Discovering the Past through Fossils in Kanapoi

Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, reports from Kenya below. He and Luke Delezene, assistant professor of anthropology, are part of an international team working to identify fossils from Kanapoi with Mike Plavcan, professor of anthropology and co-director of excavations at the site. Plavcan, co-director of the West Turkana Paleo Project, is the primary investigator on the National Science Foundation grant funding the research at Kanapoi in the West Turkana region of Kenya with Fredrick Kyalo Manthi of the Kenya National Museums. This is Plavcan’s fourth expedition to the site and has been co-director of the project in two other expeditions in the Northern Region of West Turkana. 

From Peter Ungar:

I’m here with Luke Delezene and Mike Plavcan.  Mike is the co-director of the Kanapoi Field Paleontology Project and professor of Anthropology here at U of A.  Kanapoi is a 4-million-year-old fossil site on the western shore of Lake Turkana, in the north of Kenya.  Mike and his team have been excavating there for years, and have found numerous early hominins of the species Australopithecus anamensis (a human ancestor or near cousin).

Luke Delezene, assistant professor of Anthropology, studying a 4-million-year-old fossil of a hog jaw discovered at the human ancestor site of Kanapoi in Kenya.

Luke Delezene, assistant professor of Anthropology, studying a 4-million-year-old fossil of a hog jaw discovered at Kanapoi in Kenya.

I’m here as a co-PI on an NSF grant to try to understand the ecological backdrop of the site and, in principle, the environments in which our ancestors lived and evolved at the time.  We’re making high-resolution replicas of the teeth of antelope and rodents found in the same layers as the hominins. The idea is to reconstruct diet from a study of the microscopic wear of these teeth because rodent and antelope diets can tell you something about their habitats (e.g., you typically eat grass on the savanna but leaves, stems or fruit in the forest).    Luke “dropped by” from South Africa (a quick four hour flight from Johannesburg), where he’s spending his summer on other research, to give me a hand with the tooth replication and to get set up for some of his own research later.

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