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.

Tales from Tanzania: Oh, the things you’ll find in a caldera

On the next leg of our trip, we visited the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

NgorongoroNow, you may ask, “Nicole, your last adventure was in a national park, and this is a conservation area — what’s the difference?” And I’d answer that a conservation area has people living on it, whereas in a national park, no permanent settlements are allowed. The Maasi people live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with their cattle full time. They have been allowed this exception since they do not hunt. According to their traditional customs, they are only allowed to eat cow, goat and sheep so the wild animals in the crater have nothing to fear from them.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is especially interesting, as it contains the largest unbroken caldera in the world. It was created by a volcano, which has now collapsed. Before it collapsed, the volcano would have been much, much higher than Kilimanjaro.

The formation of a caldera

The crater has given rise to a variety of ecosystems due to its geography and sheer size. Moisture is pushed in from the ocean in the east, but it gets caught at the rim of the crater. The outside eastern edge of the crater, therefore, is home to a thick highland forest full of tropical birds. The west side of the crater only gets rain in the rainy season and most of the time looks something like dry west Texas.

Interestingly, the crater is responsible for most of what we have seen and what we will be seeing on this trip. The eastern edge of the crater is so dense that natural springs flow into Lake Manyara rather than the crater, keeping it green and providing a source of water for animals.

Looking to the west, when the volcano erupted 2.5 million years ago, the wind blew the volcanic ash to the Serengeti, which caused hard-packed earth that only the acacia can penetrate.

Later in the evening, we were able to talk to crater naturalist, Yotham, at our hotel. He was very surprised to see several of our pictures (we always knew we were looking at something awesome if one of the driver guides took out a cell phone to take a picture).

In particular, Yotham was surprised to see our shots of the Little Bee Eater, as they usually don’t come into the crater. Instead, they live in the highland forests on the outside western edge.

DSCN1517DSCN1205As we continued to go through our shots, he indicated that we had, in fact, had a very, very good day of observations.

Here are some of the highlights: 

Hyena kill: We arrived right after the wildebeest was taken down. Just out of screen are several other hyenas and 20 or so vultures waiting for their turn at the carcass. The eating hyena kept dragging the carcass away so it could eat without feeling crowded.

DSCN1604Ostrich: So, I learned something new today. When you see a male ostrich with a bright pink neck, it is feeling frisky. A male ostrich with a white or gray neck is not currently interested. Female ostriches are very beautiful but very differently colored than the male ostriches.

DSCN2036DSCN2048Serval: This picture is a bit miraculous. The serval is normally a nocturnal animal, so it was amazing to see it out during the day. AND THEN IT STARTED HUNTING. AND IT WAS AWESOME.

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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: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.

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David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!