Lothagam was too expansive, too important, and just too beautiful to be limited to a one-day visit or one blog post.
As usual, the students rose with the dawn, the red rocks of Lothagam radiant with scarlet light. Quickly the nets and bedrolls were packed away, boots were laced, sunscreen applied, and we were off down the riverbed on a second excursion into the badland home of mysterious hominds, towering elephants, and far too many hippos.
On this hike, Dr. Feibel led us down the main channel, pointing out the tuffs preserved in between the layers of ancient riverbed. Besides being a great source of geological puns (sometimes it’s tuff to think of one) the sedimentary rocks composed of volcanic ash mixed with clay and sand tuffs form important markers throughout Lothagam that can be used to date the rocks and correlate layers across the entire formation, making the step-by-step evolution of the plants and animals easier to interpret.
Along our route we explored hollowed arches over the riverbed and wandered up to a carved out wall capped by mudstone. The mud sat on the surface 6 million years ago and a giraffe relative walked through and briefly lost his footing. The full story of this embarrassing slip was preserved in footprints above our heads. Because the sand below the mud eroded before the mud, we were left to scrutinize a mud-eye-view of the event, with the hoof prints punching down towards us, the only evidence of the clumsy giraffe that long ago escaped into the Miocene woodland.
Dr. Feibel then took us out of the canyons and back onto the buttes where an expansive, ancient cemetery was burrowed into the Miocene and Pliocene rock. The robust former inhabitants of Lothagam, who may have had cultural connections to Southern Sudan, were buried in a crouched fetal position. Over time, their bones have concreted and are occasionally discovered just sitting on the surface, looking out over what would have been the glistening surface of Holocene high-stand Lake Turkana.
A partial skeleton was discovered by several students prospecting near the site along with chipped stone, pottery, and fishing implements. The hands were wrapped around the lower limbs, but the body had broken in half as it eroded and rolled from its place in the side of a small gully. It was our first encounter with the physical remains of people who no longer call the Turkana Basin home.
After identifying the remains of a few other animals, including hippos and rhinos, we walked from the paleo-shore of Lake Turkana. Psychologically the lake seemed to shrink further and further away as the sun rose and our hike took us out over the desert and through a rocky canyon formed by churning volcanic deposits. The ignimbrite layers that lithified where we walked started their geological journey as massive ash flows that tumbled down the face of an extinct volcano. The flow blasted through everything in its path and scooped up rock and organics along the way.
At the end of this frozen geological violence is a quiet watering hole where Turkana herdsmen bring their stock after a long hike across the barren expanse. As Dr. Feibel described the lengths (and depths) desert herdsmen go to find water for their animals, a goatherd and his animals moved in on the water. As if to illustrate Dr. Feibel’s point, the goatherd excavated a hole in the sand to allow the water hidden in the earth to bubble up for the thirsty goats.
As I took the hint and took a few swigs of my own water, Dr. Feibel did a water check. Everyone was equipped with at least half a liter. “Alright, you have what you need. Get back to camp!” And with that, the walk was dismissed and the field school began a wandering hike across the desert without escort. Fortunately, everyone knew how to use their GPS and compasses and arrived safely back at camp for a lentil lunch washed down with a few liters of water.
Along the way, caves were explored and fossils discovered. Par for the course at Lothagam.
As we loaded back up into the truck for the trip back to TBI, Natalie spoke for us all, “I wish we could have another night out here. Or maybe two more. This place is awesome.”