Sunday, March 20, 2011

Preparing to leave, but not really wanting to.

As I find myself hoping more and more that we can stay longer, our departure seems to be approaching faster and faster. It is less than a week now untill we leave TBI and it seems that we only just arrived. Time has moved faster for me here than anywhere else previously. The experience has been, to say the least an exceptional one. We have been very fortunate in our stay here. We are in the middle of a semi-desert, little visible foe miles other than sand, sparse vegetation and the most durable and resourceful people imaginable and yet here we sleep in comfortable beds. Here we have no shortage of pure running water. Here we are served three solid meals a day, most of which have been the most delicious and satisfying meals I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Rice. Ugali. Ox tail stew. Grilled chicken. Tilapia grilled and baked. Grilled thinly sliced steak with a creamy pepper sauce, green beans and mashed potatoes. Fresh fruit including pineapple, mango, papaya, and peaches. Steamed pudding with jelly, baked apple crisp and chocolate ice cream. Chocolate ice cream. Once more for effect, Chocolate ice cream! In the middle of the desert! Need I say more?
It has not just been about food. Our courses have been fantastic. The one that we are currently in, "Invertebrate Paleontology of the Turkana Basin" is another valuable learning experience. We have had a detailed introduction to fossil identification and morphology (shape). Teeth, as they are the most durable part of the body, are invaluable for identifying species and species change over time and we have learned a great deal about their morphology and identification. I have had a great time going out into the field and being able to identify a fragment of a fossil, simply by observing its teeth. I recently discovered the buried jaw of an enormous herbivore. Unfortunately we weren't able to excivate, but you could see that it was either a hippo or a pig, that it was a juvinile, with its teeth still deep in the bone, and that it was enormous. It is simple identifications like these that allow for some of the most important identifications of finds. This course has really given me an invaluable understanding of fossils, and the nature of fossil collection and identification. It is not over yet though, and I look forward to excavations next week. We leave on Saturday, so I will deffinately get one more post in before we do. Until then, my very best regards from this fantastic place!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Turkana Wedding and Ancient Pillars

As I said we would, we did end up going to a Turkana wedding last week. I was a little curious of how we would be received at this event, as subtlety is never something we as a group, are very good at when traveling. In simply driving around, it can be difficult to guess what peoples reactions may be. There are times when we are met with an intense curiosity. Other times, we seem to inspire an overwhelming excitement, or silliness, because people have on more than one ocasion collapsed in side splitting laughter upon seeing us. On still other and fortunately less frequent occasions, the Turkana seem to want absolutely nothing to do with us, shouting and shooing us away as we pass. Fortunately when we arrived at the wedding, a week long event making it fair to say that we arrived for only a very small portion of it, we were well received. The dances taking place here were considerably more elaborate than any we had previously seen. First, a group of ornately decorated and topless (unthinkable in the west, but here entirely unremarkable) women danced up to us, and welcomed us in their own way. From then on, although I am sure that there were other things happening related to the wedding itself, we danced. Some of us danced for only a short while while others, myself included, continued for the rest of our time there. It was a long process, involving a rhythmic stamping and continuing enactment of stories. The men would chant to a vague tune, as one would run around the circle blowing his whistle and another might mime the firing of a gun. Once or twice I tried my hand at jumping into the circle in a sort the mocking challenge they often did, much to the laughs and enjoyment of everyone else. Another move involved jumping out and startling the women who could be found encircling all the men. Before I knew it, it was time to leave, and I was a bit exhausted. These dances often go on for many hours at a time, with much sitting and standing back up to build the excitement and the hype. I was done, but the dance obviously wasn't and was certainly going to continue for a long time after we left.
On a less exhausting note, we finished our archaeology module, after having learned a great deal about human behavior, tool use and more. In the last week, we visited a number of Impressive burials containing massive stone pillars. These pillar sites were created by pastoral peoples as cemeteries, but as for the exact motivations and methods, archaeologists are stumped. They are nearly two thousand years older than Stonehenge and are therefor some of the earliest examples of megalithic architecture in the world. Our time here is coming to a close. More and more we are having to make preparations for our return and it is sometimes sad. Still, I still have a few more posts to do and I look forward to doing them.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Goat Butchering, Stone Knapping and Excivation

Well, There I was, elbow deep in goat entrails removing the skin with a small sharp stone flake, and having a blast. Now this would certainly disgust many people back home, and I must admit that the idea of it is not particularly enticing, but there I was anyway. I do not need to go into to a very detailed description and this is probably a moment where I do not regret the inability to share photos with you. It is enough to say that we butchered a goat, start to finish, using only the simple stone flakes that we ourselves made. It was not easy, but at the same time I was surprised by the cutting edge of these flakes, the material of which ranged from basalt, which in this case was very grainy and hard to flake, to chirt, which had a smooth and longer lasting cutting edge. I felt very deeply that the process not only put the lives and diet of stone age peoples into perspective, but also that of our own. In the west, we have lost touch with our food. We eat huge amounts of meat, and do not even realize where it comes from. Here, I have seen the process unfold start to finish. The meet I helped butcher, cook and eat last night was only a few hours earlier walking around having lived a cage free and humane life. I feel that here it is possible to have a level of respect for the consumption of meet and the whole process of its production, that we have completely lost back in the states and other industrialized countries.
The reason that we were doing all of this was of course for our archaeology course with Veronica Waweru and Helen Roche. So far in this course, we have had a good introduction both to concepts and practical applications of stone tool production, as well as site excavation at lake Aiyangyang. this course has also been, for me, one of the most rewarding because it is the field that I personally have the most interest in. It has been a great learning experience making, and especially using, stone tools and I hope to continue to learn about the subject when I return home.
Tonight, we are planning to attend a Turkana Wedding, and I have no doubt that it will be an interesting experience. We have, over the past weeks, been as curious about the Turkana as they sometimes seem to be about us. The only difficulty can be that it is easy to offend and we don't want to impose ourselves, which is difficult not to do when you arrive in the largest vehicle for miles and are quite obviously not local. I hope to write again soon, Kwaheri !

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Paleoenvironments "Lucy" and Ice Cream.

Now, one may ask ones self what exactly these three things mentioned in the title of this post have to do with one another. A paleoenvironment is a past environment reconstructed to put into perspective our world climate and also to put into context past hominids like "Lucy". "Lucy" of course is the famous Australopithocene discovered in 1973, and remains one of the most complete hominin skeletons discovered, and ice cream is a delicious frozen treat often best served with pie (in this viewers humble opinion, warm apple pie).
Our most recent class was on reconstructing ancient environments. This was taught by Raymond Bonnefille, and although it was less field trip intensive than our other classes, we none the less learned a great deal. Although it is a very difficult field to study and reconstruction of past climates is not always straight forward, Raymond was able to present the course with style and ease, which is saying something considering she is french the vast majority of her work is in french
We were were lucky enough to have a surprise visit from Dr. Donald Johanson recently, and he was a very informative person to talk to. He discovered "Lucy" at Hadar, Ethiopia in the 1970s. It is of special importance, due to the fact that he and Richard have not spoken in many years, due to academic disagreements and the like, and have been able to put these aside here. It really goes to show that the future of the field and a place like this, are to precious to let these disputes get in the way of either one. We were really quite fortunate to have him speak to hear briefly about the discovery and his work. Apparently, Lucy got her name because the Beatles were playing on the radio at Hadar, and "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" came on, the name was suggested and it stuck.
Lastly, but most certainly not least, is the ice cream. Richard surprised us when he returned from Nairobi, with homemade (and when I say this, I mean Richard Leaky made, for he is an excellent cook) chocolate ice cream. We have been extremely lucky with the food here. It has been delicious and wonderful in every sense, but especially when Richard is in the kitchen cooking. He can often be found there causing delicious smells to drift throughout camp. Interestingly enough, as I was just reciently writing about Ice cream, I was drawn away from the computer and surprised to find a late dessert waiting in the mess hall. Meave had baked us steamed pudding, with strawberry jam. This was like a delicious bunt cake fresh out of the oven and as tasty as any other cake I have ever eaten.
So here I am, having the time of my life, making good friends and eating unbelievably delicious food. I can imagine nowhere I would rather be.