Tim White Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

On the Trail of our Human Ancestors: Conversation with Tim White, Professor of Integrative Biology; September 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Doing Field Work

Now help us understand the actual work of doing paleoanthropology on this site, both in terms of how you organize a dig, what a dig is, and so on. I assume you don't find something and suddenly it's, "Eureka!"

That's right. The popular concept is that somebody rides out on a camel, looks off the camel, and says, "There's a skull. Let's take it back and write a book!" That's not the way it happens. Maybe it happened like that a long time ago, but not anymore. These are very large projects. An international team at the paleontology lab of the National Museum of EthiopiaThe one that we run is supported by the National Science Foundation, as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory. We have a collaborative arrangement with the University of California. The geologist on the project, Dr. Giday WoldeGabriel, is a specialist in volcanic rocks. He travels to Addis Ababa every November, and joins up with members of the team who come from fourteen different countries -- [for example,] Japan and Turkey and France. It's an international team.

It's everyone's history, right?

It's everything. It's not just the human specialists. You see, we're interested in how the rodents evolved, where the elephants came from, the kinds of extinct mammals that were there. There were bears in Africa four and a half million years ago! So we're interested in rebuilding the entire ecological environment that our ancestors existed in. That involves aspects of geology as well as biology, paleontology, and archeology, because we have specialists who study those stone tools who can tell us about the manufacturing techniques that were used, how far away the people went to get the raw materials to bring them back, and so forth, and who also look at that technology through time. landscape photoSo this is a large and fairly complicated team.

The area itself is really remote; it's one of the most remote places on the planet. To get there we leave Addis Ababa in a caravan of about nine or ten cars, packed with all of the supplies we need, because the only thing available out there on the floor of the Afar is goats that the local people have that you can buy to eat (and we eat a lot of goats!), and water, when you can find it. Usually we find it by digging in the dry sand rivers and getting to the water table, and then extracting it via pump. Everything else has to be trucked in.

This is a very large operation. Of course, it involves a lot of Ethiopians, including Dr. Berhane Asfaw, who was trained here at Cal and who lives in Ethiopia, who is responsible for a lot of the logistical infrastructure in getting folks out into the field. So what we do is get together, load the cars, take off.

At the end of the day, you are at a place called Shewa Robit, where you can stay in a very tiny hotel, because the next morning you drop away from the asphalt into the Afar Depression. No more road. the work crewIt's a dirt road for a while, but the last fifty or sixty miles you're on camel track. No bridges, so if it's raining, you can't ford the rivers that are still today draining that rainwater down into the Afar Depression -- it's a process you can see in front of your eyes. But it's very important for us to go in the dry season, so that usually means November-December.

A team assembles, goes into the field, and then in the field we establish a tent camp. We hire the local people as guards, excavators, and so forth. We go about our different jobs. Different parts of this landscape sample different levels of the past.

This next season we will be going out to one of the oldest levels. It's below a lava flow we've now dated at six million years. We know that there are animal fossils below, and we hope to find human ancestors even down lower in that section. So this work will be done by the team focusing on paleontology. Now, there's no stone tools down that deep. The oldest stone tools are about two and a half million years old, so the archeologists won't be involved so much. They may be at another site working on a 100,000-year-old time horizon that has lots of traces of stone tools.

So we branch out and we do different things. At the end of two months, we load it all into the cars and bring it back for the National Museum of Ethiopia, where it is analyzed.

Next page: Discovery of the Earliest Human

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