Posts from Kenya
- Doum and Gloom on February 11th, 2013
So I haven’t updated the blog in a while. I’ve been exhausted and slightly sick, though it seems petty to complain about a slight headache when there have been a number of cases of Malaria here at TBI. The banality of malaria was one of the biggest surprises at TBI; in America, particularly at orientation malaria was treated as a major health threat, when in fact it is more of an annoyance. It is an illness that will lay you out for a couple of days but it is easily detected and 100% treatable, not a particular threat to life and limb. Anyway, I have so far managed to avoid getting seriously ill, though I have been exhausted.
We have been doing more active fieldwork for the geology module than for ecology. On our third day of the module we used our newly acquired skills with a compass and gps to follow an orienteering course, attempting to travel as efficiently as possible through the steep gullies of the Turkana Basin while following pre-assigned compass bearings. My team was efficient, if inexact. For the penultimate leg of the course my partners and I chose a gulley which curved too far to the east, delivering us easily to our destination, though well off of the path we were meant to be following. On other days we have taken long hikes examining geological formations, looking at sedimentation and erosion effects, measuring the annual volume of the Turkwel River and looking for fossils at Kabua Gorge. Kabua Gorge is currently a seasonal river bed which cuts across an area that used to be submerged by Lake Turkana when the lake was larger during the Holocene Highstand. Examining sediments that used to be the bed of the lake and a sandy stretch of beach yielded fossils of turtles, crocodiles, mollusks, rodents and fish.
If I’m honest though, it is not the more active class schedule that has been leaving me so tired. You cannot put me in an environment with explorable gullies and caves, rolling hills, towering dunes, and plenty of ridges and trees to climb; give me a GPS and expect me not to run myself ragged. I’ve been out hiking almost every afternoon, and if I’m not hiking I’m playing Doom (Doum) Ball.
Doom Ball is a variant of baseball played with the dried nuts of a Doum (also spelled Doom) Palm tree instead of a ball. Further modifications from the original game of baseball include the substitution of a hand carved bough of hard driftwood instead of a bat, and the removal of second base. Doom Ball is played in the middle of the Turkwel River, the level of which rises every evening. The game starts after class on a flat bar of exposed sediment and ends either when it is too dark to see the ball or the river has risen to ankle depth across the whole sandbar, whichever comes first. Any contact between the bat and the Doum Nut constitutes a hit, so one must run on many balls that would be considered foul in actual baseball. There is no strike zone so each batter has three swings, generally attempting to hit the ball off the sandbar and into the water where it will be more difficult to find. Trash talking, distracting tactics and throwing and/or sliding in the mud are all encouraged, and contact is not penalized. A good time is had by all.
When I last posted 2 weeks ago we were still working on our independent projects for Dino’s ecology module. I was working on “light trapping” and counting mosquitoes, comparing the ratios of mosquito genera found at different locations around the TBI compound. The mosquitoes got more abundant overall later in the week, following a bizarre weather front in which a storm pushed humid air out over the Basin. For four days straight it was warm and muggy with at least a drizzle of rain every day and clouds and fog too thick to see the sun. Perfect mosquito weather. Given the number of Anopheles mosquitoes I observed, the malaria outbreak this week is hardly surprising. The ecology module ended the first weekend in February with presentations of the data we had collected on Saturday and a field trip to Lake Turkana’s Central Island on Sunday. Both Dino and Craig Feibel came on the Central Island trip giving us a detailed look at the island’s unique ecological and geological settings. Central Island is home to a series of isolated crater lakes within the setting of Lake Turkana. The Island’s three main craters each house a miniature lake with a unique chemical signature and different animals and plants inhabiting it. Flamingo Lake is almost perfectly round, and is a startling shade of green from the algae growing in it. The soils around Flamingo Lake are crusted with precipitated carbonates and the lake is of course home to a massive flock of flamingoes. Crocodile Lake is lumpy, formed from a compound crater, the result of several different volcanic eruptions. Hiking around the ridge of the Crocodile Lake crater, one can observe massive schools of tilapia and of course their predators including terrapin, goliath herons, and the eponymous crocodiles. While pausing in our hike to watch a terrapin surface for air we had the rare experience of seeing heron flying low over the lake get nabbed by a leaping croc. That was probably the most exciting moment of the Central Island trip though there were other highlights including finding an almost intact flamingo skeleton, observing a roughly 8 meter long croc swimming (from a safe distance of course) and learning that one of the plants Dino had introduced us to in our ecology module produces edible berries that taste like a cross between black currants a nasturtium flowers. We did not have time to hike to the third lake (Tilapia Lake)
- Settling in at TBI on January 24th, 2013
So I’ve been here at TBI for a couple of days now and its starting to feel like home. I think we’ve gotten into a proper rhythm of things, classes, meals etc. The first night here was confusing, it was very dark despite the waxing moon and some cabins and trees that seemed useful landmarks in the day had faded into the gloom while peripheral buildings that had gone unnoticed during the day had lights on. The effect was disorienting, and noone had a flashlight strong enough to illuminate the whole way from one building to the next, meaning that those of us congregated in the classroom and computer lab had no idea which way to turn to get to bed. Now, just 4 days later, we could all probably navigate between the buildings blindfolded if it weren’t for the presence of brambles and the fear of scorpions. Of course the nights are also brighter now, the moon is nearly full and at night the moonbeams make the pale tan sand glow silver except in the shadows of the buildings and the acacia trees.
The first class we’re taking is African Ecology with professor Dino (That’s Dee-no, not Die-no) Martins. He takes us out into the field as often as possible, we spent the last few days doing transects and counting seed pods on spiny Indigofera shrubs, comparing the health of plants inside the fenced compound of TBI and outside the fence, where goats and camels are. The difference in the health of the vegetation is quite stark, and while I had been aware of the threat of unsustainable overgrazing in a general sense, it was another thing entirely to witness the environmental impacts of overgrazing firsthand.
With the first week of classes almost done we’ve started to spend time planning and outlining methods for the “independent” research projects we will be doing for Dr. Matin’s class. I put independent in quotes because while each of us will be testing a hypothesis and presenting our findings solo, we have divided into small groups for the purpose of data collection. Meagan, Lyanna and Nat will be collecting mosquito data with me and we will each try to test our own hypothesis from the data we have jointly collected. I spent the afternoon doing background readings on mosquito behavior for my project which will concern the hypothesis that different ratios of mosquito species will be found inside and outside human habitations. While it is known that Malaria, Dengue, and Yellow fever are present in the area around Lodwar and Turkana, very little research has actually been done on the disease vectors in this part of Kenya. We’ll be collecting our first data tomorrow after a day trip to look at how insect communities have been affected in an area that recently experienced rainfall.
Next post will probably be in a few days, and will cover the trip from New York to Turkana.
- Greetings From Kenya! on January 21st, 2013
I’m never sure how honest to be when I’m writing like this. My first post on this blog is supposed to explain a bit about who I am and why I wanted to participate in the study abroad program at the Turkana Basin Institute. Well, my name is Timothy, and I am finishing my 5th year at Stony Brook University, anticipating graduating at the end of this semester with a double major in History and Anthropology. I wanted to participate in this program because I wanted to go to Kenya. That’s about it. Maybe I’m supposed to say something about meeting new people, or learning from a variety of prestigious professors or improving my resume for jobs and graduate school applications, I don’t know. I saw all of those things as nice bonuses, but for me there was a degree to which all of those factors felt like post hoc justifications; “reasons” I could pretend to give to justify a decision I had already made. I think I had decided to go to the Turkana Basin Institute from the moment I learned that it existed. I had already done the Stony Brook University study abroad in Madagascar and I had loved every second of it, so as soon as I learned that there was a second semester-long Stony Brook program in Africa, I knew that I had to participate. I since learned that the TBI program related to archaeology and human evolution, two of my chief areas of interest, and that the Institute had been founded by Richard Leakey, a famous paleontologist whose work I had studied and admired. These were further bonuses to be sure, but if I am honest not the reasons I am here. I came to Kenya because it called to me and I felt compelled to answer.
I hope that you enjoy reading this blog for the next several weeks as I describe my life and studies in Kenya. For the next couple days expect a flurry of posts which will then fall into a more regular weekly pattern. I currently have something of a backlog of notes and pictures which I cannot wait to share with you all!
- Final post! Goodbyes are hard. on April 9th, 2012
It’s hard to believe that I am now home in New York. Driving the familiar streets and visiting the familiar places almost make Turkana seem like a dream. Before I write about how I am feeling now, and what I am missing the most, I want to talk about our last week at TBI.
Sonia’s module was undoubtedly one of the most active and exciting modules we have had. On our first day of class after the camping trip we talked about middle Stone Age technology, which means we talked about the Neanderthals. One of the most well known styles of MSA tools are the Mousterian, named for the site at Le Moustier in France. They are characterized by the use of the Levallois method. The Levallois method utilizes the “prepared core technique”, which is entirely what it sounds like. The core is shaped through the removal of several flakes, to prepare the shape of one desired flake. It is also during this time period that we encounter the first evidence of fire. Many people argue for a so-called “cultural revolution” that occured in the Late Stone Age, the beginning of practices that characterize modern humans, culture, art, etc. We see from the Archaeological record that many of these things in fact appear much earlier during the MSA (Middle Stone Age.) That afternoon we spent time sketching stone tools. It is a lot harder than it seems (particularly if you are artistically challenged like me.) However, we all managed and it was actually quite a lot of fun, not to mention it really helped me to familiarize myself with a lot of the terminology.
Tuesday we learned about the LSA (Late Stone Age), it began around 50 thousand years ago and coincides with the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa. For nearly 3 million years we only saw the emergence of three stone tool cultures, but during the LSA, we see a sequence of 6 cultures within a span of just 35 thousand years. The next day was our last field trip at TBI, but it was one of the best. We went to the LSA site of Napeget (not Napedet, where we went with Dino), about an hour north of TBI. It is situated just on the shore of Lake Turkana. We emerged from the Lorry to see one of the hugest sand dunes I’ve ever encountered in my life. Luckily for us it was a rather breezy morning because as we got to the top we saw one of the most desolate, and desert-like places in Turkana. When I say desert I don’t mean the sparse shrubbery and Acacia trees that inhabit most of Turkana, but just sand. This rather small area at first seemed to stretch for miles, but when we crested the top of the hill we were rewarded with a breath-taking view of lake Turkana and Central Island in the distance. When we got closer to the lake we also encountered entire pots in fragments and flakes made from beautifully colored material. It was really amazing seeing potsherds fit so clearly together. We also found a stromatolite (one of the earliest forms of life, composed of layers of algae) that had been used as a core! After walking around, investigating and flagging artifacts for a while we broke for lunch under a gigantic tree just on the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the lake. The tree had some really cool exposed roots that some of us ended up using as chairs. We also happened to attract some of the local kids! Afterwards we all went down for a quick swim, and then back to the lorry. It was a really wonderful day, we were all so happy to be at such an interesting site, to have our last swim, and finally our last lorry ride before our departure on Sunday. It was bittersweet when we crossed the river for the last time and the kids flocked to walk with us, carrying their backpacks and water containers from the day at school.
Thursday morning we finally got to knap some stone tools. We started out with quartz pebbles and by using a quartz hammer-stone and core we were able to create some very simple flakes and (a lucky few of us) choppers. After about an hour we switched to using phonolite with basalt hammers. Phonolite has much better fracture than quartz and is a great material for stone tool production. Knapping was a lot of fun, although there were many bashed thumbs and a few bad cuts, we all managed to acquire some tools that would be useful during the goat butchering. Ahh now for the goat butchering, something I was anticipating and dreading with equal measure. It actually turned out to be a good deal of fun. I know that sounds sort of creepy, but it’s true. I always figured that if I eat meat, then I should be able to butcher an animal and if I can’t, then I should probably go vegan. The whole process consisted of skinning, disemboweling, removing the head, and disarticulating the bones of the legs and the spine. There are many pictures, but they are all a bit graphic so I’m only going to put up one or two. The most disturbing part for me was probably the skinning, and the disemboweling (which was absolutely gross.) Immediately after the butchering we went back to our knapping spot to break open some of the bones and taste the marrow. I didn’t taste the marrow mainly because those who went first said it was gross and I really didn’t fancy sucking on a goat bone (oh well.) That night we pulled our table outside, watched the stars and were rewarded with fresh goat and an abundance of fresh vegetables. It was one of our best nights at TBI.
All of Friday was spent on our in-class presentations. Students chose topics that ranged from the beginnings of stone tool use and primate archaeology, to Holocene era megalithic architecture. Saturday (our final day L) morning we took our exam. For the first time ever we had an exam in the mess hall and it was rather pleasant. It was breezy and bright and afterwards we had the entire day to do whatever we wanted. Unfortunately for me I ended up getting sick so although I had planned to go to the river and go hiking one last time, I spent much of the day in bed with a killer headache.
Sunday morning we had our last breakfast at TBI, it was a cold, overcast and rainy day, unlike any weather we had previously seen in Turkana. We took a flight around 12 from Lodwar, refueled in Lokichogio, and arrived in Nairobi around 3. Afterwards we went to the Galleria mall to do some shopping and get lunch. After the Galleria we stopped at a small curio shop to get some handmade goods to bring home, and then headed off to the airport. The two subsequent flights felt like they lasted an eternity, but we finally arrived at JFK at 12:30 on Monday. We all said some tearful goodbyes and headed our respective ways.
The last week, with our departure imminent, I found myself really and truly appreciating Turkana more than I ever had. I didn’t want to leave. There is a book at TBI that the two previous field schools had signed, and I noticed while perusing the entries that many students share the same sentiments. Not only has being here taught me so much about the field I’m pursuing, from ecology to paleoanthropology, the environment and people have changed the way I view the world. During our orientation the word “profound” was thrown around quite a bit. I’m doing my best not to sound corny or preachy, but this was a life changing, life affirming, amazing experience and I am so happy that I came to TBI. I feel like I have to say something more about this trip and about the people I have met and lived with. I am so happy that I decided not only to go to Kenya, but that I chose TBI over another study abroad. I would like to travel the world, I want to go to Europe, to South America and China but Turkana offered an experience that I would not have gotten anywhere else. Not only did I see some of the most beautiful places in the world, from the volcanic lakes of Central Island to the amazing formations along the Turkwel River, I learned things about myself, about the world in which we live and how people live in such vastly different environments and cultures. Two and a half months is not long enough to truly explore Kenya, or even Turkana and I hope to return one day. Also, my fellow students, I love you all, I can’t imagine a better group to get stuck in the desert with! Meave and Richard, you are amazing and thank you for making all of this possible! Thank you Anja, you are one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet! Thank you to all of my fellow students, all of the professors, the staff, and lastly Jen Green for allowing me to blog from Kenya for the semester. Truly it was a pleasure being able to document all of my experiences and I hope that all the parents and (hopefully) you prospective students have enjoyed reading about them, it has truly been an adventure.
- Archaeology and Camping at Nariokotome! on March 26th, 2012
We have just begun Archaeology of the Turkana Basin with Sonia Harmand. She is a French archaeologist that works for CRNS (Center for Research Nationale Scientifique) in Paris and is an expert on stone tools from the stone age in Africa like Hélène Roche who taught archaeology during the first field school, (and is also here for the module.) We began Monday with a history of Stone Age research in Africa. Many of the discoveries we learned about were made by none other than Mary Leakey! Her discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania have an entire stone tool industry named after them, the Oldowan. In the afternoon we went out and collected Doum Palm nuts from the trees around the river. We collected hammerstones and anvils and practiced scraping the tough outer skin off of the nuts to get to the grainy area underneath the skin, which is what the locals eat. It was rather difficult and we were all having trouble until some of the kids came and demonstrated for us! It took them about a minute, while it took me about 10. The inside part ended up tasting sort of like a really dry and stale digestive biscuit. Now back to stone tools, there are two main categories of the early Stone Age in Africa, the Oldowan and the Acheulean, which is named after the site of St. Acheul in France. The Oldowan begins around 2.6 million years ago, (although thanks to Sonia, this is soon to change) and continues until the Acheulean which begins around 1.76 million years ago and stretches until 1.4 million years ago.
The Oldowan marks the beginning of stone tool production in Africa. There are many types of artifacts we find from this time period, but the most notable and easy to recognize are cores and flakes. The Acheulean is characterized by a new method in stone tool production, shaping. By intentionally shaping the stone, hominids, (e.g Homo erectus Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis etc.) were able to create a number of new tools including the famed Acheulean hand-axe.
On Tuesday we focused specifically on Oldowan technology, and learned how to recognize and differentiate between specific artifacts. In the afternoon we went to Ayangiyeng for our first field trip! Ayangiyeng is a floodplain located a short ride south from TBI. When we got there we practiced plotting and identifying surface artifacts. It was quite a rich site, and plotting was made easier by the fact that there were not many rocks in the area! The next day we learned about the techniques that were used during the Acheulean, and who the possible creators were. After a break Hélène lectured on the archaeological research that has been done in the Turkana Basin. In the afternoon we all familiarized ourselves with some of the stone tools that have been found in the area and some that previous students had knapped (many of which still had bits of goat on them, yuck.) The rest of the night was spent preparing for our two night camping trip to Nariokotome on Thursday.
On the way to Nariokotome we stopped at the site lof Lokalelei 2C. Lokalelei is an Oldowan site that dates to about 2.3 million years ago. Surface plotting was much harder here because, as you can see in some of the pictures, it was filled with rocks of all colors and shapes. I did end up finding a core which was really exciting! After our longest lorry ride yet we arrived at Nariokotome in the early evening and were greeted by a soda and the chance to meet Francis’ family! It was lovely. Francis, (who hopefully many of you will come to know) is almost this mythical fossil hunting being, it was really wonderful to have the opportunity to meet his family and see the area in which he lives!
The first thing that struck me about Nariokotome is how green it is. This is probably relative green-ness, but compared to TBI the vegetation is lush. This is likely due to the rains that the entire area experienced in November! It’s sad because the period of long rains has just begun here, but I think we will be gone before a true storm hits. We did have a few short periods of rain, but nowhere near enough to flood the innumerable dry river beds that we crossed on our way to the camp site. It would be quite a sight to see them filled with rushing water! Nariokotome borders Lake Turkana, and is situated several hours North of TBI near the Ethiopian border. We were able to catch glimpses of Northern Island located in the center of the lake! Our camp site at Nariokotome was amazing! It was next to a bunch of big and very old acacia trees and in the shadow of a range that stretched for miles. It was quite picturesque. In some of the pictures it may look foggy, but in actuality that is dust! It shocked me the first time that I heard that, dust that can block out the sun?
Friday morning we left early for the site of Kokiselei. When we arrived Sonia and Hélène told us about previous excavations done there and gave us some time to walk around and check the site out. Kokiselei is actually 10 sites in total. The ones we focused on were Kokiselei 4, which is where the earliest Acheulean artifacts were found. It is the site that set the Acheulean date at 1.76! Kokiselei 6 is where we did our day long excavation. It is an Oldowan site that was previously excavated by Sonia and her team, but erosion is continuously revealing more artifacts from the sediment. We each paired up with someone and began setting up the site by measuring out square meters, making sure they were straight and level and then delineating them with string and pegs. After we had the excavation set up and all of our tools collected, we began removing sediment to reach the archaeological layer. This takes quite some time because although it is rare to find artifacts above this layer, we still had to make sure we weren’t missing anything. By the time we left, more than half of us had found something in our squares. Eunice, my partner, and I found a flake fragment above the archaeological horizon! It was extremely satisfying to participate in an excavation, and although it was hot and we were tired and dirty, it was a lot of fun. That night at camp we gathered wood for a bonfire and hung around. It was a lovely way to end the trip.
It is now the beginning of our last week at TBI. We have a lot in store for us this week, including doing some knapping (making stone tools) of our own, butchering a goat (yikes) and a visit to Napaget. We are also preparing our in class presentations and studying for our last final here at TBI. Now that our departure is imminent, I find myself really and truly appreciating Turkana more than I ever have. I miss my family and friends back home, but part of me never wants to leave. Goodbye for now or Kwa Heri!
- It was a bad day for Tom . . on March 18th, 2012
We just said goodbye to Bonnie and Lou and we were all once again really sad to see them go! I know every other post is “we were sad”, but really I’ve met some of the most wonderful people here and Bonnie and Lou are no exception. Since my last post we’ve stayed mainly within TBI focusing on the paleobotany section of the module. Bonnie is currently doing fieldwork in the Mush Valley of Ethiopia, so her knowledge of African environments is extensive. Nearly all of us were completely new to paleobotany, so it was a lot of fun learning about it together for the first time. You may remember the fieldtrip to Kalodirr I mentioned in the last post. Well, we each brought back a plant fossil specimen and got to practice preparing a fossil (aka cleaning sediment) with an air scribe. It was actually a lot of fun! It’s really satisfying to be able to see the thing you’ve found emerge into an even clearer form! We described the venation of modern leaves we found within the compound of TBI from Acacia tortilis to Indigophera spinosa and then applied the same techniques to our fossil leaves. On Thursday Lou took the opportunity to show us some of the fossil mammals recently excavated at Illyeret. It was really cool! For the most part the fossils we find in the field are fragments of long bones or feet, so being able to see mandible and skull fossils is really exciting. I spent the last day of class cataloguing leaf fossils with Bonnie and a few other students, and then sorting out rodent bones from owl pellets. The owl pellets took hours and actually got pretty tedious, we did it for you future TBI students to help you recognize different bones in mammals of all sizes! You better appreciate it!
We have been planning to dress Tom up as a pirate for some time now, unfortunately for Tom we enacted our plan this week. We were met with some resistance at first, but we finally succeeded! In the words of Elijah, one of the staff, “it was a bad day for Tom.” Thanks to Anna for creating the lovely hat and eye patch, and thanks to Tom for not biting us and for being adorable all the time!
On Saturday we went to the local school again to see a bio-gas setup that a renewable energy specialist from Nairobi, Dominic, is creating. The project is located immediately next to a nearly complete maternity clinic! The bio gas setup is extremely interesting and is surprisingly simple to operate. The setup itself is created with a large tarpaulin bag that contains anaerobic bacteria from the intestines of any animal that “chews a cud”, aka goat, cow, or camel. To jumpstart the process you simply need to get a large enough amount of excrement from any of the afore mentioned animals. Then from a tube on the side of the tarpaulin sack you “feed” the bag. The feed is anything you might normally feed an animal, grass or bits of wood. That and a good supply of poop and you are completely set! Dominic had the wonderful idea of “feeding” the bag on mainly bits of the invasive plant prosopis (remember prosopis?) After the bag is fed it ferments the organic material inside, and the byproducts come out of two pipes. The central pipe on the top of the tarpaulin extracts the gas that is naturally created during the fermentation process. The gas is then used to start a generator that creates electricity for the maternity ward, and for cooking. The other by product of the process is some of the finest organic fertilizer you can purchase, in fact many of the plants we have in the U.S are after the fertilizer and not the gas. This is really great for an area like Turkana, it produces no waste, and every bit of what is produced is needed here.
In addition to the bio gas project, a maternity clinic was recently built here by TBI and Stony Brook! It is not entirely finished yet, but we were able to get a sneak peek. The motorcycle you see in one of the above photos is provided to transport the doctor quickly to the clinic if need be. Another wonderful thing I saw while there was an abundance of “plumpy” supplements. It is a substance almost like peanut butter, which can help bring a hungry and ill chill or adult back to good health within a very short amount of time.
We have only two weeks left as of today! I can not believe how quickly time has gone by here, it is going to be difficult to say goodbye to this place and all the people I have met here. We begin our last module of the semester tomorrow morning, Archaeology of the Turkana Basin with Sonia Harmand. The next two weeks are sure to be busy, we are going on a two night camping trip to Nariokotome, the site where Turkana Boy was found! We are also going to be making our own stone tools and (gulp) slaughtering and butchering a goat. I am going to do my best to keep my stomach and actively participate in the latter. Until next time!
- Mammals and dinosaurs! on March 12th, 2012
For this module we had not one, but two professors. Bonnie and Louis Jacobs are a paleobotanist, and vertebrate paleontologist respectively, they also happen to be married. We’ve split the course up into one week sections, this past week was vertebrate paleontology and tomorrow we will begin paleobotany and paleoclimates.
We began by learning about the vertebrate skeleton, with a focus on crania. There are many mammalian bones that are homologous to human bones! The similarities between humans, mammals and even reptiles are visible. For instance the jaw bones in a reptile are what have become the hammer and anvil in the human ear! Having just finished paleo has given us an advantage, we are all accustomed to memorizing and identifying bone and much of the terminology is the same. After seeing all of these skeletons in storage in the classroom we finally get the chance to examine them, so it was really exciting. The elephant and giraffe are particularly fun to look at!
Tuesday we focused on mammal dentition, in particular the dental formulas and how they vary from species to species. We also looked at the differences between carnivore and herbivore teeth. The next day we went on a field trip to Kalodirr a 17 ma site that contains a number of both plant and animal fossils. Bonnie was really excited to get the opportunity to check this site out! It was really cool there because we got the chance to do a sort of mini excavation, removing blocks of sediment and cracking them open to check for leaf and grass fossils. We each brought a specimen back to TBI which we are going to “prepare.” Preparing a fossil consists of cleaning it, removing sediment, preserving, gluing it back together (if needed), labeling and storing!
Thursday and Friday we once again focused on dentition, mostly because what we find most often in the field, besides bone fragments, are teeth. It is helpful to be able to identify what species the tooth belongs to, or to at least have an idea. Saturday we went on a hike to S. Turkwel, the site we first visited with Dr. Grine. We did another transect and went back to the classroom to analyze and label our finds. We reattached any pieces that happened to fit together, and then did the same with the fossils we found with Dr. Grine. I found a Hiperion (horse) tooth! People found a lot of things, among them a large part of a turtle shell, many teeth, and a bunch of large mammal bones. Although this class is amazingly fun, we have been spending less time out in the field. So a few of us have begun hiking around TBI more often. It’s actually amazing how much there is to see here within just a few kilometers, from the riverine forest bordering the Turkwel to the steep rock formations that make up S. Turkwel and the Nachukui formation. On one of our daily jaunts we stumbled upon a huge crocodile fossil and on another day a bat cave! A hike in the late part of the afternoon is a wonderful way to end the day, we usually end up coming back just as the sun is beginning to set and as you can see the sunrises and sunsets here are spectacular!
Today Anja arranged another trip to Eliye springs for us. All in all it was not a good day for a blogger because we just hung around and went swimming. We went to the market and picked up some of the handmade goods there (get excited Mom!) So even though it sounds rather boring on here, it was an exciting day for us!
On a side note, I know that some of the parents have expressed worry about the grenade attack in Nairobi. I know that it is terrifying considering that we are all in Kenya right now, but we really couldn’t be further from Nairobi and the Somalian border. So we are all completely safe, and (wow) we will be home in three weeks!
- Evolution at the basin! on March 4th, 2012
Last night we had rain!! We experienced a few overcast days and drizzles this past week, but last night was the first “real” rain we have experienced here. It is currently the period known as the long rains here in Kenya but as global weather becomes more uncertain the rains are increasingly unpredictable here in the Turkana Basin. It was around 4 in the morning when we all woke up because it sounded as if someone was dumping buckets of pebbles on the metal roof. It’s hard to adequately explain how exciting the rain is here, since we have had nearly a month and a half of blue sunny skies. We all dashed out of bed and started running around!
Last weekend we went on a field excursion to a site dubbed South Turkwel. As I wrote in my last post it as only about a 30 minute hike from TBI. Meave, Professor Grine, Francis, Sammy and John Mark accompanied us and instructed us on some excavation techniques. We split into two groups and first practiced sifting and sieving an area for fossils. We found so many, and it was really amazing because we had the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the appearance of fossils in situ (or in the ground.) We then completed a “hill crawl” which is basically what it sounds like. We arranged ourselves in a line, and crawled up an area of about 10 meters in length scouring the ground for bits of fossil. Our last exercise was walking a transect. This was undoubtedly the most fun exercise. We partnered up, spread out and attempted to walk in straight lines across the site picking up any fossils we encountered in our path. Eunice, my partner, and I found the femur of a large mammal almost immediately! We then spent the rest of our time moving along flipping rocks and exclaiming every time we found another fossil. It was so much fun, and really fulfilling! After lunch Meave showed us one of their most recent finds, a set of several early hominin teeth found at an area further south at South Turkwel. That afternoon we went to the actual site and saw the area where the teeth had been found! The fossils from that particular site have been dated to 3.5 million years ago!
We spent a few days at TBI learning about the “Robust” Australopiths and the beginnings of the genus Homo. Wednesday we went to a site on the beach of Lake Turkana where a Homo helmei (possibly) skull was found washed up in the 1980’s. We went to investigate and see if we could find any other evidence of hominin fossils at the site. Although we were unsuccessful we did find a large number of fish bone fossils, and also several large mammal fossils including a large chunk of femur!
The next two days were spent learning about Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and finally, Homo sapiens. We also spent a lot of time finishing up our group and individual presentations and studying for our lab practical. I did my final presentation on the Nariokotome boy, a Homo erectus fossil found by Kamoya Kameu here in the Turkana Basin in 1984! As of yesterday evening we are done with Paleo! Fred left this morning and once again we were all really sad to see him go, he’ll be in London enjoying some winter weather by this evening! Our next module is Vertebrate Paleontology and our professors, whom we caught a glimpse of earlier, have just arrived. We are all excited to meet them , and start the next module.
In other news Dino is back at TBI, and we are all really happy to see him moving about, net in hand to go catch some more insects. Last night we gave him some pre-birthday surprises, as he won’t be here for his actual birthday! We all made him a big card, in the shape of an insect (thanks to Marcela!) We also made decorations and hung them over the staff table. It was quite a lot of fun, trying to be sneaky about anything is pretty hard here since we are in such a small area, but we managed admirably! Today we went to one of the local schools to plant trees and play with some of the kids, they are amazingly good at soccer (or football as they call it.) We played duck, duck goose for a while, since there was a bit of a language barrier we had to explain the game by example. It was quite a hit, and I’m a bit sorry to say that the TBI students definitely got schooled (we were slow, winded and sweaty after just a few rounds!)
- Hello paleo! on February 24th, 2012
Hello everyone! So much has happened at TBI this past week, Monday was our first day of Paleoanthropological Discoveries of the Turkana Basin with our new professor Dr. Fred Grine. He is a professor of anatomy back at Stony Brook. We met Professor Grine on Saturday, on an optional hike to an area near Odach (where we mapped strata.) Meave Leakey and Linda, our TA for geology, came as well. Linda left on Sunday, so this was our last outing together (aka tinged with sadness.) There have been a number of fossils found here in recent years, so it was a really great opportunity for those of us who wanted to get some hands on experience!
Monday was our first official day of paleo! Paleo is something we have all been anticipating and Dr. Grine’s lectures do not disappoint. We started off learning about all of the different parts of the skeleton and familiarizing ourselves with anatomical terminology. In the afternoon we did a bone identification lab in which we were able to look at bone samples of Homo sapiens, Australopithecus afarensis ( the famed Lucy), chimp, gorilla, camel, cat and flamingo. It was really amazing to see the similarities and differences in bone structure from one species to the next.
Tuesday in lab we looked at the morphology of different specimens of primate and modern human bones. It’s important to have a base familiarity with both ends of the spectrum as many of the fossils we are beginning to look at fall somewhere between the two and possess both primate and human-like features. The following day, Professor Grine lectured about dating fossils, and diet reconstruction. We also received a lecture from Meave Leakey herself on The Miocene epoch and the emergence of hominins ( dreams do come true.) In lab we compared the morphology of different primate crania and dentition to that of early primates and modern humans.
Yesterday we went on a field trip to Losodok and Moruorot, two sites north of the Turkwel river. We hadn’t been on a hike since Saturday (which was optional), so we were all really excited to be getting some exercise. Meave told us prior to our departure that we were likely to find fossils at both sites! We arrived at Losodok around 10 am and were given free rein to walk around and look for fossils. We were told to focus on a layer of red sediment. A minute after we got there Chelsea found a vertebrate fossil of a large mammal! Hanna found an elephant tusk, and a primitive elephant tooth! We also found several large mammal bones and Sarah found a cranium fragment (we are not sure of what species.) It was really exciting! I found several bone fragments but my most important find was the device for Dr. Grine’s camera (that was momentarily lost) that he uses to upload pictures, for this I have received much praise. We had lunch underneath an acacia tree by the lorry, and then headed to Moruorot where a Stony Brook scholar has conducted recent excavations. We had to be careful where we walked, especially at Moruorot because there were large mammal fossils, small snake vertebrate fossils, and fossil fragments everywhere. In addition to the abundance of fossils, there were also some really amazing geologic features.
Today Dr. Grine lectured on several early hominin species, one of which happens to have been discovered by Meave Leakey. In lab we once again compared and analyzed casts of many fossils including Australopithecus africanus, Au. Anamensis, and Au. Afarensis (Lucy.) Tomorrow is sure to be another exciting day, we are heading out in the morning to a site about a 30 minute hike north of TBI. In the afternoon we are going to witness an active excavation where an early hominin fossil is currently in the process of retrieval. We will also have the opportunity to participate in the excavation! I’ll be sure to take a lot of pictures for you guys!
On another note Dr. Grine is awesome and actually provided several of the pictures for this blog post, so thanks Dr. Grine! Sunday is officially our half-way point at TBI. We will have been here for five weeks, and have five weeks left. I really can’t believe how quickly time has gone!
- Camping in Africa! on February 17th, 2012
The trip to Eliye springs on Sunday was just what we needed, it was beautiful and relaxing. We left TBI in the late morning and walked across the river to get to the lorry parked on the other side. The water was much shallower than just the day before. It’s amazing how quickly the landscape, especially the river, can change. After about a half an hour ride we arrived at Eliye springs. It looked very much like a beach resort, with woven huts, and a beach side bar/restaurant. We all made our way down to a hut on the beach and went for a swim in the lake. The water was warm and beautiful, and despite one encounter with a fish, fairly calm. There was also a small market there with women selling handmade baskets and jewelry. It was lovely to have a day just to relax and drink sodas on the beach, with no hiking or homework to do. We also had a surprise! Ikal is so amazing, she was interviewed by Al Jazeera and an entire film crew came to Eliye springs!! At any rate it was a great relaxing day and we are already hatching plans to return on one of our other Sundays off.
Monday in lecture we learned about faults and the organization of the east African rift valley. We then went to the Nachukui formation and put our knowledge to the test with an exercise on strike and dip. Normally when rock forms from sediment, whether it is transported by river, lake or ocean it is deposited in relatively flat layers. At the Nachukui formation we observed layers that are upended and at angles. This is due to tectonic upheaval after their deposition, and they are known as faults. We took three measurements using a compass; strike, which is the general direction in which the bed of rock is pointing, dip, which is the degree to which the bed is tilted, and dip direction, which is the direction which the bed is tilted. We actually all ended up doing it totally wrong the first time (except for Eli, curse you Eli!) After Dr. Lepre explained it to us again, we discovered how easy it actually is to take strike and dip measurements. It’s the simplest assignment we have had so far!
Tuesday morning we headed to Lothagam, a site that may date as far back as eleven million years. It consists of a series of faults and outcrops formed by both a once gigantic lake, and volcanic activity. We went on two hikes on Tuesday, one just after our arrival and one in the evening. Lothagam is truly one of the most fascinating places we’ve been so far. The landscape and rock formations changed drastically from one hike to the next, it is amazing that we stayed in an area of about 10 kilometers the entire time. On our first hike Linda and Chris took us around the outskirts of the formation, mainly within view of the sandy plains, to show us a gigantic outcrop of igneous rock.
We returned to the campsite for lunch where most of us lazed about underneath a large doum palm and read or napped during the hottest part of the day. We went back for another hike in the late afternoon and this time went to the actual burial site at Lothagam. The exact dates of this site aren’t known because it has not actually been excavated at this point. It is a “stone pillar site”, which consists of several stone rings. One was considerably larger and contained large basalt pillars that stretched about a meter above the ground. These pillar sites are ubiquitous around lake Turkana, and are associated with early pastoralism in Africa. It has not yet been determined just what lies beneath the soil at this site, but it is likely a burial. We were allowed to walk around, but like many of our professors back at Stony Brook warned us, we had to be sure to “tread carefully.” The meaning of this is immediately apparent at sites like Lothagam because there were literally potsherds and fossils everywhere. We also found what appeared to be several stone tools, and a number of (we think) large mammal fossils. It’s important to not touch anything so we mostly just snapped pictures and stared in awe at everything! After that we continued hiking and found a massive coquina (small bivalve, and snail shell) deposit on the top of an outcrop. Like some of the other areas we’ve visited, much of the sediment at Lothagam had been deposited by a gigantic ancient lake Turkana. Chris also showed us a paleosol (an ancient soil) that he estimated was anywhere from 7 to 9 million years old. For many of us this is the reason why we came here, it is sort of unbelievable. The idea that something could endure in the earth for many millions of years is so massive, it is just such an amazing opportunity to be here and Lothagam really reinforced this.
I didn’t think that any hike would be able to top the one from Tuesday evening, but I’m getting used to this state of constant surprise and awe (as much as that is possible.) After a delicious meal, and a fun night of sleeping under the stars in our gypsy camp (as we began calling it), we headed out for an early hike. Hiking in the morning is so pleasant, it was still cool out and the sun had not yet fully risen. One of things we all keep talking about is how good it feels to be up early every morning. We all end up going to bed fairly early and waking up with the sun. It’s something I’m definitely going to miss when I go home and surely go back to my odd college student sleeping hours. Some of the layers are an intense red, this coloration is caused because the sediment is rich in iron and as anyone who has ever played on a swing set knows, iron rusts. We also saw an imprint of a Giraffe footprint, which is estimated to be around 6.5 million years old!
Sediment is still being accumulated and eroded at Lothagam, during the rainy seasons many of the small basins there are still filled with rushing water. On the last leg of our hike we saw some of the amazing features caused by this annual inundation. Among them were huge boulders, holes wormed directly through rocks that formed small dips that held water and other debris. It was really fun scrambling over the boulders and checking out all the small aspects of the landscape that are easy to miss upon first glance. Apparently our group took the longest to hike Lothagam out of all the study abroad groups, but I think we really just like to stop and enjoy our surroundings. At the end of the first leg of our hike, we came to the outer limit of the formations at Lothagam. It was quite dusty but we could still see massive dunes rolling for miles in the distance. All of this before noon! I can’t help but think that I hope this is not the last time I see these places.
It was a fun camping trip, but it was quite nice to get back to TBI, shower and have the rest of the day free. Thursday we had a lecture on Geologic time and dating methods, and then had a rock identification lab which was a lot of fun. We’re spending the rest of our time preparing for our exam Saturday. We are sad to say goodbye to Chris and Linda, it’s like they are a fixture here now and it doesn’t seem right for them to be leaving so soon. It was really difficult to choose which photos to post for this entry, so I just put all of my favorites! I hope you enjoy them!