Finding Fossils Faster; May 2008; Scientific American Magazine; by Fredric Heeren; 2 Page(s)
East Turkana, Kenya--What unnerves Louise Leakey is not so much the banditry on the only supply road or the gun battles among herders who sometimes mistake researchers for their enemies--it's the goats. When a fossil in the Lake Turkana region in northern Kenya makes its way back to the eroding surface after several million years, it's just a matter of time before, as Leakey puts it, "a herd of 200 to 600 goats with those little hooves, four apiece, goes straight over it." To lose this race against time is to lose specimens forever--including remains of our ancestors.
For millions of years, the Turkana basin has collected water and drawn life to it. Sediments have buried animal bones; erupting volcanoes along the Rift Valley have left tuffs with easy-to-date strata. Today the basin affords 1,200 square miles of covetable fossil exposure and 40 years of carefully worked-out geology. The east side contains hominid-bearing traces of the past four million years, where the famed Leakey family of paleoanthropologists has made ancestral-tree-shaking discoveries belonging to the genera Australopithecus, Kenyanthropus and Homo. The west side of the lake offers much older fossils from the Miocene, Oligocene and Cretaceous eras (including dinosaur remains).