Tag Archives: Africa

No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

I knew a couple who had spent a lot of time in the Congo in the 1950s. He was doing primatology, and she was the wife of the primatologist. And when she spoke of the Congo or Uganda, where they spent most of the time, she always said “The thing about Africa is that there’s no place to sit down.” Continue reading No place to sit down (or, why do the Efe let some insects live?)

Stories from the field: Jon Kalb’s Newest Book

People who do a lot of field work end up with interesting stories to tell, especially if the fieldwork is diverse and the conditions are adverse. Often, the sort of thing people want to know about is very different from the repertoire of available stories, but as long as the expectations of the audience is not too rigid, experienced fieldworkers in the various sciences that do field work make the best cocktail party extras.

I never met Jon Kalb, but we have a lot of colleagues in common. I first heard of him as one of the scientists on the same expedition that found the famous fossil “Lucy” (and her various friends and families). The whole Ethiopian foray was interesting as stories go. Research in the Afar region as well as down in the Omo basis was linked to numerous interesting stories worthy of a great deal of lecture time in any reasonable course on human evolution, or several pages of descriptive prose in any book on human evolution. And this is entirely aside from the actual discovery of any actual fossils.

I recalled that Kalb was the guy who was accused of being a CIA agent and thus tossed out of the country (Ethiopia) after doing quite a bit of work there. The person who told me that also assured me that it was not true; he was not a CIA agent. But that particular story goes with a lesson: don’t ever let anyone think you are a CIA agent because they’ll toss you out of the damn country.

The reason I’m telling you all this is because Joh Kalb has written a book, perhaps I can fairly call it a memoir if that term has not been broken into a million little pieces by some other author, of his time in the field. The Ethiopian bit is part of the story, but only a small part, as Jon had done quite a bit of work both before and after. Much of the attraction of books on human evolution and other field sciences is the fieldwork stories, and that’s what Jon’s book is all about. There are stories from North America, South America, Africa, from the driest regions of the world to under the sea. The research is all over the map as Jon was himself, with human origins work being only part of it. (Jon is a geologist so he is not bounded by taxon!)

Hunting Tapir During the Great Flood and Other Tales of Exploration and High Adventure is a rollicking adventure very much worth the read.

Kalb is also the author of Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression.

More on Human Evolution

More Book Reviews

In search of the elusive Sungudogo …

…Sungudogo is a little known zoological mystery, an “undiscovered” primate living in the remote and rugged region of the eastern Congo, where the Central African Rain Forest fringes the high walls of the western edge of the Great Rift Valley.

Sometimes called the “fourth African ape,” Sungudogo is not a Gorilla, not a Chimpanzee, not a Bonobo, and possibly not even real.

Years ago, Sungudogo drew the interest of the world famous primatologist Dieter Phillips, who was funded by a secret society of “scholars and gentlemen” to launch an expedition to determine the veracity of this mysterious primate. Dieter never returned from that expedition, and as the years passed, the whole story drifted into obscurity.

But the secret society was always watching, always waiting, for clues pertaining to the fate of this expedition. Eventually, evidence came to light that renewed the secret society’s interest in Sungudogo and prompted them to further investigate the outcome of Phillip’s ill fated trek into the Rain Forest. Who better to follow Dieter Phillip’s tracks than his former student, aided by an explorer and mercenary familiar with the area, assisted by two willing Congolese park guards?

They were to learn things that went beyond their wildest imaginations, and they would discover secrets about expedition, about the rift valley, about themselves, about humanity, that they would never be able to share.

… Until now …

Sungudogo” is a manuscript that chronicles the history of this expedition, as dictated by one of the expedition members, from it’s beginnings in Brussels, then via Nairobi, Kenya, to Goma, Zaire, and from there into the remotest region of the African continent.

The chronicle details the expedition’s encounters with the local culture, the challenges brought on by the rugged environment, and the shocking discoveries made by the intrepid team.

You may have guessed by now that Sungudogo is a novel, originally drafted over a period of 37 hours as part of a fundraising challenge for the Secular Student Alliance, and now heavily revised and rewritten and available for your Kindle. Other formats will be available soon, and I’ll let you know as that happens.

Shades of the Heart of Darkness, reminiscent of an obscure science fiction novel written by a fictional science fiction writer who was an obscure character in other science fiction novels, with a Lovecraftian theme with a strong dose of Indiana Jones, there really aren’t enough allusion-drenched adjectives to describe this novel, which is really a novella. So it won’t take you that long to read.

“… for us lucky few that read it as it flowed out of Greg like a bad case of tropical amoebal infection, we can just say that it’s like the love child of Barbara Kingsolver and Kilgore Trout..”

-Mark Leue, High School Friend of the Author

“Yes, Dear, it was really good.”
-Amanda Laden, the Author’s wife

“… I liked it a lot, it is an interesting adventure into Africa. It is a thriller that will leave you guessing until the very end, and has some unexpected laughs…”

-Sarah Moglia, SSA staff member and the only real person who is in the book

The novel has a web page at The X Blog, HERE.

From Ladysmith to London: A Harrowing Escape

In late November, 1899, a British military unit which included an embedded reporter was ambushed by an Afrikaner unit in what is now Natal Province, South Africa. This was during the Anglo-Boer war, which was to be the largest military adventure to date in the history of the United Kingdom. The British had been traveling in an armored battle train, a kind of tank-train hybrid that was being used in that war mostly with poor results. The train was partly derailed, and the British were under fire, their only hope to make a break for it, or to hunker down and wait for reinforcements which may or may not come. Suddenly and without warning one of the British soldiers threw up a white flag and surrendered. This moment of initiative caused confusion among both the Boer and British which in turn resulted in several Boer and British soldiers exposing themselves to each other’s direct fire. It is one thing to volley bullets back and forth and occasionally hit someone, but standing uncovered several feet apart and heavily armed, the soldiers on both sides collectively decided that taking what was now realized by some to have been a false signal as a valid appeal to surrender was a better choice than a massacre. The British Soldiers and the reporter were all taken prisoner. Over the subsequent month, the reporter was (against the standing rules of the time) mixed in with the soldiers, and they were processed and incarcerated in a facility in Pretoria.

On December 22, the reporter effected an escape which is one of the more remarkable stories I’ve ever read. It forms a chapter in his later writing, which I’ve cut down considerably for you to get the gist of the story. Below I’ll provide a link to the complete manuscript. Continue reading From Ladysmith to London: A Harrowing Escape

Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Left: Efe (Pygmy) man. Right: White guy.
Some of the people who live in the rain forest of Central Africa are known widely as “Pgymies.” That word…Pygmy…is considered problematic for a few different reasons. It refers to a person’s physical appearance, because it means “small.” The word is sometimes used in biology to refer to the smaller species among a group of closely related species, as in “Pygmy Hippopotamus” or “Pygmy Chimp.” In English and probably some other languages, the term is used in a derogatory way to refer to someone who is perceived as not very smart, as in “Pygmy mind.” Sometimes the word is simply used, as it is, as a non-specific derogatory word. Someone might be called a “Pygmy” because by someone who does not like them. Also, more of a distracting complexity than negative meaning, the term “Pygmy” is often misused to refer to a much larger number of different people around the world who happen to be dark skinned and short. We see the term used for the Andaman Islands, in Papaua New Guinea and Australia, for example. These a are some of the reasons the term is considered problematic. Continue reading Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Seven Thousand Year Old African Dairy


Pastoralism is the practice of keeping and herding animals such as cattle, goats and sheep, and using the products they produce, including meat, hide, bone, horn and of course, dairy. In the old days, armchair archaeologists thought that pastoralism would have been a phase of cultural adaptation following hunting and gathering and preceding horticulture (the growing of plant crops). Why did they think that? No really good reason, just a guess. However, over time evidence came along and ideas where altered and minds were changed and now it is generally thought that in Europe and West Asia horticulture cam along about 12,000 years ago and less (depending on where you are) and much later than that, pastoralism started to be practiced.

However, in Africa, things were different in two major ways. First, more so than Europe (though it happened there as well) we find mixed strategies going on side by side in Africa. This is true even today. Not only might we find foragers living near pastoral people living near tourist hotels, but people may move between these culturally and economically distinct lifestyles. N!xau, the actor who played the lead in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” was at the time the first movie was filmed living a forager living among one of the groups studied by anthropologists in the 1960s. I’ve heard that his father worked for pastoral farmers and a hotel, and the actor himself became a farmer after Gods II.

Historically we now think that pastoralism arose in many areas of Africa before horticulture. It is probably more complicated than that. The total number of relevant archaeological sties excavated in the entire region of the Sahara and Sub Saharan Africa (so, let’s not count the upper Nile and the Mediterranean coast because of the intensity of European based work there) is probably far less than the number of sites excavated in Israel, Lebanon Syria, the Sinai, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, yet these countries combined represent a tiny fraction of the land area of Africa. So, don’t be surprised if an agricultural hearth or two turn up in Africa predating the earliest pastoral manifestations. But at the moment, pastoralism is early in Africa and predated Horticulture.

But what about dairy specifically? There is a new study that shows that the use of milk in the Sahara emerges as early as 5,200 BC, which is quite early.

This work uses the occurrence of organic material found in pottery that can be extracted and characterized using gas chromatography-mass spectrommetry (C-MS) and chromotography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spec (CG-C-IRMS). Lipids, which are preserved for very long periods of time, can be characterized using these methods in ways that allow inference about their origins and the way they are processed.

Bottom line: Lipids are found in many pottery sample (a larger proportion than one usually finds) excavated from the Takarkori rock shelter located in the southwest Fezzan, Libyan Sahara. Early pottery has a range of lipids including non-domestic animals. However, lipids indicating the production of dairy products from cattle show up in the samples dated to the “Middle Pastoral” (5200-3800 bc).

From the paper:

Of the 29 animal fat residues selected for GC–C–IRMS analyses, 22 originate from Middle Pastoral levels, 3 from the Late Acacus, 2 from the Early Pastoral and the remaining 2 from the Late Pastoral period … The comparison of the ?13C values of the modern reference animal fats with those of the archaeological pottery residues from the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC) show that 50% of these plot within, or on the edge of, the isotopic ranges for dairy fats, with a further 33% falling within the range for ruminant adipose fats and the remainder corresponding to non-ruminant carcass fats … Notably, the residues originating from earlier periods do not contain dairy fats, and plot in the non-ruminant fat range, probably deriving from wild fauna found locally. The unambiguous conclusion is that the appearance of dairy fats in pottery correlates with the more abundant presence of cattle bones in the cave deposits, suggesting a full pastoral economy as the cattle were intensively exploited for their secondary products.

Our findings provide unequivocal evidence for extensive processing of dairy products in pottery vessels in the Libyan Sahara during the Middle Pastoral period (approximately 5200–3800 BC), confirming that milk played an important part in the diet of these prehistoric pastoral people.

Dunne, Julie, Evershed, Richard, Salque, Melanie, Cramp, Lucy, Bruni, Silvia, Ryan, Kathleen, Biagettti, Stefano, & di Lernia, Savino (2012). First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc Nature, 486, 390-394

Photo of cattle by angies

Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Acupuncture is the ancient East Asian practice of poking people with needles in specific places and in specific ways in order to produce any one of a very wide range of results that could generally be classified as medicinal or health related. I don’t know much about it, but Wikipedia tells us:
Continue reading Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Wildlife of Southern Africa

Wildlife of Southern Africa , by Martin Withers and David Hosking, is new (August 2011) and good. If you are planning a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana or anywhere nearby, or if you live there and like to go to the bush sometimes, consider it.

This is a pocket guide, it is small, has good photographs, is inexpensive, and accurate.

Continue reading Wildlife of Southern Africa

The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)

I remember my first solar eclipse. I was a kid, and it was the one Carlie Simon sang about, in March 1970.

(The eclipse reference is just past three minutes. Some other time we can argue over whether or not Carlie, singing in this video on Martha’s Vineyard, was referring to the March 1970 eclipse or the July 1972 eclipse, but I’m sure it was the former, because that’s the one everybody got all excited about.)

I was such a geek that I actually missed the eclipse because I was busy collecting data. There was a phone number you could call and a lady’s voice would give you the time and temperature. Perfect. I called the number again and again and wrote down the time and temperature and made a graph. And I got results!
Continue reading The Best Eclipse Ever (of the moon and of the sun)

Floods: Don’t go in them.

As an archaeologist, my expertise in the cognate field of geology includes fluvial processes, so I know something about floods. And I’ve experienced plenty of floods working in the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys … now that I think of it, I’ve got quite a few good flood stories. But the most significant experience I’ve had with flooding happened in about a foot of water.

It was in the Congo, at Senga, a location I’ve written about before. Our camp was on one side of a wash right where it entered the Semliki River, and the excavation was on the other side of the wash, but since the digging all occurred during the dry(ish) season, that was never an issue. But when the excavation was over, and almost everyone went home, those of us left behind to do our own non-excavation research projects experienced a number of good rains.
Continue reading Floods: Don’t go in them.