The key to the human brain may be a sharpened stone dug up in the vast Ethiopian wilderness. Some anthropologists believe stone tool use may have stimulated the brain to become bigger and more powerful. Dr. Michael Rogers of the Department of Anthropology at SCSU specializes in early tool use. “The use of stone tools goes hand in hand with the human brain… Tool use is one of the things that make humans special, though other animals use them too. There is debate about which came first—larger brains or tool use—and what spurred the other,” explained Dr. Rogers. “It’s a big mystery. We don’t have a lot to go on as evidence.”
As part of his work, Dr. Rogers does considerable field research in Africa. At one site in Gona, Ethiopia, he found the oldest ever evidence of chipped stone tools combined with fossil animal remains. The site dates to 2.6 million years ago. “It’s the earliest place you find stones and bones together,” he explained.
The Gona study area is hundreds of square kilometers and there are still plenty of places to investigate. Dr. Rogers regularly brings students to do fieldwork there for six-week sessions. “I enjoy seeing the reaction among the students once they are part of this. It can be a life changing and mind blowing experience. I’ve had a student who’s never been to New York City going to Ethiopia. You are exposed to a completely different world. It’s a poor part of the world and then you’re going to the field and working among the Afar people who live a traditional life.”
Students agree that the experience is unforgettable. “Finding something makes you feel exalted. For me, I’m really interested in fossils so when I find one I get really excited. And then I get really careful,” said former SCSU student Amanda Leiss. Leiss studied archaeology at SCSU and is now getting her PhD in biological anthropology from Yale. She has been to Gona and will again next year. “The research is very important in understanding where we come from. I’m very proud to be a member of the research team and I look forward to contributing to our knowledge of our pre-human ancestors. Everything we find there is really important and I can’t stress enough how great it is to have this hidden gem at Southern.”
Leiss was not the only student who benefited greatly from the experience. “It really gave me a confidence in myself that I could work as an archaeologist at a professional level,” said SCSU student Travis Rohrer. “Also, Dr. Rogers was gracious enough to allow me the use of some of the Gona material for a research project, for which I was awarded a student achievement grant by Southern.” Mr. Rohrer is currently applying to graduate school for archaeology and will return to Gona to conduct additional fieldwork in 2015.
The Gona site is remote. The research team must camp in the wilderness and then drive up dried riverbeds to get to active sites. As the team is so isolated, they must be self-sufficient and plan for whatever complications may be thrown their way. “Logistics is 90% of what we do. Which land cruiser is broken down today? How are we going to get water if the pick-up breaks down? But that’s part of the adventure,” said Dr. Rogers. Adventure is often the name of the game, as Ms. Leiss related: “We were driving up a dried riverbed and there was a herd of someone’s camels. One of them broke free from the group and raced beside us [in the land cruiser].”
Fieldwork is difficult. The weather is scorching hot. Quarters are cramped. After working in dirt all day showers are sorely needed and hard to come by. “Showers make you feel like a queen,” explained Ms. Leiss. Yet the importance of the work makes up for the lack of creature comforts. Mr. Rohrer advises Southern students interested in working at the Gona site to “make the most of your time in Ethiopia. Meet as many new people as you can and try as many new foods as you can. Finally, bring a good camera.”
Even after doing this for almost a quarter century, Dr. Rogers still feels a thrill when he finds something. “We’re still making big discoveries [at Gona] that will eventually get into big journals. But even the ‘humdrum’ discoveries or just finding an artifact, which happens all the time, even that is still exciting to me. You are still uncovering something that hasn’t seen the light of day in one or two million years and you are the first person to see it.”