Crocs Uncover

Bizarre Species

martes, 6 de julio de 2010

Middle Awash

Photograph by Tim D. White. Digital reconstruction of Ardipithecus ramidus modeled in resin.

The Evolutionary Road

The Middle Awash area of Ethiopia is the most persistently occupied place on Earth. Members of our lineage have lived, died, and been buried there for almost six million years. Now their bones are eroding out of the ground. Step by step they record how a primitive, small-brained primate evolved to conquer a planet. Where better to learn how we became human?

In the Afar desert of Ethiopia, there are a lot of ways to die. There is disease, of course. One can also perish from wild animal attack, snakebite, falling off a cliff, or in a shoot-out between one of the Afar clans and the Issa people across the Awash River to the east.

But life is fragile all over Africa. What is special here is the occasional durability of the deceased’s remains. The Afar Basin sits smack atop a widening rip in the Earth’s crust. Over time, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the slow accumulation of sediments have conspired to bury bones and then, much later, disgorge them to the surface as fossils. The process is ongoing. In August 2008 a young boy was taken by a crocodile in Yardi Lake, in an area of the Afar known as the Middle Awash. Three months later, Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, stood at the lakeshore near where the child had died. Blanketed by lake sediments, he said, the boy’s bones had a decent chance of becoming fossils someday too. “People have been dying out here for millions of years,” said White. “Occasionally we get lucky and find what’s left .”

The Middle Awash research project, which White co-directs with his Ethiopian colleagues Berhane Asfaw and Giday WoldeGabriel, announced its greatest good fortune last October: the discovery, 15 years earlier, of the skeleton of a member of our family that had died 4.4 million years ago at a place called Aramis, less than 20 miles north of today's Yardi Lake. Belonging to the species Ardipithecus ramidus, the adult female—"Ardi" for short—is more than a million years older than the famous Lucy skeleton and much more informative about one of evolution's holy grails: the nature of the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. In the mediaphilic field of paleoanthropology, it has become almost a reflex to claim that one's new find "overturns all previous notions" of our origins. Tim White despises such hyperbole. But in Ardi's case, it seems to be true.

Sensational as it is, however, Ar. ramidus represents just one moment in our evolutionary journey from an obscure ape to the species that holds in its hands the fate of the planet. There is no single better place on Earth to see how this transformation took place than the Middle Awash. In addition to Aramis, layers there representing 14 other time periods have yielded hominids—members of our exclusive lineage (also called hominins)—from forms even older and more primitive than Ar. ramidus to early incarnations of Homo sapiens.

White had told me that many of these "windows of time" lie in such close proximity that one could literally walk from one to another in the course of a couple of days. He invited me to join the team in the field so they could prove it. Our plan was to begin in the present at Yardi Lake and walk backward through time, peeling away what makes us human, trait by trait, species by species.

Herto: The Ancient Familiar

I rode into the field with two dozen scientists and students and six armed guards. Our caravan of 11 vehicles carried enough food and equipment for six weeks. As we threaded through the highlands, sharply terraced fields of sorghum and corn gave way to misted forests. Th e road was littered with the flotsam of mere history—around a bend the burned hulk of an army armored personnel carrier from the civil war in the 1990s and, farther on, the eroded name “MUSSOLINI” carved in the lintel above a tunnel, a legacy of the Italian occupation of the country in the 1930s.

From the top of the escarpment we switchbacked down a gargantuan staircase formed as the Arabian continental plate pulled away from Africa beginning some 30 to 25 million years ago, dropping the Afar Basin ever deeper into the rain shadow of the highlands. As we descended, the vegetation grew thinner, the sun more intense. A few hundred yards above the basin floor, we pulled over. Below us the western hills in the foreground fell toward a ragged, fault-scarred plain. On the horizon to the southeast, beyond the green ribbon of the Awash River, the highlands seemed to merge with the cone of the young volcano Ayelu. Below Ayelu was a sliver of silver: Yardi Lake.

Two days later we were walking along its shore—White, Asfaw, and WoldeGabriel, along with two longtime members of the project, geologist Bill Hart of Miami University in Ohio and Ahamed Elema, the leader of the Bouri-Modaitu Afar clan. For a while we followed the lake margin, bright dragonflies flitting about our ankles. It was the perfect setting for making fossils, now as in the past. Animals come to eat, to drink, to kill and be killed. Bones get buried, rescued from decomposition. Over eons, water trickles minerals in, organics out. White—58 years old, hard and thin as a jackal—poked with his long-handled ice ax at things newly dead. A catfish skeleton left by a fish eagle beneath an acacia tree. The head of a cow, still wearing a leathery mask of dried flesh. "If you want to become a fossil," he said, "you can't do much better than this."

Our first day's walk would take us east across an uplifted finger of land called the Bouri Peninsula, toward the Afar village of Herto. We emerged from the shade of the lake fringe and crossed some low, gray sand dunes. Soon an Afar boy and girl came with their herd of goats to investigate. The Afar are pastoralists, and except for the addition of firearms, their lives today are not substantially different from the way they were 500 years ago. As we walked in the heat among the gently bleating animals, it was easy to imagine historical time rushing backward with every step.

We approached the grass-covered huts and thornbush stockades of Herto. Asfaw, the affable former director of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, pointed beneath my feet. "Careful where you step," he said. All around me, pieces of a fossil hippo skull were eroding out of the yellowish, pebbly sand. Nearby rested a teardrop-shaped stone tool, roughly five inches end to end. The Afar people do not make stone tools. We had reached our first window into the past.

In November 1997 the team was surveying where we now stood, just a couple hundred yards from the village, when one of its members spotted a fragment of a hominid skull. Its location was marked with a yellow pin flag, and the team fanned out to search for more pieces. Soon yellow flags sprouted like a field of flowers, concentrated in one spot in particular. Embedded in the sand beneath was what turned out to be a remarkably complete human skull.

While other members of the team excavated these finds, WoldeGabriel, a geologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, gathered samples—pieces of obsidian and pumice, some as big as tennis balls. Such rocks, spewed in molten form by volcanic eruptions, are gold to a geologist because they can often be dated. The Herto samples were analyzed by Paul Renne of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and in Bill Hart's lab at Miami University. The results gave an age of 160,000 to 154,000 years for the skull.

The date range was immensely significant. By comparing the DNA of modern people from different regions, geneticists had long argued that the ancestry of all modern people could be traced to a population that lived in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. But there was little fossil evidence from this time period to support the genetic model. Now there was Herto. As the broad, heavy-browed male skull emerged from its matrix of sand, it proved the perfect face for the out of Africa theory. It was a very early modern Homo sapiens—indeed, Tim White argues it is the earliest member of our own species ever found. The most amazing thing about its high, rounded braincase was the sheer size—at 1,450 cubic centimeters in volume, it's larger than that of an average living human. (A second, less complete skull found at the site may be even larger.) But the fossil's long face and a smattering of traits in the back of the skull linked it as well to earlier, more primitive forms of Homo in Africa, including a 600,000-year-old skull from the Middle Awash found by another team in 1976 at a site called Bodo, across the river.

"One thing we know about the Herto people, they had a taste for meat, especially hippos," White said, brushing some sand off a hippo skull. Many of the mammal bones collected from Herto bear cut marks from stone tools. It is impossible to say, however, whether the people were hunting the animals or scavenging the kills of other predators. Beach sands with snail shells revealed they were doing the butchering on the banks of a freshwater lake, like Yardi today. But there is no evidence of fire or other sign of occupation, so where they were living is unknown.

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