I am Tom Otube, an environmental science graduate from Kabarak University. This week we started our Human Evolution module which is taught by Dr. Carrie Mongle and Dr. Louise Leakey.
On the first day, Dr. Mongle took us through the course objectives and an overview of human evolution by providing the historical context of Paleoanthropology and particularly, the fossil evidence from the Turkana Basin. We also learnt about anatomical terminiologies and later on spent the afternoon in the osteology lab familiarizing ourselves with the human skeleton. We started by looking at the cranio-dental and post cranial bones that are often found in the fossil record.
The following morning was spent in class learning about natual selection and reconstructing patterns in human evolution. Dr. Mongle, an expert in phylogenetics and evolutionary systematics lead us through Darwin’s theory of evolution. She introduced us to some of the methods for reconstructing trees e.g. parsimony, maximum likelihood, and Bayesian inference. Cranio-dental characters have been used to infer hominin phylogeny in human evolution.
On Wednesday we started our morning with a lecture on modern apes with a focus on our closest ape relatives, chimpanzees, with whom we share 98% of our DNA. Chimps have been evolving for the same amount of time since our divergence from the last shared common ancestor in the late Miocene (5-7 Ma). Understanding functional morphology of modern apes and particularly locomotion strategies enables us to make inferences about the fossil record. This is also useful in understanding the transition to bipedalism in our hominin lineage.
We also had a guest lecture from Cyprian Nyete, the Field Manager of the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP), which is led by Dr. Meave and Louise Leakey. “Never ignore a fossil while in the field” was Nyete’s best quote as he introduced us to the South Turkwel Pliocene site which dates to 3.5 Ma. The site is rich in fauna and it has yielded both hominin mandible fragments and post cranial fragments that could help fill some gaps in the fossil record.
On Thursday, we visited the South Turkwel site which is located just near the TBI-Turkwel campus. Dr. Louise Leakey and Nyete guided us as we hill crawled and sieved and screened for fossils. Upon returning from the field, we had a lecture on the earliest hominins focusing on the evidence from Africa and in the late Miocene after the disappearance of European Miocene apes. Skeletal evidence from modern apes and humans has been used to infer possible expectations of the earliest hominins body plan. For example, with bipedalism, the foramen magnum is placed more anteriorly. The day ended with a birthday celebration for one of our classmates, Flor Perez.
Friday was an easy day for the group in the field as the morning hours of the day were overcast. We visited one of the hominin localities where did some prospecting and hill crawling for fossils. A distal phalanx of a hippo was recovered by our birthday girl, Flor, perhaps it was natures present to her. In the afternoon, we had an in-class session by Dr. Louise Leakey, who took us through the history of the Paleoanthropological Research in East Africa, from inception by her grandparents Dr. Louis Leakey and Dr. Mary Leakey. She also gave us a brief history of her fathers’ work, Dr. Richard Leakey in the Turkana Basin, and how she came about to lead the KFRP. One of the interesting finds in human evolution have been found in the Turkana Basin include: an almost complete skeleton of Homo ergaster dated to 1.6 Ma, Kenyanthropus platyops, Paranthropus aethiopicus, Paranthropus boisei, Homo rudolfensis, Australopithecus anamensis.
The week ended with osteology lab quiz on Saturday and a dip in lake Turkana “Jade sea.” It was a fun day playing volleyball in the lake. Fun part we all survived this week from the Turkana’s scorching sun.