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2011 Olorgesailie Dispatches

Excavations at Olorgesailie: an Introduction

The study of human evolution is full of exploration, digging, and discovery. This blog tells of our Smithsonian team’s field experiences over the next several weeks as we explore, dig, and discover ancient tools and fossil bones.

image of Mt. Olorgesailie with blue sky and white clouds
Mt. Olorgesailie landscape

This summer we’ll pick up from previous years to tell you about our research and discoveries at the field site in southern Kenya where we’ve worked for many years. Olorgesailie is the name of the site. Pronounced ‘Oh-LORG-eh-SIGH-lee, it’s a Maasai name for an ancient and inactive volcanic mountain on the floor of the East African Rift Valley in southern Kenya. It’s also the name of the surrounding countryside, much of which is a beautiful land of sharp cliffs, eroded hills, and dusty gullies.

Over many, many thousands of years, erosion by wind and rain has cut the ancient layers of sediment that piled up over hundreds of thousands of years. Those layers of dirt preserve lots of stone tools and fossilized remains, which were buried and became embedded in those layers, or strata (as geologists refer to them). From these hardened clues of stones and fossils buried in dirt, our team seeks to piece together an understanding of the lives of early human species and how their lives changed over time. You can think of the clues as an echo of an ancient time. They’re the only things left in the present about who these earlier precursors of our species were, how they lived, and what their surroundings were like.

During the course of this blog, I hope you’ll listen in about how we do this work, and why we think the stone tools and fossils we find are part of a growing understanding of the origin of our species. In fact, I’ll try my best to introduce you to a wide range of topics about our team’s study of human evolution.

As I write this diary from the field, you’ll get a picture of our digs and the people who are part of our research. For now, let me mention Dr. Briana Pobiner, who works with me in the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian. While Briana has her own research in Kenya, she also works with our team back home as our expert in public outreach and education. Briana kindly came over a few weeks ago, before I was able to leave the U.S., to help prepare for the Olorgesailie field season. That involved organizing the Kenya crew and making sure our field vehicles were getting serviced and repaired.

Life outdoors in the dust and sun of the Rift Valley is fun – and also very challenging. It takes us away from our lives back home in the office and classroom, into a world of early ancestors and relatives of our species. It’s no exaggeration to say, I can’t think of anything more rewarding or exciting to do. I hope you enjoy this adventure.  - Rick Potts