Hardball among the Hominids
Van Couvering, John, Natural History
Fossil riches in the Horn of Africa have sparked decades of cutthroat competition.
History, they say, is written by the winners. If so, we may have been missing some good books. Jon Kalb's engrossing account of discovery and disappointment in the Afar region of Ethiopia may be one of the best first-person accounts of finding human fossils ever written. In 1971, as a restless and somewhat overmature graduate student in geology, Kalb-galvanized by the fossil-finding successes of well-financed French, American, and Kenyan groups working near the northern tip of Lake Turkana-decided to move his family to Ethiopia and put together his own expedition into the last unexplored segment of the East African Rift System. Alas, once the hominid remains began to turn up, Kalb was the first (but not the only) loser in the appalling academic brawl that ensued, even as Ethiopia was exploding in waves of murderous revolution. Threaded through this vivid story of fieldwork, paleoanthropological politics, and onthe-spot war reportage is Kalb's nervy struggle simply to stay in the game.
In these pages we are backstage for some of the great scenes in human paleontology, a long-running saga of triumphs and jealousies that might have been written by Giuseppe Verdi. Nearly fifty years had passed since Raymond Dart astounded the world with the discovery of the Taung skull in southern Africa, giving anthropologists a new human ancestor to fight over. In the 1970s in South African caves and East African rift valleys, especially Kenya's Turkana basin, discoveries and hard feelings were reaching a crescendo. At first, Kalb and his partner, French geologist Maurice Taieb, had the infernal landscape of Ethiopia's Afar Depression to themselves. It was a jagged wasteland of ovenlike heat, frantic mosquitoes, and unfordable, unsanitary rivers, with a local population that had a history of wiping out exploration parties. Describing how he and Taieb learned to get around in this terrible place (and how they began to find fossil beds wherever they looked), Kalb uses such vivid and compelling imagery that one wishes-- almost-to have joined them there.
Some needed no urging. Not long after news that the Afar had fossil beds dating back millions of years reached the who's who of hominid paleontology that was entrenched around Lake Turkana, Kalb and Taieb were sought out by a young professor, Yves Coppens, representing the French presence in the area, as well as by an ambitious graduate student, Donald C. Johanson from the U.S. team. Louis Leakey, who had been sidelined by illness and politics after organizing the Kenyan contingent, was also eager to know more about the Afar fossils.
When Leakey and his wife, Mary, met Kalb at a congress of prehistorians at Addis Ababa in December 1971, Mary Leakey stressed the importance of Kalb's not trusting anybody when it came to hominid fossils. As it turned out, she couldn't have been more prescient. From that time onward, the action in Kalb's story quickens inexorably as it dawns on everyone that the Afar is the biggest, the most fossiliferous, and (surely) the most newsworthy of all the fabled locales in human evolution. The Afar Depression, however inaccessible a hellhole, appeared to be the one remaiming place on earth that had geological potential for a paleoanthropological bonanza. (As Kalb notes, however, there's always the Sudan.)
Various accounts exist of what happened, but the central facts are the same in all of them: In late 1972 Kalb and Taieb signed an agreement to cooperate with their French and American partners and were jointly awarded a permit by the Ethiopian government's Antiquities Administration to study the geology and paleontology of nearly 13,000 square miles of the Afar's Awash River valley. …