Olorgesailie is the base of operations of this project, which encompasses the Olorgesailie basin, Nyokie Fossil Site, Lainyamok Fossil Site, and Koora basin. The fossil-bearing sediments of these places are contained in an area of ~612 sq km in the Rift Valley of southern Kenya. Fieldwork, laboratory analyses, and collections care are a collaborative effort of the Smithsonian NMNH Human Origins Program and the Department of Earth Sciences of the National Museums of Kenya. This project has run continuously since the NMNH Human Origins Program was founded in 1985. Led by Dr. Rick Potts, the excavations study how early hominins interacted with the biota and responded to environmental change. This research contributes to understanding the emergence of human adaptations in response to climate and ecological change.
The project’s transdisciplinary research studies archeological remains, fossils, geology, geochronology, and associated paleoenvironmental data for the past 1 million years, providing evidence of human evolution and its ecological context. The field component of this research takes place annually (2-3 months, summer), along with an additional laboratory component most years (2-4 weeks, typically January). In 2020 and 2021, virtual/remote fieldwork took place, which included a risk assessment of ongoing excavation sites. This effort during the pandemic was possible through the skill and care of the local Kenyan field team, with whom Potts has worked over the past four decades.
Among its research findings, the project has (1) uncovered the last known appearance of the human ancestor Homo erectus in Africa (published in Science, 2004); (2) documented earliest evidence for the evolution of H. sapiens behaviors in East Africa (three reports published in Science, 2018); (3) studied the most precisely-dated African environmental record covering the past 1 million years (published in Science Advances, 2020); and (4) discovered a fundamental shift in ecology and mammal fauna that occurred with a major shift in technology and hominin behavior between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago (published in Science, 2018; Science Advances, 2020).
The project integrates the efforts of ten NMNH scientists and Research Associates (R. Potts, A.K. Behrensmeyer, J.B. Clark, B. Pobiner, R. Bernor, A.S. Brooks, J.T. Faith, J. Gingerich, C. Tryon, J. Yellen); five Kenyan research scientists and students; an additional 29 scientists from 26 institutions in 6 countries; and 30 local excavation crew members. Dr. Rahab Kinyanjui represents the NMK (Department of Earth Sciences) as project co-PI.
The project is supported by an MOU with the National Museums of Kenya, which (beginning 1987) established (1) the collaboration between the Smithsonian Human Origins Program and the NMK Department of Earth Sciences; (2) support for NMK staff training and infrastructure; and (3) the facilities for SI Human Origins projects (e.g., collections care; equipment storage). The MOU has supported 5 PhDs for Kenyans; 2 Masters; 20 additional NMK staff training opportunities; professional travel; transfer of collections storage units, among other areas of NMK infrastructure.
In 2009 this project also established a partnership with the Maasai Cultural Heritage Programme, with SORALO (South Rift Association of Landowners) as the key partner, along with the Olorgesailie and Oldonyo Nyokie communities, schools, and landowners who facilitate the research and excavations on their land.