National Geographic Society funds Yale-National Museums of Kenya Paleoanthropologist project

The research team with Patrick Yiapan. The Yiapan children are looking at landscape pictures using a google card-board 3D viewer. The team includes Veronica Waweru of Yale University (far left), Stephen Thompson (University of Connecticut), Christine Ogola and Job Kibii (National Museums of Kenya).
2019-06-24 09:20:00

The Narok Paleoanthropological Project, a joint research project of the Council on African Studies at the MacMillan Center and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), has been awarded a National Geographic Grant sponsored by Lyda Hill — a program that supports women in science.

The Council on African Studies provided the funding for preliminary field and laboratory investigations of the 387,000-year-old Yiapan archaeological site in Narok, Kenya, in 2017 and 2018. The team’s co-investigators are:  Archaeologist Veronica Waweru (Yale University), Zoo-archaeologist Christine Ogola (NMK) and Paleontologist John Kibii (NMK).

“We hope our research will shed light on the evolution of behavioral and physiological traits of Homo sapiens in the Middle Pleistocene in high elevation non-basinal habitats,” said Waweru.

“In addition to our team, we’ll bring on other specialists, too. We need a geologist and a botanist to help us paint a picture of what the environment was like for the people living here almost 400,000 years ago. They can tell us if it was a forest or a savanna or a mix.”

Waweru is also hoping to get more dates to help determine what was going on at the site. “People lived on different land surfaces at different times in prehistory. The oldest that we have explored at this point is 387,000 years and the youngest at the top is about 60,000 years. But we still have to excavate further down. The important thing about this area is that there were periodic volcanic explosions. Thousands of tons of ash would be spewed into the air and settle back on top of the landscape. So, you have a layer of volcanic ash and then vegetation would grow back on that surface. You’d get a nice soil layer, people would live on it, and then another explosion would happen later and cover it. A volcanic eruption is not something that happens over a period of thousands of years, it’s a really constrained event in time and the volcanic ash is datable. It’s like a time capsule.”

While the team has only found stone tools at the Yiapan site, Waweru would be thrilled to find human bones — the stuff of Indiana Jones in her discipline. “Modern Homo sapiens are known to have been around about 200,000 years but if the site is almost twice as old, who was making these stone tools? Were they modern human beings? Were they just slightly different from us? If we find the fossil remains, that would be great, and if we don’t find those, we still have the tools and we can be able to say how smart these guys were and where were they getting their raw materials from. Unfortunately, bones are extremely hard to find, especially in the volcanic soils because they are acidic and break down the bones.”

The team is also excited to pioneer community involvement in prehistoric research in the Narok area of Kenya. They plan to introduce school children and the community to their field work in order to foster discussions about human origins research and research products at a grassroots level. Job Kibii has previously brought to Narok schools “Walking Tall” — a South African-based theatre group that performs to school children to educate them about human origins science. Veronica Waweru and Christine Ogola are two of a handful of native Kenyan women scientists in prehistory research. They will partner with Lyda Hill to engage young girls, especially those in rural schools, in exploring the natural sciences.

“Research projects on archaeological and paleontological sites like this one unearth a lot of information on the ancient remains,” said Waweru. “However, this information is only shared in international publications and other media and is mostly consumed by western nations’ citizens. Locals in areas where the investigations take place are not aware of the research sourced from their own landscape and properties. They don’t know about the immense significance of the material culture remains found there. Our team believes it’s important to expose and explain to the local community the significance of artifactual remains found on their landscape. We plan to do this by working with the local Museum to put together a display of the research findings and to provide archaeological site information to the local museum and local research project personnel who will interpret information to visitors, school children and non-English speaking citizens.”

Waweru and the team are looking forward to continuing their work at the Yaipan archaeological site over the course of July and August. They hope to put out a scientific paper about their discoveries early next year.

Written by Marilyn Wilkes for The MacMillan Center.

Related: Veronica Waweru talks about prehistoric projectile weaponry in Kenya on The MacMillan Report