Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School 2019

Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School 2019 - Field words by Emma Ogden

On the 27th of July 2019 a group of 8 of us gathered at Heathrow airport, field kit in our bags, attractive long-sleeved attire and bug spray packed, and we boarded a plane to Mozambique for the Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo Primate Project field school. We climbed into a minibus with the Mozambican students heading to the field school and on route we practised our very bitty Portuguese and they embarrassed us with their excellent English. We chatted for the 3 hour journey to Gorongosa National Park, which was only partially disrupted by buffalo crossing the road, and arrived at Chitengo, the home of the field school for the following three weeks. We stayed in dorms in the park, surrounded by baboons, vervets, warthogs (and the occasional snakes and lions), immersed in the wild life. In the first week we got up with the sun and had breakfast, then went to either the lab or the new lecture amphitheatre where we were often joined by baboons or vervets (who clearly also had an interest in primate genetics lectures) and we attended a series of classes.

We learnt about genetics, anthropology, the baboons of the park, palaeomagnetism, how to extract DNA from animals in ethical ways, the work done at the park and about hominins and human evolution. Covering such a broad range of areas, and being taught by experts from around the world who are a part of the larger Paleo-Primate project was just amazing. We also had lectures from the PhD students in the park who let us chat to them about their work, accompany them on their projects to experience field world and this was almost as educational as the lectures themselves. Personally, I also did a side project of following vervets and observing their eating habits. We mixed with all the Mozambican students, our Portuguese definitely improved and we learnt quickly the level of friendships which can be developed through communications with limited language. This was one of the most special parts of the trip, and we made some wonderful friends out there who will be changing the face of science, palaeontology and archaeology for Mozambique. We also did practical work, learning how to excavate, preserve fossils and extract baboon DNA from faeces.

Whilst the first half of the group went out to the fossil site, the rest of us did trips out of the camp alongside lectures, including a bicycle ride around the local area, a vegetation survey and safari where we saw crocodiles, waterbuck, impala and elephants. We went to the lion house and did a bone survey on the flood plains, all the time hearing about and seeing the impacts from Cyclone Idai, where remarkably a large proportion of the animals survived the extreme flooding of the park.

My favourite part of the trip, and highlight of any summer I have had, was going to the fossil site for 6 days. We took a safari vehicle, and a raft, to the fossil sites, travelling for about 3 hours. We showed up to some tents in the middle of the national park which had been set up by the first group. The toilet was a hole in the ground, the shower was half a bucket of water, the light at night was the fire we made from wood we gathered each evening, the phone signal was non-existent. We were complete immersed in the nature there which was wonderful, and the stars were just beautiful. The excellent cooks provided our food- and there were snacks of peanut butter and biscuits to power us through the long days! We headed to the fossil site at around 7:30 each day, walking through the trees to the site. We then would excavate, sieve, record or be on the total station at the fossil site. I also helped to plot a GPS map for the area to help with the 3D modelling of the locations of the fossils.  When I found my first fragment of bone in the sieve I was so excited that I took a photo to send to my Mum of me with the biggest smile. Little did I know the incredible fossils, and the volume of them, we would find over the following 6 days.

The excavating was an immeasurable experience. We learnt and accomplished so much and the comradery and teamwork, both at the excavation site and at the camp in the evenings were incredible as we listened to music during long excavation days which ended at sunset, and then all gathered round the fire for the evening. There were tsetse flies around, which resulted in many people being bitten badly, but luckily I was unaffected. However, I was bitten by a spider on my leg which proceeded to swell up and so this provided some nightly entertainment for the group (I would like to apologise to everyone who was forced to look at my horrible blister each evening!). But the stories, singing (performed by people more vocally talented than myself), jokes as well as being part of one of the most successful digs south of the equator in Africa was so much fun.

After returning to camp after the fossil site, and having an incredibly satisfying shower to remove the thick layers of dirt, we were reunited with the other half of the cohort and exchanged stories of our adventures such as who fell over trying to use the toilet at the fossil site, who got a sting stuck in their foot and who saw a snake. We had more lectures on forensic anthropology, animal behaviour and 3D modelling, and Greg Carr, the founder of the project, even invited us to a party he was having at the park.

There were some difficult aspects of the trip. As half of the group went first to the fossil sites so the numbers in the camp shrunk, cabin fever began to settle in which can be difficult to deal with. The food, whilst being great, is almost identical twice a day for 3 weeks which did become both a mental and physical battle and some of us did get upset stomachs at one point or another on the trip (or on the same morning which was surprisingly bonding) but, as we are drinking different water and eating different food to usual, alongside travelling, this was to be expected so everyone was prepared and able to power through. On a personal note, I made it for a record 19 days without cheese, which may have been my greatest achievement of the trip!  

But whilst there can be difficult aspects of being put with a small group in a limited space, we also built these incredible bonds with people from around the world. We covered about 4 years of friendship by living together for 3 weeks, and the communication, support and comradery in the camp between all levels of people on the Project field school made the whole trip so incredible and any rough parts easy to get through. The president of Mozambique was present to sign a peace treaty so we were even present for a moment of history.  The amount of knowledge and life experience I returned with was far beyond what I expected. Plus it is really cool when you bump into someone from the trip in Oxford, and then explain to your other friends that you know them from Mozambique.

So a huge thank you goes out to all the Mozambican students, all the Oxford and PhD students, the Oxford tutors and the experts from around the world, alongside everyone at the park for making it the most worthwhile trip I have ever been part of. And of course, without Susana, the whole thing would not have been possible; words can’t express enough how grateful I am for her and this incredible opportunity she works so hard to provide.

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