We are now deep into the summer and many CHES faculty and students are in the field and everyone is taking the opportunity to do research. I am not in the field myself this summer but am getting updates by email and on Facebook on how the summer is going. The breadth of work and experiences is quite awesome. Soon we hope to be able to post some of these research and fieldwork updates here! I have also been reminded of my first field experience way back in 1995!
Our education as scientists begins as we read papers and attend lectures on questions of interest. But, in practice, most science is not about the exciting conclusions we report. Instead, most of the time it is a process that is at times tedious, often strange, and always filled with unexpected obstacles and surprises. Going into the field for the first time is exciting and eye-opening and always offers a deeper sense of what is important to the science question driving the work. It is also when we start to learn how to really ‘do’ science. Because science is an imperfect thing done by actual people.
My first experience was in Turkey. Before I left, I told friends and family that we would be looking for Miocene ape fossils of Ankarapithecus. And sure, we knew from prior collecting expeditions that that was a possibility, and that the presence of Ankarapithecus did much to justify the project. But, the real science was about the context of those fossils which could tell us about ape and human evolution. I don’t think I really understood that until I was in the field.
Arriving in Turkey was exciting. The people were great and meeting a team of international collaborators (American, Finnish, and Turkish; faculty and students) sharing common interests was a heady experience. But, before work could begin it was hurry and wait. Permissions need to be finalized, plans tweaked.
And once work began, prospecting for fossils and excavating previously identified sites was exciting, but it also became clear that there was real work involved and that the big scientific pay-off would come from less glamorous activity. While I knew chronology was important (after all evolution is change over time), I did not fully comprehend the centrality of good dating until I saw the field operation involved. Dating would be accomplished using paleomagnetic stratigraphy and faunal correlation. Drilling countless sediment samples for paleomagnetic dating was an extraordinary effort. And those all needed to be mapped. So, finding fossils was exciting but much of the science meant someone had to do the work of the rodman as we surveyed and mapped the area. And that also meant the walkie-talkies needed to work. Faunal correlation is greatly facilitated by finding micromammals. That meant screen washing (run by the incomparable Mary Maas), a source of water, and some very heavy bags of sediment. It also meant a working pump. On the eternally beautiful side, there was afternoon tea with Mehmet and Ayse.
I will always remember an amazing site, Igbek, where the fossils were literally one atop another in an unbelievable jumble and profusion. A very intimate relationship with an Igbek giraffe jaw is seared on my memory! But, as far as substantive science, the real work was with the many specimens already collected. Identifying them, cataloging them. I was lucky that when I expressed an interest in the first occurrences of three-toed horses that my advisor John Kappelman and Mikael Fortelius took me aside and said “Rob, why don’t you stay in (yes leave the giraffe mandible to someone else) and work on a series of sites that record the earliest occurrence of those horses and their increase through time.” Mikael pulled out his binders with loads of preliminary work and kindly shared his observations and preliminary conclusions. I was also lucky to have a partner in crime Kati Hutunen to work with as we identified every single specimen from a chronological sequence of seven sites. A sequence made meaningful only by all of that paleomag work. The work was tedious. There was not the glamour of seeing new fossils emerge or discovering a new site with fossils. But in the end it was work that turned into an MA thesis. As we combined the chronology with the abundance of different species, I also started to see evolution in action! Those three-toed horses diversified into multiple species. Some got bigger. It also became clear that they were specializing on different habitats. It was beyond thrilling to take things I was starting to see to Ray Bernor (fossil horse expert and another great mentor) and hear him say I think you are right.
The amazing thing is that year we did find Ankarapithecus! We were very lucky. It was indeed a thrill to arrive at the end of the day and see “Hominoid at 12! Come celebrate” The critical work with the fauna, chronology, and paleoecology made the find that much more meaningful. I was once told by a geneticist that the “the geneticists ate the anthropologists’ lunch.” My response is that the paleoanthropologist gets to have dessert every once in a while. And when we put the work in, study the context, and overcome all the mundane obstacles that dessert can be very sweet. So here is to many sweet reports from the field!