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1999 Olorgesailie Dispatches

Excavations at Olorgesailie: an Introduction

What does it mean to be "human?"

Nearly a century and a half ago, the first recognized remains of early human ancestors were discovered in the Neander Valley of Germany, beginning the scientific pursuit of human origins. Since this time, work in paleoanthropology has made amazing discoveries, uncovering the fossil remains of many species thought to be the ancestors and close relatives of our own.

Yet "becoming human" involved more than what we can read in the fossilized bones. It also involved a complex combination of behavior, including social behavior, and mental activity. Early stone technology; the making of shelters, hearths, and art; the spread of early humans across ancient lanscapes (and, eventually, the continents) -- all offer some insights into the complex phenomena by which we identify 'humanness' and its emergence in Earth's recent past.

A major goal of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program is to gain a better understanding of these scientific problems. One part of our approach is to discover the environmental surroundings of human ancestors and to determine how those ancestors adapted and changed. In this way, our work seeks to uncover how the emergence of humanity is linked to the larger history of Earth and its biota.

This goal underlies the Olorgesailie Project. One of its aims is to figure out how early human populations in eastern Africa lived and adjusted to environmental change. With every field season, we unearth thousands of fossilized bones and stone tools that tell us about the animal life and vegetation seen by early human beings and the means they developed to live and interact with their surroundings. In understanding these predecessors, we seek a better understanding of ourselves.