Thursday, August 6, 2015

The EAAPP conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

I've spent the last few days at the EAAPP conference at the National Museum and House of Culture in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which has been great. It's the 10th year that the association has been in existence, and the 5th biennial conference. I serve as the Secretary of the organization and I help organize the conference every year.

Since one of the aims of the organization is to bring African and non-African scholars together to exchange research findings and to have discussions about cultural heritage management and other museum-related issues, I am especially excited that there are about twice as many talks with African first authors as non-African first authors. There are also many young African students and scholars here. The conference was covered by a local TV channel, and many of us were surprised to see ourselves on Tanzanian TV two nights ago!

Another thing I like about this conference is that like my all-time favorite annual conference, the Paleoanthropology Society, this is a small conference where there is only a single session going on at once. Everyone watches the talks together, and there is usually time for questions as well as conversations among the conference attendees during the tea breaks and lunch. I had a great conversation yesterday with a long-time friend, Jason, who just happens to be on the team that discovered the oldest stone tools in the world (led by his wife and my friend Sonia), in Kenya, which made the cover of Nature magazine a few months ago.

I've known Jason since 2002 when he was a student on the summer field school that I used to teach on in northern Kenya while I was a graduate student. Actually, his wife Sonia leads the team (go young female researchers leading major field projects!), and we're long-time friends too, having met around then when we were both collecting our dissertation data at the National Museums of Kenya. My husband and I went to their wedding, stayed at Sonia's flat in Paris, and they've stayed at our house. Yeah, it's a small paleoanthropological world, and they're such good people. :)

The conversation I had was over casts of those oldest stone tools, which Jason brought with him to show the conference attendees. It was pretty exciting to get to hold those casts!

Many of the other people enjoyed holding and talking about these tools. While people were at the table where the tools were I was sitting next to a graduate student from GWU, Katie, who studies stone tools, and watching her interpret the behavior of the early humans who made the tools by looking at the way the tools were broken (flaked) was really cool. I think she should put "Paleolithic mind reader" on her business card, because that's pretty much what she was doing.

During Jason's presentation at the conference, on behalf of the team, which included information and photos from their most recent field season which they finished about a week ago, he joked that "if anyone wants to see the geological context for themselves, we invite you to come pickaxe through the 3 meters of sediment that overlies the archaeological horizon... because we could sure use the help!".

There's been a thread of conversations about a paradigm shift our field has been going through. For quite a while, stone tool making and using - a key behavioral innovation - as well as meat-eating has been tied with the origin of our genus (Homo), going back about 2.5 million years. This year, that paradigm has essentially been broken. Fossils of our genus have been found dating back to 2.8 million years were announced, and the oldest stone tools I mentioned previously now date to 3.3 million years ago. In 2010, 3.4 million year old animal fossils with butchery marks were published, and despite some criticism, the evidence looks pretty good to me. Now we can ask some really interesting questions: were stone tools made and used by our earlier ancestors, the australopithecines? What were they doing with the tools (besides cutting up animals to eat their meat) - were they using them to break open nuts like chimpanzees do, or to process plants? How important and frequent were these behaviors in the past? Why does it seem to appear ephemerally, and then is not seen again for 800,000 years? Is this an artifact (pun intended) of the geological record; are sediments of these ages not preserved? Have people just not been looking for stone tools and butchered bones in these sediments? In the case of the oldest stone tools, they look different than what has been known as the previously known earliest stone tools; did people simply not know what to look for? Paging the graduate students - these new discoveries lead to new research questions and there's lots of work to be done!

And by the way, these three research teams are ALL led by relatively young scholars - at least the first authors of the publications were all young scholars, at around my career stage. (Hm, now that I'm 40, am I still young?) Who are keen to have conversations with each other and often to collaborate.

Today I gave the final presentation at the conference - not on my scientific research, but about an education and outreach effort we did last summer: showcasing Kenya's prehistory (and my boss's ~30 year partnership with the National Museums of Kenya; I have "only" been doing research in Kenya for 18 years) on the US National Mall during the Smithsonian's 2014 Folklife Festival.

We had a tour of the new museum storage facilities after lunch today. Here's a picture of my Tanzanian friend and colleague Jackson Njau -  whom I shared an adviser, field site, and even a house my first year of grad school -  talking about the collections. Behind him is Agness, the paleontology collections manager. Jackson is now a faculty member at Indiana University, runs his own research projects in Tanzania, and helped with funding and advice when the museum was ready to update their collections storage facilities.

I think the biggest thrill for all of us, though, was getting to go into the "strong room" where the original early human fossils are kept. Tanzania has a wealth of early human fossil material, including the type specimens (the first fossils a species is named from) of Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis from the famous site of Olduvai Gorge - where I did part of my dissertation research. Not on the early human fossils, though, on the fossil bones of animals the early humans ate. Here Amandus, one of the collections staff at the museum, is showing us these fossils.

This skull is OH5, the type specimen of Paranthropus boisei.

Here's me, feeling pretty excited about being in a room with so many famous fossils!

The other great thing we got to see was Tanzanian fossils in Tanzania. Why is that great, you ask? Well, Mary and Louis Leakey excavated thousands of fossils from Olduvai Gorge starting in the 1930s (and continuing for several decades), but brought them all to Kenya - to the National Museums of Nairobi, where they were based. It wasn't until 2012 that these fossils were repatriated to Tanzania. Having the fossils back at the National Museum of Tanzania, well-curated, is a real source of pride for the Tanzanians.

The last part of the conference was a discussion about development of prehistoric resources and capacity building and opportunities and obstacles for junior African scholars, which was very stimulating. We talked about what our association can do towards these efforts. I always come away from these conferences with many new research ideas, which I am jotting down in my notebook. I saw several long-time friends and colleagues, which is always fun, but also met several African students and scholars with whom I intend to communicate, interact, and even conduct research. It's invigorating! Though tiring; we always end up dancing the night away to African rhythms on the second night of the conference which is a conference dinner at a good local restaurant.

Tomorrow I fly to Arusha (Tanzania), where I hunker down, tidy up some work loose ends, and then I start my Kilimanjaro climb on Saturday morning!

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