The constant buzzing of flies and sweat bees
Sweating through your clothes
Sharing your lunch with ants
The hot nights
Not finding anything
The sun blazing down
Not taking a shower for days on end
Slathering on greasy sun screen
Living in a tent for weeks
Did I mention the heat and the sun?
There's a certain romantic view of paleontology, mostly engendered by movies, and most of that from confusing what we do with what the archaeologist Indiana Jones does. According to much of the public we travel to beautiful, far-flung locales, find buried treasures at every turn, and come through it all looking dashing and put-together, maybe even having fought some Nazis along the way with our trusty bull-whip.
I was in the field for 6 weeks this summer, and I can tell you that reality is a bit different. The thing is, it's not as glamorous, but it's just as exciting. As with many paleontologists, field work is why I got into paleontology. There is nothing as exhilarating as unearthing something that hasn't seen the light of day for millions of years. And figuring out what it was, what it ate, how it moved around, is like a giant puzzle. But it's not all fun and games...
Field work can be tough, and it certainly isn't for everyone. It starts with the locations. The best fossil localities are often in deserts. Arid environments are good places to find fossils because there is usually less vegetation to cover the sediments. With little plant cover, what little precipitation there is tends to erode away lots of rock to expose the goodies buried within. In addition to being dry, as we all know, deserts also tend to be hot,. I've collected fossils in 5 or 6 different locations, and they've all been arid, and usually hot.
Like I said, I just returned from the field (which I will use as a partial excuse for not posting in a loooooong while). I was working in northwest Kenya, west of Lake Turkana
, in an area known as the Turkana Basin. This area is well-known for being the fossil playground of the famous Leakey
family, and they have made a number of discoveries there relating to human fossil ancestry. The area is dry, and covered in acacia scrub. A colleague of mine joked that, "everything has thorns
, is poisonous, or both". And it is hot - probably over 100oF most days. And we work in that heat, which involves a lot of walking
- usually 3-5 kilometers/day, sometimes more. Sometimes we have to dig in the heat; often we have to change flats in the heat; and since it doesn't get cooler until after sunset, we usually eat every meal in the heat.
And there are no air-conditioned homes to return to. We live in tents while there. Which means I sleep on a foam mattress on the ground for weeks at a time. It's so hot that sleeping bags aren't needed. Water is scarce; we have to fill large (50gal) drums every few days at a local well, and most of that is for drinking and cooking. Showers are a weekly event, as is washing clothes. You learn quickly that hanging clothes on the acacia trees outside your tent for a day in the UV light of the blazing sun actually does a decent job of removing most of the smell. It's alright though, because everyone is in the same boat, so it's not like anyone one person sticks out as particularly smelly in camp.
Amazingly, we aren't the only people around. We actually live in the home of the local residents, the Turkana
. The Turkana are Nilotic people, related to the more famous Maasai of southern Kenya, and they are pastoralists, herding goats, camels, donkeys, and some cattle. Since many of them travel for much of the year following their herds, we are living literally in their homes, and I've woken up to the sound of goats or donkeys making their way through camp. Being among them, and our interactions with them, are some of my favorite parts of working there.
Of course, there are the non-human residents as well. In addition to the annoyances, like flies and sweat bees, there is a huge diversity of living birds, bugs, lizards, and the occasional mammal. Many paleontologists I know are amateur, or better-than-amateur, bird-watchers. Only seems appropriate, since birds are living dinosaurs
. In Kenya I've seen a few hundred species of birds in my travels, including some truly spectacular ones, like hoopoes
, grey crowned cranes
, and hammerkops
The scenery itself, is of course astounding in most of these places. Eroded landscapes, with their terraces of colorful sedimentary rocks, are some of the most awe-inspiring. Too often people associate deserts with death and bleak scenery, but I think that the definition of beauty needs to be expanded. The great American author Wallace Stegner, who wrote extensively about the American West, once said, "You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.". Although not lushly covered with vegetation, deserts in their starkness have a beauty all their own, and some of the most scenic places I've been too, have conveniently been the places I've gone to look for fossils.
So while life in the field for paleontologists is often romanticized, it's usually for the wrong reasons. There is a bit of adventure in it all, but it can be grueling work. The payoff though, scientific, aesthetic, and cultural, make it all worth it. Every sweat-soaked day out there is an experience, and I wouldn't change them for anything in the world.