Searching for clues: how our ancestors evolved in Kenya – News
The area contains key clues to the evolution of humans and their ancestors. The sediments there accumulated over millions of years in subsiding basins and left a detailed record of past environments and climates in East Africa. By studying these sediments, geoscientists provide valuable insight into how environmental and climatic changes impact our evolution as a species.
Shedroff and Winget were the only two undergraduate members of the team of about 15 scientists. Shedroff shares their travel experiences.
A reflection of the Loperot site
Every morning my alarm went off at 5:30, which meant it was time to put on some hiking gear, grab my backpack, and go to lunch. Breakfast was mandazi, fried dough with jam and hot Kenyan chai tea. We were always getting ready before the sun came up, before the day started to warm up. The morning sun was not as intense, and some outcrops were still shaded, so ideal for field work. As they piled into the camp vehicles, all the researchers checked to see if they had their rock hammers, paleo picks and other gear, because the Loperot site, a primate fossil site in the Turkana Basin from Kenya’s Rift Valley, was a good drive. The trip involved traversing open, sandy areas where vehicles frequently got stuck. For passengers, it also meant ducking to avoid thorny acacia branches – a surprisingly effective way to shake off drowsiness.
Once in the field, different groups separated according to their research questions. Professor Beck and Marcella were interested in the stratographic column (the geological representation of the stratification of rock units in an area), so they carried out extensive field reconnaissance, explored various localities and analyzed rock strata. They found all sorts of interesting things while walking around, like fossilized oysters, ostracods and a colorful seawall, a slab of rock that cuts through pre-existing rock layers. Other researchers have focused on deciphering volcanic history and the formation of the rift basin. For my part, I entered the Turkana project knowing that I wanted to study paleosols (fossil soils). Although I wrote a literature review on paleosols for my class on the East African Rift System, I knew very little about working with these soils in the field.
I spent all my field experience on part of the site dating to the early Miocene (about 18 million years ago), identifying and describing fossil soils in a trench. I had the opportunity to observe renowned paleopedologist Gary Stinchcomb, who focused on describing soils in the field and collecting samples for analysis in his laboratory. The aim was to decipher under what conditions each soil was formed and to see if it corresponded to current paleoclimatic interpretations. In the field, I learned a lot about soil descriptions. Meticulously documenting all soil characteristics for a single paleosol can take hours. I was able to observe a range of unique and beautiful paleosols. I learned to describe soils, a skill I applied independently to the next camp we visited.
By being in the field with a large group of scientists and graduate students, I gained valuable perspective on pursuing a career in research. I learned how important it is to make connections in the scientific world. Sometimes a proposal is funded or an article is published simply because of the author. These are certainly big hurdles to overcome.
At the same time, doing scientific research can be extremely rewarding, depending on the type of questions asked. The Turkana Miocene project aims to reconstruct the paleoenvironment and paleoclimate of East Africa at a key moment in human evolution. On a large scale, the study of past climates can also inform us about the impacts of global warming. Scientific research allows us to answer interesting and global questions that help us understand how the world works. This experience convinced me to pursue higher education and study soils, so that I could answer my own interesting questions.
Speaking of her experiences, Marcella added, “I have seen so many amazing things that I have read about in my sedimentology and structural geology classes come to life and take shape in ways they didn’t in class. I even saw specimens of ostracods, stars of my latest research project, in the wild! Being part of this project showed me how geologists answer questions and work as a team.
Whether during the academic year or in the summer, Hamilton students collaborate with professors on original research. Their work often results in articles published in peer-reviewed journals or presentations at national conferences.