Chasing Ancient Footsteps in Tanzania
Sometimes the best classroom is far from the university’s halls. That is the philosophy of Peter Ungar and Steven Beaupre as they teach Tanzania: Ecology, Evolution & Peoples of East Africa this summer.
Ungar, chair of the Department of Anthropology, and Beaupre, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, built a study abroad program that focuses on the ecology, organic evolution and human evolution that uses the East African Rift System as the classroom.
They are in Tanzania today, showing students fossils in the Oduvai Gorge, where remains of the earliest humans were found by Louis and Mary Leakey in the last century. Earlier in the trip, they met the Hadza — the last hunter-gatherers in Africa and the center of Ungar’s National Science Foundation-funded research — around the shores of Lake Eyasi. And they are currently studying biological diversity by walking in the footsteps of Jane Goodall to see the chimpanzees at Gombe she studied in the wild.
Peter Ungar explained the importance of expeditionary classrooms and this experience via email today from Tanzania:
“What lessons do you hope your students get from the experience” can be applied equally to Gombe as Olduvai.
When you see those bones and stone tools eroding out of the deposits, it is impossible not to contemplate our place in Nature. It hits you like a brick wall. We are all a part of Nature, not apart from it. We have evolved on this planet, just like all other living things. It is a profound realization — one you can understand intellectually sitting in class in Fayetteville. But seeing and touching the fossils and stone tools themselves, descending through the gorge, back 10,000 years with each step — you can never get that feeling in a classroom.
And Gombe — there is no experience that comes close to looking a wild
chimpanzee in the eye. It is at the same time awe inspiring and deeply disturbing — these are our closest living relatives, and we share more than 98% of our genetic code with them. When you look in the eye of a dog or cat, you don’t get the feeling that there is someone home in there looking back at you — but that’s exactly what it’s like with a chimpanzee. They are so much like us, but more importantly, we are so much like them. It gives us humans a new perspective on ourselves. Nothing is more humbling.
I want our students to think, and I want them to understand that we are all children of Africa — that we evolved on this continent, like so many other living things, as the result of our restless Earth and its never-ending journey around the Sun. I want them to see it, to feel it, to taste it. I want them to come away with an appreciation for their place in Nature, just as Darwin did from traveling the world In his eloquent words, “There is grandure in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful ad most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
And yes, that includes us.