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Student Shares Experience in Romania’s Oltet River Valley

University of Arkansas anthropology graduate student Caitlin Yoakum spent part of her summer doing paleo-anthropological research in Romania. Accompanying her advisor, Claire Terhune, assistant professor of anthropology, Yoakum was part of an international team trying to identify evidence of early humans and their environments in Eastern Europe. Below is Yoakum’s account of her experience.

More about Yoakum’s experience and the Oltet River Valley Paleontological Project can be found at Yoakum’s research partner, Ashly Romero, also wrote about her experience in Romania. Romero’s account can be found in the Field Notes section of Research Frontiers, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.


Every fieldwork experience comes with its own set of expectations and trepidations. Is it in a new country? Will I need to learn a new language? What is the daily schedule like? For the forensic work I’ve done previously, the amount of time in the field depended on the amount of crime in an area and the type of homicide committed.

In comparison, the archaeological fieldwork I participated in in Belize as an undergraduate involved 10-hour days of manual labor moving dirt and rocks and a plethora of other objects to and from units or walking 6 to 7 miles a day through the jungle searching for new ruins. These experiences involved working with modern humans in written history, searching for answers to a story that evolves and changes along with the humans in it.

Coming to Romania meant leaving the recent past of living humans (maybe 1,500 years) behind and trading it in for the long ago past – closer to 2 million years ago – of the human species that preceded us.  I understood that excavation would be involved and that we would be extensively surveying our research area in hopes of finding new fossil sites to excavate, but, as always, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the scope of expectations before you really get to the field.

Hiking to the field site.

It took two plane journeys and 25 hours to travel from Dallas, Texas, to Bucharest, Romania. We landed at the airport with all luggage and tools in tow (save for a single aerosol can of fossil adhesive that may or may not have been confiscated by TSA). Throughout the entire journey, my colleague Ashly and I decided against making predictions on what we would see and do in Romania. Instead, we chose to take experiences as they came and to learn as much as possible along the way. All we knew for certain was the schedule of events: five days of lab work at the museum in Bucharest, almost three weeks in the field, and two final days in Bucharest.

Lab Work:

Lab work at home in Arkansas means 3D-scanning models of early human fossil species or making sure our lab’s flesh-eating beetle colony has enough food and water. The lab work I’ve done previously included identifying human remains or sorting through skeletal collections in the lab. I assumed that the lab work in Romania would be a mix of the two (minus the human remains), but it turned into much more of a teaching experience than anything else. Large land mammals have never been a focus in my studies, but I can now identify a rhinoceros tooth. Horses have three large bumps for muscle attachments (called trochanters) on their femur (thigh bone) while humans and most other mammals have two. I’ll also never be able to forget the exact shape of a humerus (upper arm bone) and how it differs among deer, rhinos, and horses. While these lessons don’t necessarily apply to the projects I work on, gaining this type of experience in the field of paleoanthropology will help me excel later in projects that include comparative biology, understanding how animals and humans move, or evaluating how and why animals evolve in the ways they do. Getting to see the fossils with the knowledge of how current related species act, move, and eat was a process that no classroom setting can really fulfill. If nothing else, my penmanship got plenty of practice writing labels for thousands of specimens, and I can now confidently spell “Artiodactyla” (the scientific name for the group that includes deer) at a moment’s notice.

Yoakum taking a break while digging.

Back in the lab.

Field Work:

I love fieldwork. I love driving around and exploring new locations that people haven’t paid attention to for decades. Excavation at recent archaeological sites thrills me, mainly because you never really run out of things to find, but excavation at a paleontological site is completely different. For days you find tiny pieces that might be something, and then you stumble across a mammoth vertebra a meter away from where you’ve been digging. There is a certain amount of insanity that comes with being in a hole or digging into a hillside for eight straight hours with the same four people. We bonded, we argued, we hypothesized, and in the end, we found a solid portion of a mammoth.

Paleoanthropological excavation takes patience, which I sometimes lack, and the ability to withstand the heat of the day, which I also lack. However, the painfully careful excavation of a mammoth vertebra and incredibly hard layers of clay helped hone my excavation skills so that in the future I will know how to confidently approach different unit situations.

My love of survey team started at my first field school as an undergraduate in the jungles of northern Belize. Three colleagues and I stumbled across an ancient Maya city that remained uninhabited for 1,500 years. For days we mapped the site and eventually named it Ix Nabb Witz, officially putting it on the map for future excavations. In Romania, we were looking for much older signs of human habitation and animals that no longer exist, but the thrill was still the same. Every outcrop or landslide we noticed from the road or while hiking was a new opportunity for discovery. We were hoping the land would help us cheat a little, by examining these major landslides, that exposures would uncover bones covered by thousands of years of soil deposits. In the end, most of the sites didn’t yield any fossils. Getting to know my colleagues and being able to see all of our individual strengths and weaknesses allowed me to gain so much respect for their intelligence and for the field of paleoanthropology as a whole. Romania and its people have given me memories and skills that couldn’t be acquired in a classroom, and relationships that will allow me to grow in the field through collaborations and future projects.

About The Author

A former newspaper reporter, Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246, or

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