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But Kimeu couldn't relax. Frustration prickled his normally even nature. After two weeks of staring at the ground hour after hour, day after day, they had found nothing hominin. Not even a tooth. Why hadn't they found even a sliver of hominin bone?? Heading sough from camp, he shuffled down the pebbled bank of the Nariokotome, scanning the ground for fossils. ? He was 300 yards south of camp when he spotted it.
Almost anyone else would have walked right by without seeing it. But...
But Kimeu couldn't relax. Frustration prickled his normally even nature. After two weeks of staring at the ground hour after hour, day after day, they had found nothing hominin. Not even a tooth. Why hadn't they found even a sliver of hominin bone?… Heading sough from camp, he shuffled down the pebbled bank of the Nariokotome, scanning the ground for fossils. … He was 300 yards south of camp when he spotted it.
Almost anyone else would have walked right by without seeing it. But Kimeu was not almost anyone. He was a fossil hunter-the best there was.
"Exceptionally well written, the book provides an exciting read that makes the joy of being a scientist come alive."
Most people think the dead are silent, but to an archaeologist they’re boisterous storytellers. Favorite tales come from remains thousands, even millions, of years old. Of course the dead don’t leap out of their graves and give away their secrets.
It takes scientists from every field imaginable to coax the details out of them. The stories are often garbled, and scientists don’t always agree about what the dead are saying. And then sometimes another find comes along with a different version of the story that changes everything.
A hundred years ago archaeologists were adventurers with a splash of scientist in their blood. They were driven to find things from the past—grand things, like treasures and kings. In the last century archaeology has changed dramatically. Today’s archaeologists are scientists first and foremost. They are driven to find out about things from the past—often ordinary things belonging to ordinary people.
These are the tales of four ordinary people—four hominins who lived long before recorded history.
1.6 million years ago ...
The boy died facedown in a shallow lagoon. His body bobbed gently in the near motionless water close to the shore. Sand washed over him. Days turned into weeks; his flesh rotted. Months turned into years; his teeth fell out and collected in the cup of an animal's hoofprint. A hippo tromping through the shallows stepped on the boy's right leg bone, snapping it in two. Once flesh and muscle and ligament were gone, the bones separated. The lighter ones floated to shore. The lower jaw separated from the skull. The cranium rolled away, settling upside down in the muck. What was left of the boy disappeared under the silt.
Years turned into centuries, and centuries turned into millennia, while grain by grain, minerals in the sand replaced minerals in the bones, turning the bones into solid rock.
While the boy's fossilized bones remained buried, the world above changed. A drier climate transformed the landscape. The lush tropical vegetation the boy had known faded away. Where trees once wove canopies above thriving grasses, isolated weeds struggled to survive. What was once moist and green turned parched and brown. Any plant scrappy enough to grow had thorns, as if a prickly nature were necessary to survive. Unchecked rainwater cut gullies that sliced through ancient sediments, creating walls rippling with cream, red, and tangerine.
Wind and the rare downpour peeled off layers of sand and sediment, and the boy's 1.6-million-year-old fossilized bones began to surface. Just a foot below the parched ground, the boy's sand-filled cranium held precious drops of water and became a pot for a seed. A wait-a-bit thorn tree sprouted. For 20 years the thorny tree grew. The roots snaked through the plates in the brain case and shattered the cranium. Some of the bone fragments drifted free of the roots' clutches. One tiny piece of skull poked through the pebbles.
West Turkana, Kenya, August 1984 ...
For two weeks fossil hunters known as the Hominid Gang had worked without a break. These six fossil hunters, who had been together long before the term "hominin" had come into fashion, were trained and led by a stocky Kenyan, Kamoya Kimeu. Together they walked the lunarlike landscape. They scrambled up slopes scattered with loose pebbles, snaked the ridge-tops, catching a breeze, then dipped back into the 135-degree heat of the airless gullies. Behind them they left almost no cairns, rock piles built to mark the location of a fossil find. They'd found no hominin fossils at all—no traces of humans or human ancestors anywhere. To them this was failure. They were tired. They were discouraged. It was time to move on.
During the worst of the midday heat, the Hominid Gang set up their next camp alongside a river of sand called the Nariokotome. The first thing they did was look for water. They had to dig deeper than the year before, but they found it. Then on the bank of the dry riverbed, in the spotty shade of the acacia trees, they pitched their canvas tents. Although they couldn't see Lake Turkana, three miles east of camp, they could make out the faint scent of the lake's rotting algae on the breeze, mixed with the closer, stronger smells of goat herds, burned grass, and sunbaked dirt.
In the intense midday heat, the bustling camp sounds—the clatter of pots and pans, the slosh of water for dishes and baths and laundry, the sound of shovels striking rock and sand—had quieted to soft restful murmurs, the even rhythms of snores, the gentle flap, flap of laundry drying in the breeze, and the scratch, scratch, scratch of pencil on paper as a few fossil hunters wrote letters home.
But Kimeu couldn't relax. Frustration prickled his normally even nature. After two weeks of staring at the ground hour after hour, day after day, they had found nothing hominin. Not even a tooth. Why hadn't they found even a sliver of hominin bone? Would their new location alongside the Nariokotome be any better? Leaving his fellow fossil hunters behind to rest, Kimeu decided to relieve his itchiness with a walk.
Heading south from camp, he shuffled down the pebbled bank of the Nariokotome, scanning the ground for fossils. He crossed the roadlike riverbed and scrambled up the other bank, following a well-worn goat path. The path wound near a small acacia tree and a large Salvadoratree. This wasn't a good place to find fossils. The ground had been trampled by camels and goats and the young boys who herded them. But Kimeu looked anyhow. He was 300 yards south of camp when he spotted it.
Almost anyone else would have walked right by without seeing it. But Kimeu was not almost anyone. He was a fossil hunter—the best there was. The small chunk of cranium, no bigger than a matchbook, looked just like the lava pebbles that surrounded it. Its surface was covered with pinhole pits, hairwidth scars, and sand-grain-sized bumps. But Kimeu knew—even before he picked it up—that this was hominin.
When he rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger, he felt the thick concave curve of bone that had once protected a brain. Not the small brain of an antelope or a gazelle or a pig—the big brain belonging to a hominin. From his many years of field experience, he knew that this curve belonged to the skull of Homo erectus, the hominin that lived before modern humans. Turkana Boy had surfaced.
Back at camp Kimeu and the fossil hunters removed the battery from the Land Rover and hooked it up to the radio telephone. The signal was so weak that Kimeu had to yell into the receiver. The operator connected him to anthropologist Richard Leakey, who was working at the museum in Nairobi, cleaning fossils. They had found something, Kimeu hollered into the radio telephone. They had finally found something. Perhaps Leakey would like to come see?
"Keep them safe for me, and we'll see you tomorrow," Leakey replied.
* * *
Richard Leakey's friend and colleague, anthropologist Alan Walker, happened to be in Nairobi working with Leakey when Kimeu called. Walker, curious to see Kimeu's find, packed up the fossils he'd been studying and joined Leakey. They loaded Leakey's single-engine Cessna with supplies and topped off the wing tanks with fuel. Once airborne, Leakey banked the Cessna north toward Lake Turkana, Kamoya Kimeu, the Hominid Gang, and that tiny scrap of Turkana Boy's cranium.
Two hours into the flight, they reached the southern tip of Lake Turkana. The lake shimmered below them. Wind skimming the lake shifted the floating algae, turning the water from blue gray to jade green and back again. The brilliant jade looked all the more vibrant alongside the dull mud banks. From the air the banks looked like thick brown paint that children had run their fingers through—those finger tracks were crocodile slides.
The Hominid Gang had cleared an airstrip—a very short airstrip. Leakey liked them as short as possible to keep out unwanted guests. Approaching the strip, Leakey slowed the plane to just a few miles above stall speed. The slower he came in, the quicker he could come to a stop. At 1,500 feet the stall warning bleated. Leakey lifted the nose, stalling just as the tires hit the ground with a thud. The Cessna bounced, once, twice, and then settled into a shudder as the plane rumbled against the hard brake.
When Leakey threw open the cockpit window, the men were torched by hot desert air perfumed with goat dung. "OK, Walker. Let's see what they got for us this time."
* * *
In The Wisdom of Bones, Alan Walker wrote, "Our hearts sank when we saw the small fossil, a rectangular piece about one inch by two inches, and the wretched little slope on the opposite side of the river." Richard Leakey wrote in his field diary that night, "Seldom have I seen anything less hopeful." But in the world of paleoanthropology, even the bleakest lead is followed. So after dinner, in a mess tent lit by lantern light, Leakey and Walker planned the excavation.
In the morning the Hominid Gang cleared the area of debris. The fossil hunters picked up leaves, twigs, pebbles, and rocks. Once the slope was clear, the gang broke up the hard-packed top layer of dirt with Olduvai picks. These tools, made from two-inch nails sticking out of carved wooden handles, fit neatly into the palms of the excavators' hands. With a steady thwack, thwack, thwack, the Hominid Gang broke up the crusted surface. The locals Leakey had hired to help with the excavation swept the loosened sediment, called backdirt, into metal bowls. Schoolboys, working to earn extra money, dumped the backdirt into wheelbarrows and wheeled it to the sieves.
The sieves are two-by-three-foot wooden frames with two layers of mesh attached to the bottom. The coarser layer is like chicken wire, metal with quarter-inch holes. The finer layer is similar to mosquito netting. Workers sift the sediment with a back-and-forth motion. When all the dirt has been reduced to dust and fallen away, what's left bounces on top of the mesh. The sievers examine each piece carefully, looking for bones or teeth. Sieving is hot, dusty, tedious, exhausting work.
Neither Walker nor Leakey believed anything would come of the small scrap of skull. Whether or not Kimeu believed there was more to be found, he didn't say. He kept at the grueling work of breaking up the soil, carting it to the sievers, sifting and sorting—and finding nothing. Walker and Leakey began looking for excuses to escape. Even the prospect of checking out stromatolites, a kind of fossilized algae on the shore of Lake Turkana, was more appealing to them than the dust storm at the site, so off they went. Kimeu and the rest of the Hominid Gang continued to work.
The dust-covered workers paused now and again to laugh at the Turkana children, who were playing not far from the site in a Salvadoratree. Hidden inside the tree's tent of leaves, the children squealed and giggled. When the children plucked the Salvadora's sweet-sour berries to munch on, the leaves quivered. The tree looked comical to the workers, as if it were shaking with its own belly laughs.
Kimeu's amused smile at the playful children broadened into a wide grin when he looked down and noticed in the soft dirt at his feet, among the surface stones, a piece of skull ... and then another ... and another.
When Leakey and Walker returned to camp late that afternoon, the fossil hunters came running. "We've found more bone! Lots of skull!" The anthropologists jumped out of the Land Rover and ran, in Leakey's words, "to where Kamoya was sitting, his treasure arrayed before him, like jewels plucked from the earth."
Suddenly that miserable scrap of skull didn't seem so hopeless. Within the week the crew recovered many skull and facial bones. It was time to call their sponsor, the National Geographic Society. National Geographic sent photographer David Brill to the excavation. Walker wrote in The Wisdom of the Bones that when Brill arrived he began taking photographs "like a demented grasshopper, all elbows and long legs, contorting this way and that to get the best photographic angle."
Leaving Brill to photograph what they had excavated so far, Leakey climbed into his Cessna to fetch his wife, Meave Leakey, and their daughters, Louise and Samira. While Leakey was gone, Walker continued the sieving. The dust choked the workers and coated their bodies. Walker decided that sieving under the camp shower would be more efficient and less annoying.
The hired schoolboys trundled the backdirt over to the camp "shower," which was nothing more than a canvas bag with a showerhead attached, hanging from a tree. The water dissolved the dirt, carrying it through the mesh in the sieves, leaving the larger bits and pieces behind. Once the fossils had been rinsed of the clingy black lava dust, their natural reddish brown color appeared—a burnished mahogany.
It wasn't long before Leakey's Cessna touched down again. Leakey's daughters jumped out. Louise, who was 12 years old, planned to learn to drive the Land Rover. Samira, who was two years younger, had agreed to come along and help as long as Dad promised to splash her with water whenever she got too hot.
Meave Leakey headed right for the table where Walker had laid out the dozen or so scraps of skull. The two of them set to gluing the pieces together. Putting a skull back together is a lot like working on a three-dimensional puzzle. Walker and Meave Leakey each had loved puzzles when they were children, but found them much too easy. To make the puzzles more challenging, they both had flipped the pieces upside down and put the puzzles together without any help from a picture. This unusual method for piecing puzzles turned out to be terrific training for reconstructing a cranium— piecing shattered bone together by shape. Now, sitting in the shade, the two turned scraps of skull this way and that until a fit became clear.
That night at dinner Walker told Brill that skulls speak to those who listen. He claimed that after a lifetime of searching for them, piecing them together, and marveling over them, one begins to hear what they are saying. The Hominid Gang joked that the bones speak in Kikichwa—the language of the skulls.
Brill turned to Kimeu and asked if he could hear the skulls speak. Was that why Kimeu found more hominin bones than anyone else? Did the bones whisper to him, "Come here ... look here?" Kimeu said that the skulls did speak to him, and then he stopped for a moment to think. "But you can't understand them!"
On the banks of the Nariokotome, the bones spoke to them all. The excitement in camp generated a current that could have powered a city. Then suddenly the bones were silent. The discoveries stopped. The workers started at dawn, dug and sieved relentlessly for three hours, but found nothing more than a yellow scorpion.
Richard Leakey circled a wait-a-bit thorn tree, careful not to snag his clothing and get caught in the trap that gives the tree its name. "Walker, if there's nothing more after this, we'll call it quits," he said. He looked thoughtfully at the thorny tree and then tossed a green cushion onto the ground next to it. He sat on the cushion, leaning back a bit, looking as if he were sitting in a washbasin. He traded an Olduvai pick for a four-inch paintbrush and worked carefully around the roots of the tree.
Cramped from sitting with no back support, Richard Leakey stood, took off his shirt and hung it on a branch, traded in the paintbrush for a dental pick, and then went back to work, lying on his stomach with his face just inches from the tree roots.
Nearby, Walker said to no one in particular, "Listen for the ping; when you hit bone, it sounds different."
The workers sang an English song taught in the Turkana schools. The children in the Salvadora tree on the opposite riverbank leaned this way and that to make the tree sway to the beat of the chorus, singing back, "I want, I want ... to be, to be...."
The sandstone quickly dulled the workers' Olduvai picks. But no one complained. Sharpening the points gave the diggers' knees a break.
"I want, I—"
Excerpted from Every Bone Tells a Story by Jill Rubalcaba Peter Robertshaw Copyright © 2010 by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw. Excerpted by permission of Charlesbridge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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