Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.

The Pecos pictographs: River rock art shows why Texas is an archaeological oasis

Quick: What do Texas and France have in common?

Actually, I should rephrase that: Who do Texas and France have in common?

The answer? Dr. Jean Clottes, a leading French prehistorian.

It makes sense that a Frenchmen would love his country, but what is Dr. Clottes looking for in Texas? It turns out the answer is down to earth: rock art. In Dr. Clottes’ opinion, Texas rock art ranks right up there with rock art in La Douce France.

Anyone interested in rock art is most likely familiar with the famous painted prehistoric caves in France and Spain. Sites like Altamira and Lascaux are household names in the world of art history. Dr. Clottes has been heavily involved and invested in the study and preservation of Lascaux Cave. We were very lucky to have him as a speaker at the museum recently. He elaborated on cave art in general, and Cosquer cave in particular. Earlier in the day, he took a group of art history students from the University of Houston through an exhibit on Lascaux cave, currently at the Museum. He regaled us with stories about his own work at the cave. He patiently addressed recent newspaper reports of “another Lascaux” that allegedly exists near the original Lascaux cave.

What brought him to Texas, though, was rock art — to be more precise, rock art from the Lower Pecos. This art has been studied extensively, among others, by the Archaeological Institute of America, the Rock Art Foundation, SHUMLA and, of course Dr. Clottes and his Texas colleagues.

On Feb. 7 and 8, HMNS organized a trip to the Lower Pecos area to see this wonderful rock art. SHUMLA staff members Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman, and Vicky Munoz led a group of 25 people to see two sites: White Shaman and Painted Shelter.

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HMNS travelers listen to Jeremy Freeman and Vicky Munoz at the White Shaman rock shelter.

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L to R: Vicky Munoz (adjusting her cap), Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman.

Even though we were on the Texas-Mexico border, there was a thin coating of frost on the windows of our van. As the day progressed, however, we enjoyed a beautiful blue sky with plenty of sunlight.

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“Severe winter conditions” in Del Rio, Texas.

Our first stop was Seminole Canyon State Park, located 9 miles west of Comstock on U.S. Hwy. 90, just east of the Pecos River bridge. In North America, this is an area with a long history of human presence. The park’s website informs us that:

“Early man first visited this area 12,000 years ago, a time when now-extinct species of elephant, camel, bison, and horse roamed the landscape. The climate at that time was more moderate than today and supported a more lush vegetation that included pine, juniper, and oak woodlands in the canyons, with luxuriant grasslands on the uplands. These early people developed a hunting culture based upon large mammals, such as the mammoth and bison. No known evidence exists that these first inhabitants produced any rock paintings.”

Over time, climatic conditions changed, and humans had to adapt. Some 7,000 years ago, the landscape looked much like today.

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Landscape looking toward the Pecos River with modern bridge crossing. With the exception of the bridge, this is what early Texans would have seen as well.

There is a reason why archaeologists and art historians are drawn to this area. One can find more than 200 pictograph sites here; they contain rock paintings ranging from single images to caves containing panels of art hundreds of feet long.

This is where we visited the White Shaman site. This is a rock shelter, rather than a cave. It contains a pictographic panel measuring four by eight meters (about 13 by 26 feet). The panel depicts more than 30 anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figures. Some of these are impaled, some are even shown as skeletons. We also saw zoomorphs (animal-shaped figures): red deer, all impaled. Finally, our guides pointed out images that defy interpretation, such as more than 100 dots, occurring all over the panel. A serpent-like figure divides the panel in two. Crenelated lines are present as well.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

This rock art, commonly dated back to the Middle Archaic, about 4,000 years ago, is among the oldest known in North America.

After a delicious barbecue lunch, we went on to visit a second rock art site — this one on private property. After a bumpy ride, we got to see Painted Shelter.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Known since at least 1937, the art here shows human figures (including one with a bow), as well as animals (deer-like figures, a bird, and a catfish).

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This is Painted Shelter, showing representations of deer-like animals as well as two human figures, one of whom is holding a bow.

The Pecos River rock art has been studied for many years. As early as 1849, Captain C. French reported on Indian paintings he saw near the mouth of the Pecos River. In the 1930s, a systematic effort to record and study Pecos Rock Art started. These efforts continued into the 1950s. The construction of Lake Amistad spurred on further research in the 1960s.

The role of museums in the scientific study of ancient Texas, and subsequent dissemination of scholarly knowledge, should not be underestimated here either. In the early 1980s, the Witte Museum in San Antonio brought together archaeologists, paleobotanists, art historians, and anthropologists to investigate the lifestyle of the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region. Rice University started their Pecos Project around the same time, drawing on different fields of study to help decipher Pecos art. By the late 1980s, it was possible to date rock art using AMS technology, an advanced form of radiocarbon dating.

Recently, one person has been in the forefront of Pecos Rock Art research: Dr. Carolyn Boyd. Since her graduate student days in the 1990s, she has spent most of her career exploring and studying rock art. Author of Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, Dr. Boyd is currently working on a new publication. On Feb. 25, she will give a lecture on her latest research at HMNS. For more information, click here.

Until Mar. 23, you can also come see our exhibit Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux. If you are interested in early expressions of art from both the Old and New World, make sure you catch both events.

Tales from Tanzania: Water, bricks & the ingenuity of Tanzanians

The hard work and ingenuity of the Tanzanians never ceases to amaze me. While traveling one day, we passed the man you see in the photo below, and several more like him. When I asked Simon (my driver guide for the day) what was going on, he explained that they were hauling water.

A water pipeline is provided near every major road and you are welcome to connect to it — but if you do, you get a monthly bill. As most people are unable to afford the connection or the monthly bill, they collect water from the public water point in town and haul it to their homes.

DSCN1399A little while later we passed several structures like this one. Can you guess what it is?

DSCN1217Don’t worry, it took me a minute to figure it out too. It’s a brick furnace.

The locals in this area make bricks out of volcanic rock and clay. When the bricks are dry to the touch, they are stacked into a chimney and baked in place for three or four days in a slow, low fire furnace of their own making. When the bricks change to a dark red color, they are ready for use. They are said to be superior to cinder blocks (another favorite building material here) in every way because they have a bit of flexibility to them and won’t crumble in an earthquake.

Kwa heri!

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Tales from Tanzania: Making beer, wedding skirts & attaching to chameleons with the Irwq

DSCN1314See that guy? That is Martin, and today we visited his house. He is one of the chiefs of the Irwq tribe, the second largest group in Tanzania (after the Maasi).

The Irwq (which is nearly impossible for English speakers to pronounce because it requires a guttural sound) are agriculturalists. The traditional Irwq house is built into the ground, due to a slight conflict with the Maasi who believe that all of the cows in the world belong to them. The Maasi would come to the Irwq villages in the middle of the night to “reclaim” their lost cows. To compensate, the Irwq started building their houses into the ground as dugouts so that when the Maasi would look for the Irwq houses, none would be visible.

In 1974, the president of Tanzania said that the Irwq couldn’t build thier houses in this manner any more because it used a lot of trees, and he understood the need for conservation. To stop the conflict between the Maasi and the Irwq, the president declared if the Irwq could prove that their cows had been “reclaimed,” the government would give them 10 cows to replace it. This eliminated any hostilities between the two groups almost immediately.

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Martin (our friend pictured above) is allowed to keep his house because he and his tribe teach traditional crafts and ways to the Irwq people (and a small group of HMNS travellers), somewhat like a museum. He taught us about two very important parts of his culture: beer making and wedding skirts.

The “local beer” is super important and is prepared before any big job, ceremony or wedding. To make it, corn is ground and mixed with yeast and cane sugar or honey. Finger millet is ground and added to this after a few days. It is then boiled and left to sit for two days. On the third day, it’s ready.

After trying the local beer, which I would say has the flavor of applesauce made from diluted vinegar, I think I will stick with Shiner.

The other skill Martin’s wife, Victoria, showed us was how to make a wedding skirt. The skirt is made from dried goat skins. Once the skin has been dried out, a special tool is used to scrape off the hair. The skins are then cut into wedge pieces and sewn into an apron shape, and beading is applied.

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When Victoria asked for volunteers to try the beading, I hopped right up! Sewing is a skill I can get behind. The beading is similar in technique to Native American seed beading and every pattern has a meaning.

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The blue river pattern, Martin explained, is a metaphor for life. The river goes up and down, just as life has ups and downs. In the rounded patterns at the bottom you can see the tree of life, and just above those you can see a gourd shape, which represents a calabash.

The colors have meanings as well. Yellow represents the natural resources and minerals, green for vegetation and black for the African people.

The best part of the visit happened in the last few minutes. Some of the village children were playing in the bushes and found a chameleon. Apparently the kids are taught that chameleons are poisonous (maybe to keep them from bothering them?), and I have heard a couple different versions of folk tales that say if a chameleon bites you, it won’t let go — and the chameleon becomes part of you. So the kids were willing to show us the chameleon, but from the far end of a very long stick.

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We, on the other hand, had no such worries, and you can tell by Dave’s face that he was tickled pink to get to hold it.

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