|Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the richest archaeological sites in the world... Photograph by Noel Feans, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.|
Under the scorching heat of Tanzania, in the outskirts of the Serengeti National Preserve, a disheveled band of archaeologists crawls on top of one of the richest sites of ancient human fossils and artifacts in the world. It is the Olduvai Gorge, a location so remote that water and food have to be delivered by trucks in a three day journey. As they brush away dirt and pebbles under the indifferent gaze of the Maasai guards scouting for lions and wild animals, bioarchaeologist Ainara Sistiaga runs around the excavation collecting soil samples. She will send these samples to her lab at MIT for analysis, hoping to find invisible chemical trails preserved in the sediments after millions of years. She hopes her work will reveal information about the environment, diet and habits of our ancestors in ways unattainable by traditional archaeology.
Sistiaga is spearheading a new wave of archaeologists and paleontologists using a new array of analytical methods that go beyond collecting and measuring bones and stone artifacts. These techniques are largely based on biomarkers –natural products that can be traced to their biological origin. The new information they are unearthing is challenging long-held notions about our extinct ancestors, including Neanderthals and other human species. They are also providing accurate measurements of the climate, abundance of vegetation and presence of water in prehistoric times in places like Olduvai.
“Archeology has changed from being a very traditional field to something resembling a scene from CSI,” explains archaeologist Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo, director of the Olduvai Paleoanthropological and Paleoecological Project, one of the two active excavation projects in the Olduvai Gorge. “New techniques are allowing us to see things invisible to the naked eye that are revealing aspects of our human ancestors’ behavior we had never imagined.” [...] Boston University News Service