posted on 2011-07-04 by Rick Potts

July 4, 2011

Deforestation is a huge problem in Africa. Firewood, a prime commodity, is used mainly to make charcoal, the primary fuel used for cooking. In an effort to curb deforestation in Kenya, it is illegal to cut down trees. Only trees which are already dead may be collected for charcoal or firewood use. Unfortunately, as we at Olorgesailie have seen, the problem isn’t so easy to solve.Early last week, on the way to BOK-2, Alison, the excavation crew, and I came across local tree poachers burning a giant old tree by the river. They were trying to burn a hole at the base of the trunk so that the tree would die, tip over, and they could then cut it up “legally,” cleverly bypassing the law. Our crew…

Posted on 2011-07-03 by Rick Potts

July 3, 2011

Today is Sunday, usually a day of relaxation and catching up with writing or other tasks. Alison and Katie, though, decided to seize an opportunity to go on an excursion with Dr. Stanley Ambrose. Stan is an archeologist and geochemist at the University of Illinois, where he works on the Urbana-Champaign campus. He’s also a well-known figure in East African research.One of Stan’s projects focuses on southern, central, and western Kenya, where he is seeking to find out the sources of obsidian, a dark, glass-like, and very sharp rock used by ancient toolmakers. He was accompanied by an archaeology graduate student from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.A large percentage of artifacts from our project’s BOK sites are made from obsidian. Obsidian, which originally is erupted…

Posted on 2011-07-02 by Rick Potts

July 2, 2011

It feels great to be out of the noisy, diesel-filled traffic of Nairobi, back to the serene quiet of Olorgesailie. The nice thing about the quiet is that it’s easy to hear the sounds of the wild. Hyenas called last night as they prowled close to camp, and we woke this morning to the barking of baboons in the distance.It’s Saturday, but it’s still a work day at Olorgesailie. It was a big day at BOK-2 where we carried out our first ‘lift’ of the season. When an artifact is found in situ, ‘in its original place,’ it is left there untouched. The excavators continue chipping the sediment around the artifact, forming a pedestal with the artifact on top. When enough artifacts accumulate on the excavation floor,…

Posted on 2011-07-01 by Rick Potts

July 1, 2011

I spent almost the entire day in Nairobi. During this trip to the city, I met with Dr. I. O. Farah, who is the Director of the National Museums of Kenya. Our projects depend on collaboration with the NMK. The Kenya Museums have been a wonderful partner in supporting our excavation projects over the years. And the Smithsonian has helped trained the Kenyan staff of the NMK for over 25 years in everything from collections management to building exhibits, and we’ve also supported Masters and PhD training of some of the NMK’s scientists.After an enjoyable discussion with Dr. Farah, I had two other interesting meetings. The first was with Dr. Christian Tryon of New York University, who also used to work with us in the Human…

Posted on 2011-06-30 by Rick Potts

June 30, 2011

This morning Alison and I traveled to Nairobi for meetings with our colleagues, while Jenny and Katie held down the fort at Kampi Safi.In the Rift Valley, silence is the norm. However, there are a few sounds which, surprising at first, become commonplace. Let me mention here one of Katie’s first experiences with one of the more common sounds.She was working today with the rest of the crew at BOK-2. The crew diligently chipped away at layers of sediment, while Katie wrote bags for the artifacts. For the most part it was peaceful. Then suddenly, a whooooosh sound fell over the site. It sounded like a massive waterfall. Katie looked around confusedly, looking up in the sky for a plane or wondering if a car was…

Posted on 2011-06-29 by Rick Potts

June 29, 2011

Today started like any other, breakfast at 6:45am sharp. This morning we started with slice of papaya, then a mixture of oatmeal and quinoa, a grain high in protein, followed by chai (milky tea) or coffee, and toast. From sunrise, it looked like it was going to be a hot, sunny morning – and it sure was. Around 7:30, Alison and Katie set off for excavation site BOK-2, while Jenny and I stayed behind to shoot a video.The video shows me talking about how we developed a large Smithsonian exhibition on human evolution, which opened last year, and educational programs, including our web site. (If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know that the web site is humanorigins.si.edu.) The video will be my long-distance contribution to…

Posted on 2011-06-28 by Rick Potts

June 28, 2011

Late yesterday afternoon, Kathryn Ranhorn made her way to our camp. Katie is an American student who’s been doing interesting work in Tanzania for the past year, and will be starting her life as a graduate student at George Washington University, in D.C., in September. For now, she’s come to Olorgesailie to participate in the excavations. And she’ll be helping me out on this season’s blog.In yesterday’s post, I left off as we headed across the wet river to a site named BOK-2. Today, I took Katie over there, too, and we joined up with Dr. Alison Brooks, who is leading the excavation at this site. Alison, a professor of anthropology at GWU, will also be Katie’s graduate school supervisor over the…

Posted on 2011-06-27 by Rick Potts

June 27, 2011

Each season, the first day of work involves survey and setting up our excavations. Today was no exception. I gathered the entire crew of excavators, 27 Kenyan colleagues who are expert in the meticulous activity of digging with metal awls and brushes, flicking away tiny bits of dirt. That’s how our team carefully uncovers the buried fossils, stone tools, and other hints of the environment in which the toolmakers lived.The entire group drove out to one of our more famous sites, called Site 15, where we first found an elephant butchery site. For any of you who have visited our new Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian, the elephant butchery is the topic of one of the ‘Snapshots in Time’ dioramas, which have been really popular…

Posted on 2011-06-26 by Rick Potts

June 26, 2011

Today started in Nairobi, noisy and busy, as capital cities are. It ended in our Olorgesailie research camp, in the windswept grandeur and peacefulness of the Rift Valley of southern Kenya. Our initially small research team consists of Alison Brooks, Jennifer Clark, and myself. With each passing week, scientists of all sorts– archeologists, paleontologists, and geologists – will join us, and you’ll get a chance to meet them and hear about what they do. A field season always involves logistics – planning food, getting water, and helping colleagues and students arrive, do their research, and depart. And, we expect, this field season will also be an adventure in discovering new things and solving scientific problems.By about noon today, we filled our field vehicle with luggage…