What does summer vacation look like for a scientist? For some, summer break is much-needed time to catch up on research projects and writing, but for many of us, summer centers around one thing: field work. Quite often, much of the data that scientists rely upon can only be collected in natural settings outside the lab, so we must take part in extended field projects all over the globe. For a few geologists and paleoanthropologists at IU, this means traveling thousands of miles to Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and spending several weeks camping out at one of the most famous locations for evidence of human evolution.
IU’s Department of Geological Sciences hosts a field season every summer at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers from around the world meet to look for new clues about when, where, and how our ancestors lived millions of years ago. Olduvai Gorge is a perfect place to answer these questions, primarily due to its complicated geological history. Regular volcanic eruptions and constantly changing lake boundaries certainly affected the species who lived at Olduvai, but it made the gorge an excellent place for the preservation of fossils, and also makes it possible for us to find them now. Part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the gorge has exposed sediments spanning from around 2 million to just a few thousands of years ago. It hosts some of the first stone tool technologies ever made, as well as the species who made them–early hominins–and many other extinct species. Researchers have been surveying and excavating sites along the gorge for over a century, and most of today’s research owes its origins (and the campsite facilities) to the Leakey family, who founded much of paleoanthropology as it is today through decades of field work of their own.
Members of the research team spend most of their days hiking up and down steep gullies along the gorge—often encountering local wildlife and Maasai with their herds—collecting sediment samples, surveying sites for future excavations, and finding and cataloging fossils. When excavations are under way, researchers meticulously record the location of recovered artifacts—fossilized bones and stone tools—as they are removed from the sediment. These go back to labs on site at the Leakey Camp for cleaning, labeling, and analysis. The camp itself is pretty… rustic: the team stays in tents that they pack and bring over in their luggage, water is delivered by trucks or in bottles, and intermittent power provided by generators is the only source of electricity (and light, after sunset!). Still, technology is always changing the campsite and the research conducted at the gorge, and last year’s group enjoyed the first-ever access to WiFi during the field season.
All work and no play just isn’t the scientist’s way, so the group often visits other famous archaeological sites in the area, and they even spend a couple of days on safari in one of the ten natural wonders of the world—the Serengeti National Park. Environmental reconstructions suggest that the plants and animals that populate the Serengeti today are not-so-different from those that surrounded our hominin ancestors many years ago. This enables us to better-interpret archaeological and fossil remains, and envision the lifestyles of the previous inhabitants of this wonderful place.
Interested in learning more? The field school is listed as an official study abroad program through IU’s Office of Overseas Study and takes place in the first half of summer. It counts as six (6) 300-level credits in the Department of Geology, and also fulfills CASE Natural and Mathematical (N&M) Sciences requirements. For specific information, check out the website for the Olduvai Gorge Summer Field School!