Summer Adventures at Koobi Fora Field School

This post has taken me a while to complete, but I’m excited to finally share this today.

Going to Koobi Fora Field School was a special, once-in-a-lifetime journey, and I am so grateful now to be part of the network and community of those who have “graduated” from, or been involved in, this incredible program.

I found out about this field school program over the course of applying to graduate schools through the years. I first applied in 2013, and was accepted into the 2014 class. But I opted not to attend because of my financial situation at the time. My personal funds were still tight when I applied again at the end of last year, but I decided to go anyway.

Before leaving for Kenya, I took a four-week online course that gave a broad introduction to the field of paleoanthropology–the study of fossil hominins. Hominins include anatomically modern humans (our species, Homo sapiens) and other very closely related species from whom Homo Sapiens descended or with whom we share very close common biological ancestors which are also regarded as human or “early humans.” Paleoanthropology is highly interdisciplinary, relying on fields of biology, geology, paleontology, anthropology, psychology, and archaeology to piece together the natural history and emergence of our species. It is also the field of study where paleontology and archaeology meet (the study of ancient life or the natural history of life on the earth, and the study of human material history respectively are otherwise considered completely different realms of study). Sites such as Koobi Fora in Kenya are of interest, particularly from a paleontological and archaeological perspective, because we have found the remains (fossil bones), artifacts (such as stone tools and evidence of fire utilization), and ecological evidence (such as cut mark striations that suggest butchering behavior on the bones of other animals) of some of the earliest known hominins in these locations on the African continent.

The first place we visited together as a class when we arrived in Nairobi was the Nairobi National Museum, which houses and displays some of these very precious early human fossils as well as stone tools that are up to 2 million years old. I saw the Turkana Boy (a fairly complete Homo erectus skeleton around 1.6 million years old)! We were also given a tour of the museum’s collections lab. Our hosts at the museum, who are partners with George Washington University in running the field school, were truly amazing to meet and listen to. They discussed how they saw these early human fossil collections that they maintain as treasures that they want everyone in the world to be able to access. The attitude of the Kenyan researchers really blew me away, and it was so special to visit this museum. They also expressed a desire for us students to return and work with them and their collections again as full-fledged researches in the future.

Things I Learned

The first three weeks of the course involved lectures and field training to give us students a feel for some of the archaeology-leaning concentrations within paleoanthropology. We focused on paleoecology, taphonomy and geology, the morphology (anatomy) of hominins and other animals, and lithic archaeology and behavioral evolution. We also got a feel for different kinds of field work (survey, excavation, total station mapping, experimental flintknapping, faunal abundance analysis, to name a few).

For one group activity, we did a taphonomy exercise mapping and describing modern bone assemblages we found around a decomposing juvenile elephant carcass that smelled, quite literally, like death, while contemplating environmental conditions that are and are not ideal for long-term preservation of faunal remains. We learned how to identify and side (left/right) different kinds of bones (humerus, femur, phalanges, dental arrangements), and characteristics that make, say, an equid (horse/zebra) scapula look different from a suid (pig) scapula, and so forth. We did some experimental foraging exercises. We had some lectures on the history of hunter-gatherer and pastoralist societies living in the region within the past couple thousand years. And we learned a few words in Swahili. Words which, I confess, my field notebook currently remembers much better than I do.

We were also introduced to the specific interests and goals of the researchers who had joined us for the season, which ranged from contextualizing hominin remains found during a previous season, soil analysis, assessing the evidence of early controlled fire utilization or pyrotechnology, experimental butchery with stone tools, outreach interacting with people living in the areas where we were working, analyzing the weathering attributes of Pleistocene stone tools, and searching for the fossil remains of bovids and other animals with distinctive stone tool cut marks.

The last three weeks were dedicated to individual research projects working with a mentor. I had the privilege of working with PhD candidate Jonathan Reeves investigating the effects of landscape erosion on the distribution of stone tool artifacts. Erosion can impact behavioral interpretations of the archaeological record by transporting stone tools away from where they were originally discarded. I learned how to fly a drone that took areal photographs of the landscape, which we then rendered into a 3D model on a computer. We then used that model to make statistical calculations in another computer program about the relationship between water flow energy and stone tool artifact distribution. Basically, drones are awesome for assessing how  mechanisms like flowing water on different types of terrain interact with other things hanging out on the Earth’s surface.

Camping in Kenya

I lived in a $25 Walmart tent for six weeks–and it held up beautifully despite taking a consistent beating from the blaring sun, nightly winds, the occasional freak rainstorms, and one major flooding incident. I splurged and bought an ultra-lite Helinox cot to take with me, which was really a life saver for weight, reliability, and convenience. I was also glad to have brought personal solar charging equipment with me. I brought a 14-watt X-Dragon solar panel, a battery bank, and a Goal Zero Torch 250 flashlight that was super bright, doubled as an extra batter bank, and was fantastic for smashing bugs that got in my tent. I managed to never run out of juice on my phone or other small electronics I brought with me. I also brought a little Logitech Keys-To-Go bluetooth keyboard that came in really handy for transferring hand-written notebook data onto iPad spreadsheets and for typing my final paper up on my iPhone.

When we were at Mpala, I saw zebras, giraffes, elephants, vervets, baboons, African painted dogs, gazelle, water buffalo, hippos, hyraxes, and lots more. Much to my and my mother’s relief when I returned home and told her about my trip, I did not see any lions or crocodiles. I did, however, get to pet a rescued cheetah ON THE NOSE at the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy and Animal Orphanage in Nanyuki on our way back to Nairobi at the end of our trip.

Some of our campsites had unheated shower facilities. (Cool showers felt really good at the end of a hot day!) At other campsites, I took bucket showers inside a privacy tent, and usually laundered my day’s change of clothes with water left over from bathing and switched back and forth between two sets of clothes.

Acacia trees and all their thorny kin were the bane of my existence (I cannot tell you how many times I was stuck, scratched, and had my hat or sleeves caught on their tricksey barbed branches).

I have to say that squatting toilets aren’t so bad once you get used to them. Going in the great outdoors was also a pretty normal part of our daily habits out in the field. When we didn’t have toilet facilities at some of our campsites, the staff dug holes in the ground and set up designated privacy tents with platforms and plastic toilet seats like the ones westerners are used to over top. I can’t help but smile because even though looking down in those latrine pits was naturally kind of gross, it was often intriguing to me and actually kind of beautiful to peek at the cute little dung beetles scurrying around inside, making perfect little spheres out of our poop.

There were lots of bugs, though not as many mosquitoes at Koobi Fora, Karari, and Ileret as there were in Nairobi because it was pretty dry. Bugs were most annoying on non-windy nights when we gathered to eat or work on project homework under artificial lights. Probably the most annoying bugs were the lion flies we affectionately called “bitey bugs.” They do this little dance every time you flick them off where they keep landing on you in another spot if they can. They’re not easy to squish because the have really tough exoskeletons, and yes–they do bite! I was not actually bitten by one, that I know of. Pants and long sleeves deterred their biting pretty well. I also learned that you can capture them in a strip of duct tape if you’re clever–and then smash them. I also saw a number of solifuges or camel spiders. I smashed a smaller one crawling on my tent with my flashlight. The faculty taught us to fear them a little bit. They’re not venomous, but their pincers leave raggedy bites that can get infected easily. Small scorpions, and beetles we referred to as sand peanuts, were also common. In particular, they liked to congregate underneath our tents until it was time for us to pack up and move to a new campsite.

The faculty and staff always made sure we had water bags to wash our hands with, and carefully treated water in large cans for us to drink and fill our water bottles. Breakfast was usually a choice of something cream-of-wheat-like (which I can no longer remember what it was called), or cornflakes with powdered milk. On some occasions we had fried bread for breakfast (the name of which I have also forgotten). Lunch and dinner usually alternated between a combination of spaghetti, lentils, a bean and corn medley, canned beans that we referred to as “spaghetti-o beans,” and rice, with canned pears, pineapple, fruit cocktail, and the occasional fresh watermelon–stuff that most of the US students found pretty normal. At lunch time, we also had the option to make ourselves sandwiches out of peanut butter, preserves, honey, tuna, and spam. We also had a course of soup each night before dinner, which was probably helpful for re-hydrating us. There was always bread available with each meal. On occasion we had fresh goat meat, fish, or cheese with a meal. We also had tea-time snacks when we were at camp instead of out in the field around 10 or 11:00, usually glucose cookies (they literally had the word “glucose” imprinted on them) or popcorn.

Our schedule usually consisted of a morning meeting, followed by lectures for the first three weeks, or going out in the field the last three weeks. We came back for lunch to avoid getting caught in the most intense heat of the day, then returned in the afternoon for a few more hours of fieldwork before returning to camp for dinner, homework, and attending to laundry or bathing, or just hanging out before it got dark. There was a whole kitchen and driving crew who cooked all our meals for us and helped us relocate every time we moved campsites, and they were absolutely amazing and took really good care of us students.

I took doxycycline for my anti-malarial medication. It made me photosensitive and, I later learned, had been the culprit for some intense back and knee pain I suffered for most of my excursion as well as for the month after I returned home and had to continue taking the medication. Basically, it turned me into a vampire with old-lady knees. Anticipating the photosensitivity side-effects, I came prepared with long sleeves, hats, bandannas, long light-weight UPF pants, and lots of sunscreen. I’m very pleased with the fact that the only place I suffered bad sunburns were on my hands.

I swam in Lake Turkana! It was breathtaking, and soapy-feeling because the water was a bit basic. But I also avoided spending too much time swimming because doxycycline made my skin hate the sun and I didn’t want my skin to die. The sunsets are really gorgeous, though, when you’re close to the equator–the sun looks huge in the sky.

Did We Find Anything Cool?

Depending on what a particular researcher was looking for, which was generally either “stones or bones” –stone tools or fossil remains (my classmates had some more colorful terms for who was studying what, but I’ll stick to these), there were a lot of cool things to find: fossil crocodile teeth both large and tiny, fossil fish vertebrae, fossil bovids and suids and the occasional mammalian carnivore. Pleistocene and Holocene stone tools littered the ground in some places. The dirt layers I dug holes in were a tuffacious clay that smelled like the sulfuric bowls of hell had belched all over the earth 1.6 million years ago–which was basically true–and it was quite an olfactory experience excavating in it. ;-)

The paleoecology team of researchers and students did manage to find a couple of early human (non Homo sapien) teeth (a molar and a premolar, if I remember correctly)–which was pretty dang awesome!

Being Mormon at Koobi Fora

I don’t think I could fully wrap up my experience at Koobi Fora without also talking a little bit about what my experience was like both interacting as the only Mormon in the group, and from my own spiritual perspective on what I was learning.

I definitely stood out. I was nervous at first about how people were going to react to me, because I knew at some point someone was going to ask why I preferred the soda over the beer for every happy hour, or try to share a sip of their coffee or tea out of friendship that I would have to refuse.

Growing up in Utah, I’m a little more used to being in a majority, which for me means sometimes I have a bad habit of assuming that everyone I talk to gets my inside Mormon culture jokes or philosophical conversations. I’m more used to trying to be aware of that tendency, and thus a little more reserved about bringing my beliefs into a conversation so someone else who might otherwise feel outnumbered or overwhelmed, or who has just plain had some bad experiences with another Mormon human who was insensitive and thus has some strong feelings about it, doesn’t get triggered into a rant or pushed away from the table.

While I’ve certainly traveled many places in the world where Mormons are not the majority of the population, I’ve never traveled without family members, friends, classmates, or professors somewhere in the mix with me who shared my faith. Even missionaries have companions (and I’ve never served a mission). I’d never isolated myself quite like this before. And I’d never really been in a position by myself before where my beliefs came across as intriguing to someone else instead of annoying. No one in my Koobi Fora group had had any distinctly negative experiences with Mormons, or strong feelings about what we believe. Few seemed to really know much about Mormons at all, so I was free to leave a solid good impression of myself, my habits, and my LDS beliefs as they became more obvious and my friends asked me questions. I really love talking about my faith with my Koobi Fora friends when there were appropriate opportunities. I also got to learn about a lot of other people’s religious and spiritual beliefs, and non-belief perspectives. I saw this really clear picture of what coexisting is supposed to look like, and about how I can both fit in with and stand out from other people in bold and healthy ways, and it was beautiful. It was a really cool experience.

One of my favorite moments of standing out came when one of my friends conveyed to me that they had overheard one of the faculty members say, “And Sarah was like, ‘I’m gonna fly this drone, bitches!’ ” And my friend laughed their guts out because they knew I would not literally say this. I chose not to swear at all while I was at Koobi Fora. The humorist in me would say it’s mostly because there’s no fun in swearing if there isn’t any shock value in it for the people you’re talking to. *Wink wink*

On Creation Scriptures and Adam and Eve

It was really delightful when I sat down with one of my Koobi Fora friends to learn that when she reads the Creation story in the Bible, she sees that it follows a pretty close pattern to how we understand the sequence of the earth’s natural history from a scientific point of view. I was really excited, because my family and I love to talk about that pattern all the time–it jumps out to us too! The earth formed from accretion in a nebula while being pulled in orbit around a growing star. The surface cooled and liquid water condensed into oceans. Amino acids began to form in a primordial soup, then self-replicating microorganisms emerged. Plants took over the landscape, sucked the carbon out of the atmosphere and polluted the air with oxygen (which probably made the sun, moon, and stars a lot easier to see from the Earth’s surface. If anything had eyes to see it, of course). Animals, most varieties of which had been hanging out in the water for a while up to this point, gained some adaptations that allowed them to invade the land. Then, eventually, people appeared. Not a bad parallel at all.

One question I was asked by multiple Koobi Fora friends was about how my LDS beliefs work with a concept of human evolution as fact. Do Mormons believe in evolution? It depends on the Mormon you talk to. The science of biological evolution is considered a matter for scientific study, not a doctrinal issue, so you will find Mormons who are comfortable with evolution on various levels and Mormons who are not comfortable with it at all.

Mormons believe that God created the Earth in six creative periods. There is no specific doctrine on how long those creative periods were, and most are pretty comfortable with the idea that it was probably not six neat twenty-four hour phases. The book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price also uses the term “time” instead of a straightforward use of the term “day” in describing the spans of the Creation (Abraham 4).

Mormons believe that other living things not of the family of Adam have spirits, and were prepared spiritually before they appeared physically on the Earth (Moses 3:5). We don’t have a lot of revelation on our spiritual relationship to the vast array of other lifeforms on this planet, but we do know that other living things will inherit “eternal felicity” (Doctrine and Covenants 77:3). For whatever reason, even the humble amoebas need to pass through mortality on their way to eternal felicity, and that must really irk Satan, who is never going to have a body, ever.

Mormons do believe doctrinally that Adam and Eve were real people, that they literally lived in a paradisaical place called the Garden of Eden for a time, and that there were no children of God (literal spiritual offspring our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother) in the flesh on the Earth before Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are considered brave, heroic, faithful people, both, who came to an unsettling realization that they could not keep both of the commandments they had been given and thus had to choose which obligation was most important–to multiply and replenish the Earth, or to avoid the Forbidden Fruit. We kind of needed to come here to gain bodies, learn and grow, and make our own choices when presented with the various kinds of opposition that a mortal experience poses. So, we Mormons feel that Adam and Eve made the right choice even though Satan had his own designs on the situation. We believe that Adam and Eve were given knowledge of the coming of Jesus Christ to redeem them and all their posterity who accept Him (basically those living a good life to the best of their knowledge and abilities) from this “Fall,” or from this choice to acceptance mortality that would inevitably result in their (and our) making mistakes, sinning, suffering, and eventually dying. It’s awesome. I love Adam and Eve, and I love the doctrine of Jesus Christ as our Savior. These are things I get to learn about and think about every time I visit an LDS temple and, in particular, when I participate in an endowment ordinance session. I absolutely believe in Adam and Eve, and they are very real and very important to me.

I’m also personally comfortable with the idea that I share a biological history and legacy with every other living thing on this planet, and that my body and spirit have separate origins in some ways.

Boiled down, I don’t know how to fit everything I can think of about Adam and Eve together perfectly with discovered truth about human evolution. And I’m okay with that. The reason I’m okay with that is because, what I can say is that I’ve felt the Holy Ghost testify to me about Adam and Eve and Jesus Christ in my mind and in my heart while in the temple and while reading the scriptures. I’ve also felt the Holy Ghost confirming to me things that are good and precious while studying natural history, evolution, dinosaurs, and hominins. It is natural to feel God’s love for us when we study His word, and it is equally natural to feel God’s love when studying the things of Creation. Of course God knows the Neanderthals and the Homo erectus and the Paranthropus–He made them. By that spirit it becomes quite natural for me to accept both concepts without seeing perfectly at the present time how they fit together, because both things bring the same witness to my remembrance: that God loves us more than we know, that He wants us to learn everything we can (and to ask lots of questions!), to live good lives, and to return to His presence to become like Him.

What do you think about Adam and Even and evolution? If you have religious or spiritual beliefs that don’t include Adam and Eve, how do you see connections between science and your faith or your spiritual experiences?

Summing Up the Awesome

This has turned into a really long post. And I still feel like I’ve left so much out. And I didn’t even get to talk about how our campsite was flooded out on the 4th of July! It was slightly traumatic and also a fantastic bonding experience. I think that’s the closest I’m ever going to come to seeing what the Law of Consecration is supposed to look like–having all things in common–to make sure everyone’s stuff got found and organized, and sharing what we had with each other to make up for things that had been lost that couldn’t be recovered in the lake that was once our campsite.

I really love my classmates. Whenever a guest researcher came and gave us a presentation, or someone came to tell us dinner was ready, we uttered a collective “thank you.” We took turns clearing each others plates off the table after meals. We checked on each other. After the flooded campsite, my classmates were my clan until we split up and went home. I miss all of you. Shout out to Kayla, Stephanie, Billie, Monica, Nash, Brendon, Sylvia, Salma (I can’t remember your name besides your FB name right now and I feel really bad! But I do know who you are and you’re awesome!), Angelina, Niovi, Emily, Misganaw, Kimambo, Degsew, Bridget, Bisrat, Fikeru, Linden, Jeffrey, Lauren, Laura, Kaden, and Dickens. And shout out to all of the researchers and staff who made this opportunity not only possible, but a learning experience of a lifetime. Thank you for all that you do! Thank you, Koobi Fora Field School!

A number of my classmates have returned to George Washington University in DC to present their mentored research projects on a live stream on the Koobi Fora Facebook page all day today from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM EST. Go check it out! Seriously! It’s super cool stuff.

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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