A month with the Paleo Primate Project: 28.07.17 to 25.08.17

This summer, following the completion of my first year as an undergraduate in Human Sciences, I joined the Paleo Primate Project’s team of researchers on their second field season in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. This fantastic experience came about thanks to the enthusiasm of my Professor in human evolution, Susana Carvalho, the mastermind behind this unique multidisciplinary enterprise, who offered her students the opportunity to join her and her team to see for themselves, first-hand, the kind of research that forms the basis of some of the academic literature we’d digested throughout term-time. To Susana and everyone else who joined us, senior researchers, students and the park staff alike, I extend a feeling of extreme gratitude and privilege for the opportunity to have spent a month in your company, learning from and with you in such a dazzling environment. In this report I hope to reflect on some of my experiences, as a reminder to my future self and anyone who cares to read it, of my time spent in Gorongosa.

Gorongosa National Park is located in rural Sofala, central Mozambique, and has recently been described by the influential biologist, E. O. Wilson, as one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Several features of Gorongosa’s situation, geographically and ecologically, make it a promising site of scientific interest that, thanks to the continuing investment and efforts of Greg Carr and the Gorongosa Restoration Project, has only recently became ripe for exploration by scientists of various specialties. The Paleo Primate Project takes a broad multidisciplinary approach to the scientific potential of the park, uniting researchers from various disciplines that together aim to shed light on the nature of human and primate evolution, amongst other things. The project can be roughly divided into two halves. On the one hand is the study of the primates that live in the park, under the investigation of behavioural ecologists and geneticists aiming to better understand these primate’s adaptation to and evolution within the Gorongosa ecosystem. On the other, is a diversity of disciplines utilising a variety of methods to understand the evolution of the park’s fauna and flora across the preceding millennia, comprised of a vast multidisciplinary team of specialists including paleoanthropologists, geologists, archaeologists, paleoecologists, and speleologists who together are piecing together a holistic reconstruction of the park’s past. These two approaches, primatology and palaeontology, together form the basis of the Paleo Primate Project, which aims, at a higher level of abstraction, to augment our understanding of human evolution, whether it be through an enhanced understanding of analogous processes in Gorongosa’s baboon population or through one day contributing directly to the hominin fossil record itself.

And so it is within this academic context that I spent a month in Gorongosa National Park, partaking in the research that was being carried out and experiencing firsthand the travails of primatological fieldwork, geological surveying and archaeological excavation. In addition to this, the park proved a rich spring of inspiration for the budding mind of a Human Scientist, extending beyond the confines of the Paleo Primate Project team’s research - particularly with regards to the park’s institutional relation with local people, their culture and the park’s role in employment, health and education, after all, the Gorongosa Restoration Project is one of sustainable development, aiming to alleviate poverty and disease from the region through the promotion of conservation and ecotourism. There is much that could be said regarding the multifarious relations and interactions between people in this extraordinary place, but I will focus first of all on my involvement with the Paleo Primate Project, before briefly discussing these aspects at the end of this report.

I spent over four weeks in Gorongosa, this is equivalent to half a term at the University of Oxford - crammed full with lectures and tutorials to attend, books and articles to read, essays to write. The contrast between these two sides of academia is stark, and this wider view of the academic enterprise has been an invigorating exposition to a career path I might like to one day follow. Moreover, as a student in both environments, beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford in one and the thorny acacias of Gorongosa in the other, the different ways of learning both complement and contrast one another, whilst the challenges inherent in both ways differ substantially, as do the potential hazards - there may be some heavy books on high shelves in Oxford’s libraries, but this really does not compare to the daily threat of Elephants out in the bush, aggressive and unable to forget their war-torn past. The experience of learning through participation and observation in fieldwork is one that is much harder to document. It doesn’t necessarily come complete with facts and figures - it is instead lived and embodied, it gets into your memory and muscles, there is no list of references to accompany it for later recall, but instead a far more emotive series of images etched into one’s mind, grafted vividly into a greater set of associations that eventually connects them to the content of lectures and books absorbed at different times - past and present. I anticipate that the research on baboon behavior I was a part of will become a very useful pedagogic tool when it comes to the module on behavioural ecology that awaits me this academic year - adding life to the words of lecturers and authors. The challenges of fieldwork are a learning experience in themselves, not only can the work be physically tiring, but the social and institutional context can prove tricky or tiring to negotiate, as can the sorts of environment one has to work in. The experience can certainly be said to be a test of character, with patience, tolerance, attention, flexibility and communication skills all being traits that must be exercised on a daily basis for a smooth season.

 

BABOONS

As already stated, the ecological context of Gorongosa’s baboon population provides many opportunities for their study. These could be described threefold, firstly, the baboons that live within the park occupy a diversity of habitats in the mosaic landscape of Gorongosa; secondly, the history of civil war within the park has led to a large reduction in the number of large mammals, including keystone species such as lions and leopards, with the restoration of the park arises an opportunity for the long term study of changes in the baboon’s behaviour in responses to, for example, differing predation pressure, and thirdly, in addition to the diversity of habitats inhabited, this mosaic landscape is considered similar to one in which human ancestors inhabited during critical junctures in their evolution, as such the ecological pressures that these baboons experience and their adaptations might provide an insightful model to better understand the possible evolution of our own species’ lineage. The population of baboons in the park can help us to understand evolutionary processes in other ways. As Felipe, one of the team’s geneticists and biological anthropologists, explains well, the baboons here occupy a rather ambiguous taxonomic status, whilst previously described as belonging to the species Papio ursinus, the chacma baboon, certain features of this population’s appearance, particularly the yellow tone of their coat, leads them to resemble the northerly distributed Papio cynocephalus, the yellow baboon. Based on previous mtDNA analysis, it remains open the exact relationality of these baboons to populations elsewhere in Africa, and they present an opportunity to study processes of hybridization.

Mine and other students’ involvement in the primatological aspects of the project focused principally on collecting data corresponding to the baboons’ behaviour, which meant our observing and oftentimes following baboons, which we did across three settings - the floodplain, the woodland north of Chitengo and around Chitengo itself (Chitengo being the park lodge where we were based). At the start of the field season, following an afternoon of data collection via ad libitum sampling, we devised an ethogram of common behaviours that would be used to record data via a scan sampling method thereafter - allowing us to systematically record the baboon’s behaviour by noting the number of individuals displaying each behaviour at regular 15 minute intervals. The ethogram was revised across the month as we became more familiar with the kinds of behaviour that we most frequently observed. Our method was not only confined to this type of data but was also accompanied by photograph, video recordings and location data that could be referred to for various purposes in the future.

Our first experience as primatologists-in-the-making involved two days of observing baboons ranging across the floodplain, a giant area shared by thousands of individual animals. On the south western periphery of the floodplain sits a dilapidated building built during the park’s colonial period - the lion house - where once tourists could observe the diverse fauna of the floodplain, but which later succumbed to the forces of time, flooding and conflict, becoming instead a popular site for lions themselves to rest. The roof of the lion house now found another role as the vantage point for scientists, where we erected a canvas tent to protect us from the sun and constructed a rope side rail to prevent any of us from inadvertently wandering off its edges. From this viewpoint we used high magnification scopes, cameras and binoculars to track baboon troops as they moved across the floodplain.

The task itself was simple enough, though the heat of the day, glare from the sun and the scale of the floodplain added a challenging aspect to our data collection. Despite the magnification of our equipment, there were times when an animal’s status as baboon or not-baboon could remain ambiguous. It was not unusual that we would have to do a double take when a distant baboon would remanifest as the backside of a waterbuck. In other cases, being certain of the behaviour observed was also far from assured. At other times, when large groups of baboons were visible, counting could become confusing - an error that was reduced by working in pairs, one scanning and dictating their observations to another, who would record the count on the ethogram as it was made, allowing one continuous uninterrupted observation through the scope. In spite of these challenges, our distant location atop the lion house avoided many of the problems we would encounter working on foot. These baboons were, one could reasonably assume, more-or-less unaware of our presence, and as such the data collected was a better reflection of their behaviour in the wild - something that cannot be said of our observing them in close proximity. What’s more, the sparseness of the floodplain meant that entire groups of baboons could be observed at once (provided that they weren’t obscured by the long grasses that littered the plain) and we could get a considerably better idea of the group’s demographics, a problem that would constantly plague us when working in the woodlands.

Having spent only a couple of days above the lion house the data we collected was limited, and unlike last year there were no ‘exceptional’ observations (referring here to the predation event that was witnessed in the former field season). Resting, feeding, moving and grooming were by far the most common behaviours seen, in fact I do not recall witnessing anything but. The only behaviour that raised our attention was the sight of a single adult male baboon travelling across the floodplain north westwards from the group in south that myself and Kuba, my brother in the field, had been watching - something which went unexplained, though we hypothesized he might be on the search for a new group. The exact demographics of the group we had been watching was likely greater than the 40 counted in a single scan. Elsewhere on the floodplain, during our initial familiarisation of the landscape with Marc Stalmans we encountered groups the size of which exceeded a hundred or more individuals - we would encounter groups this size again in open spaces whilst driving around the park. In the woodlands meanwhile, the groups, though rare it was to have the opportunity to make an exact count, relying instead on estimates, seemed rarely to exceed 40 individuals. This pattern in the size of groups - larger in open spaces, smaller in more sheltered spaces could reflect adaptive facets of baboons behaviour in these different habitats, but whether or not these smaller groups were rather just smaller units of much larger ones remains to be seen.

The bulk of time I spent involved on the primatological aspects of the field season I did so on foot, following and observing baboons in the woodlands north of Chitengo. The setting reminded me of days I would walk my dog in the forest north of my own home in Peterborough, albeit with the added sense of alertness that comes with the hazard of inadvertently bumping into big (and small) dangerous animals: I remember thinking how badly behaved my dog is, and how glad I was that he wasn’t there, for his safety and mine. The days spent ‘babooning’ (as it soon came to be referred to) would start early - the limited availability of rangers meant that we had to be on the ball, and as such these mornings would typically begin before sunrise, when the air was still cold and sometimes dewy from the night before. Due to the limited number of rangers in the park set aside for accompanying scientists on their errands they were in constant high demand, and we had to ensure we were there on time so as not to miss the opportunity. After a quick breakfast we would hop onto the back of the jeeps with our ranger, all decorated with cameras, binoculars, radios, GPS, sunhat, clipboards and bags amply filled with food, medical supplies and plenty of water. From there we would exit the park lodge, and head north along the picadas, standing alert, eyes-peeled for a baboon or two, in the hope they wouldn’t be alone - once we’d spotted baboons the car would stop, we would then jump out, strap on our gators, and the fieldwork proper would begin.

On any day we would divide into two small groups - in one was Dora, Philippa and Laura, focusing on one area, always the first out of the car (“good luck - hope the baboons are nice today!”), in the next was Felipe, Isabelle and myself - though we were usually accompanied by someone else. The length of the day would typically range depending on our success finding and following baboons. In the field the techniques used to record the baboon behaviour were the same as from on top of the lion house - using ethograms, film and photography, but with the addition of monitoring our and their movement with GPS. Working with Felipe, the geneticist in the field, also added another dimension to the fieldwork - namely, the collection of faeces samples (or ‘poo’ as we were quite accustomed to calling it, safe from the formalities of academic writing!). Whenever a group of baboons would move along, we would swiftly move in and scan the floor for fresh droppings - good practice for the scans that I would later do during the archaeological part of the trip. Every sample was collected using a sterile technique, flagged on the GPS, and would eventually go on for analysis to better explain the genetic diversity of baboons from different parts of the park and their relation to baboons elsewhere in Africa.

The challenges of recording data in baboon behaviour were vast, and in many ways limiting. Prior to our time spent following these baboons the only other similar encounter they’d had (that is, being followed around by Homo sapiens all day) was the previous year. These baboons were unhabituated, visibly conscious, alert and anxious of our presence. They would bark at us and show their apprehension with guarding displays - erratic movements, the shaking of branches, self-scratching. Oftentimes they would simply get up and go, and in such instances the day could become a chase, stressful for them and exhausting for us. Sometimes we would try to be strategic, to anticipate where they would go next and position ourselves somewhere discrete such that we might observe them from a distance without our being seen: these strategies were, for the most part, unsuccessful.

In light of all this, the data we did collect was clearly biased by our presence and inasmuch not representative of their behaviour in a ‘relaxed’ state and certainly not yet ready to be interpreted in terms of a typical baboon’s activity budget. Nevertheless, these limitations are to be expected when studying wildlife as its found, and it certainly does not exclude the use of the data for other means - this is far from claiming that the time spent was time spent badly. For one thing, the data does provide a reflection of the baboons we followed behaviour in that time and space, and if, as others will in the future, a more extensive time period were spent following the same group one would expect to see the habituation of the baboons reflected over time as their behaviour, as recorded on the ethogram, changed. Moreover, the geographical data we collected further allows for a systematic study of how baboon’s behaviour changes, within human presence, depending on their location and the environment they are in: for instance, how their reactive behaviour might differ in sparser compared to more dense woodland. Finally, though the behaviour clearly reflected our presence, it is not to say that it would not change in relation to other factors. We had hoped that our time in Gorongosa would coincide with the release of leopards into the park, and in principle a change in behaviour might still be statistically recognisable under such instances. Unfortunately the leopards never were released, but in the future the possibility to study such effects of this pressure on baboons’ behavioural adaptations remain open.

Another issue we faced concerned assessing the demographics of the groups we were following, and the accurate identification of individuals such that we could, from one day to the next, ascertain whether the group we were following were the same or not. Within the wooded areas where we were working the visibility was often low. We heard the baboons more often than we saw them, and when we did see them it would often seem like they were the tip of a much bigger baboon iceberg. At times we might visually count greater than 14 before only being able to see 2 or 3 for the next couple of hours. The most practical case where this limitation could be countered was in those rare situations that we would encounter them crossing the road - if the timing was right and the cameras were ready it was possible to get some good footage of what one could reasonably assume to be the entire group. I only encountered this once - and it was actually the other group of babooners’ baboons that I saw! The way they crossed seemed strategic to me, the larger males at the front, females with infants the most central and the loudest males bringing up the rear - though without a camera this detail, anything beyond a count (just below 40) with a rough idea of its structure, is lost. The other opportunity in which we were able to get a good look at the entire group was when they would drink at the large ponds scattered across the landscape.

I recall one sunny afternoon, the morning had started off promising but we had soon lost the baboons we’d been following, and had proceeded to be loosely chasing them based on their barks alone. We had stopped for lunch and found that the cameras were out of battery, and the spares uncharged. It was one of those particularly sweltering days where we had consumed nearly all our water and it was only midday. We had found something of a warthog cemetery, and the ranger advised that we turn around lest we wanted a run in with lions. Walking around the bush, the body language of the ranger was always something to look out for, they often seemed relatively at ease walking around, having spent many days of their lives alone out here, so small signs of tension were sometimes noticeable. Under the circumstances we decided to head back to the picada, and on a whim decided to go to the larger pan near the baobab tree - a landmark for those who drove around the picadas of the park. Arriving there we were extremely lucky to see perhaps 40 baboons having an afternoon break, and we sat for more than an hour watching and recording what they were doing, it was only a shame that the cameras had died, we saw more variety of behaviour in that hour alone than we had done for entire days before. Satisfying though it was, this was just one of the opportunities we had to encounter a group of baboons together, otherwise our chances to get a look at the entire group were far and few between, and the number of baboons we could see were rarely representative of the whole size of the group.

Another issue was identifying the baboons. I found it very difficult to distinguish between different baboons by age and sex. Sometimes adult females looked like adult males, sometimes the smaller females looked very similar to juvenile males, and from a distance the features that really made distinguishing one sex from another were rarely visible. Using the scan sampling method we would record how many of each, infants, juveniles, and adult females and males were doing what and where (terrestrially vs arboreally). Oftentimes I felt unable to distinguish between these categories - recording the behaviour alone instead of relating this to a particular sex and stage of life history. Given the difficulty in distinguishing one ‘type’ of baboon from another, it is probably not surprising that the challenge of identifying unique individuals was even greater, I’d go as far as saying impossible, at least to the unhabituated eye such as mine. One would have to rely on particular features - scars, injuries or abnormal morphologies as distinguishing features, and of the baboons I followed there didn’t seem to be any such marks! We spent one afternoon going through all of the photos doing just this, trying to tell one baboon from another, and often the most identifiable baboons were the adult females in oestrus - but then such a transient feature could not be relied on in the long run! It seemed at this point impossible for us to keep track of different individuals within the group, as other researchers who have spent years studying the same group have done. From one day to another we would have to make assumptions about whether the baboons we were following were the same group as the next, based on their range (which overlap!) and their behaviour towards us (which we couldn’t rule out as being simply temperamental - being loud and hostile towards us one day and shy and fleeting the next was no reliable indicator that it was a different group!). Just as these baboons hadn’t gotten to know us over the few days we spent following them, neither had we gotten to know them.
 

Following baboons on foot was problematic in many ways. Nevertheless, the experience was enlightening, and just in the variety of ways they responded to us made one wonder how they made decisions alone and collectively. Moreover, being out on foot with a mission of data collection was rather satisfying. The patience that primatologists must have to accumulate enough data for it to become meaningful is impressive. Some spend decades of their lives with the same group of baboons, and almost seem to get to know them personally - under such circumstances I imagine the whole endeavor would become completely transformed - the baboons morphing from strangers in a crowd to individuals with distinctive personalities and qualities within a group of other identifiable individuals!

Back in Chitengo, where Isabelle had begun collecting data and setting about beginning a project in studying animal-human conflict, the personality of baboons stood out far more. Here the baboons were well habituated, stubborn, and at times intimidating. Where there was food they were never far away, and after having spent some time following the baboons within the camp we reckoned there were perhaps two or more distinct groups, who were not only disturbing and worrying the humans using the camp, but also one and other. Within the camp we were in a better position to identify baboons, and the closer proximity from day to day meant individuals did become more distinctive, others were unlucky enough to be easily distinguishable: one female for instance was missing a front foot, and another, a large domineering male, walked with a distinctive limp. The camp was a place where we could employ some other techniques for data collection. Isabelle for instance used a camera trap to see if she could find any patterns in the behaviour of baboons around the fire pit - a pit where much of the rubbish from the camp was disposed of. I also spent an afternoon with Dora experimenting with range finders, trying to work out the feasibility of using some of the speleologist’s technology to plot the movement of baboons over time and space, something that might be used in network analysis of their interactions, though the bright light of the day seemed to prevent the laser working reliably: more experimentation needed!

The camp was an interesting space in many ways. For one thing it felt like an island, a place you were contained and isolated with those you’d came with and arrived to: the potential for emotions to run high under such constrained social circumstances was certainly one element within the more personally challenging aspects of fieldwork. The same seemed to be true for the baboons. During our month there, the team encountered an infanticide event during one of the quieter afternoons during the field course, which had us all a little surprised and somewhat distressed. This was nevertheless a rare opportunity to study the reactions of the other baboons’ responses. Towards the end of the season, me and Laura, spending a morning sampling the baboons’ behaviour inside the camp, noticed a large male, with an unsightly wound running from his nose to his mouth - leaving a large dangling piece of flesh where his nostrum ought to have been. We could not tell whether the wound was new or old, though suspected it must be at least a couple of weeks old, since the area around it was not obviously inflamed. Exactly what caused the wound, and the later fate of this male, clearly dominant within the group based on his behaviour, though surprisingly anxious around us, we would never know.

Isabelle, who I spent many of the baboon days with, was involved in starting a project in studying the human-baboon conflict that affected Chitengo and neighboring communities. Her project become suprisingly relevant during the last days of our stay following a managerial decision within the lodge that aimed to reduce the problem that staff and visitors were experiencing with baboons. The plan of action was to effectively trap and euthanize the largest males in the camp. This, as Isabelle explained well in her presentation, would be an error of judgement, for based on evidence from other areas where local management has attempted to deal with the problem of baboons, experience suggests that such individuals are perhaps the least effective targets of such initiatives. For instance, in Cape Town, South Africa, dominant male baboons are effectively excluded from the management option that is euthanasia. Culling dominant males essentially opens up a niche for other males to enter, a niche they will actively compete for. When new males do join the groups, they - as we saw - are likely to commit infanticide so that females will return to a fertile oestrus state sooner. In doing so females in the group become more stressed. The whole situation could essentially manifest in a way that would be the total opposite to the intentions of those who had suggested the idea: namely, making baboons more stressed, more anxious, and more dangerous. Sitting in Isabelle’s talk a couple of nights before we left was rather inspiring - and you could see the staff paying close attention to what she was saying, as well as the alternative suggestions she offered.

All in all, the primatological aspects of the trip were varied and fascinating in multiple ways. I haven’t mentioned the 3D scanning of baboon skulls nor the potentially unique feeding behaviour that Dora was keen to explore further in different parts of the park. As I have made clear however, this kind of research is not as simple as following baboons around and recording what they do: a systematic method is required, and clearly the time and patience needed to establish a ‘rapport’ with the baboons under study is something that takes far longer than the time we had this field season. Nevertheless, in the month that was spent there the team collectively made significant in-roads, the geneticists, Felipe, Maria and Christian, spent many days dedicated to the mission of finding DNA-rife poo and I look forward to finding out what they learn from their analysis about admixture and hybridization within this baboon population, whilst Dora and Philippa not only collected significant amounts of data for future analysis but also spent enough time with baboons to discover new ‘leads’ and opportunities for future research. I meanwhile gained a better appreciation of what happens on the ground in primatological fieldwork and the energy that goes into such work, as well as a greater appreciation of the baboon’s themselves!

FOSSILS

Whilst baboons preoccupied me for the first few days of the trip and then sporadically thereafter, I spent an equal amount of time involved in the paleontological aspects too. Working on the floodplain, where there was no immediate foliage excluding the view, one could see that to both the east and west is are continuous mountain ridges expanding north-south. Gorongosa is sat in the middle of one giant valley. This valley belongs to the southernmost extension of the East African Rift System: the Urema Graben. Much further north, but also within this vast system, are extensive hominin fossil assemblages across different parts of East Africa, whilst to the south, in South Africa are numerous examples of well-preserved fossils discovered in the cave systems there. Mozambique, as yet relatively unexplored, forms the geographic junction of these two scientifically bounteous regions.

The types of scientists dedicated to this part of the project were vast, ranging across different specialties and all with something different to contribute. Given the importance of the changing environmental context in the natural selection of a species, the teams’ aim consists ambitiously of understanding the evolutionary changes of this whole area’s ecology: something that would not be possible without geologists, paleoecologists, and paleontologists - the different members of the team and the attention to detail needed is admirable. Not only will the work here give history a new meaning within Gorongosa, but it will also have dividends in the future when the fossil record of the area expands: the more information that is gained about the changing ecosystem here the more holistic an understanding of the evolutionary processes that occurred, something that will be of particular importance when Susana and her team someday unearth a hominin specimen which they are able to understand relative to the ecological context that it evolved within!

Whilst I had been spending time with baboons there was plenty already underway within the paleo half of the project. The geologists, Jörg and Tina were frequently flying out by helicopter searching for rocky outcrops that might prove promising sites for exploration, meanwhile the speleologists, Tátá, Maria and Luis were investigating different caves across the park. For Susana it seemed that the logistical aspects of returning to the fossil sites from the previous year were some of the most challenging: with over 20 researchers and students going, there was travel to be organised, along with enough food and supplies to last us for the days we would spend out there and some extra manpower for protection (rangers!) and nourishment (a very good field chef!).  

We spent five days in the field on our first excursion to the fossil sites. After a morning of all-hands-on-deck packing we headed off in convoy. The trip there was smooth, although, Susana, Jörg, Tina, Scarlett (the team’s student film maker), and I found ourselves 5 minutes into the journey panicked by the cars broken radio: there would be no music on this road trip – fortunately this would be the only disaster we encountered. The fossil site is located northeast of Chitengo, no greater than a 2 hour drive under good conditions. However, the journey to the fossil site involved one caveat: the river between us and it. Crossing the river was one of those experiences that leaves a photographic imprint in your head. The ‘bridge’ is rather a ferry made of an iron cage containing air-filled barrels. Each car would drive on to this vessel, before a team of the park’s staff would physically pull, by rope, the ferry and its load from one side of the river to the next, where the car would, not always smoothly, drive off. The whole arrangement appeared more precarious than it was. Nevertheless, owing to the size and weight of these cars (some carrying tens of water canisters, others with far more expensive equipment) as well as the crocodiles that called lurked in the river, each successful crossing warranted a cheer from the other side! The experience was just one rite of passage that transitioned us all into the paleontological mindset.

When we arrived at the site we would call home for the next few days it was nothing but waist-high grass. The entire team set to work converting this bit of wildlife into a campsite, Kuba, Hijino and myself spent the first couple of hours getting thoroughly blistered clearing patches of grass for paths and places with some handheld scythes, whilst others set up latrines and tents, arranged a makeshift shower and unpacked the supplies from the cars. Due to the coordination and manpower of our team the area was converted into a campsite worthy of the most experienced festival-goer in no time at all. I recall the first evening walking down to the fossil site in a long line, whilst the senior researchers went to inspect the area to see what remained and what changed from the previous season, Mary Sadid gave all the students a lesson in fossil spotting: this work was tiring, on both the eyes and morale. It essentially involved scanning the surface for anything fossil-like, I generally adopted a hands and knees approach, crawling around and checking out every rock I found - it wasn’t until a couple of days later, having handled some fossils, that I got to grips with what I was looking for. For the first couple of days, any rock that was a slightly weird shape or colour was passable for some sort of fossil in my mind.

Over the next few days I would get involved in a variety of tasks, these included trekking through dense forest to survey outcrops that Jörg and Tina had previously identified, as well as hours of more surface scanning and some excavation as well. This part of the trip was hard work but equally rewarding. Whilst we would all get sweaty, dirty and tired from hiking through forests all day or just from being out in the sun looking for fossils, in the evening we could rely on some tasty food and a warm fire. The entire experience was a shared one, and the campfire formed an excellent focal point around which we could all get to know one and other better. The variety of people meant these evenings were never dull, whether it was getting to know Jacinto who was working on a project in neotaphonomy (for which we were always on the lookout for modern bones), or getting to know the senior researchers from various parts of the world with all kinds of different backgrounds, there was always good conversation to be had. The nights always fell dark early, and during our first trip the moon didn’t rise till much later. We would usually all be in our tents and tucked up for the night before 9 - ready for an early start the next morning, where it wasn’t unusual to awake to Jörg nursing the fire from the previous evening back to life, the camp slowly reuniting around the fire to dozily start their day over a steel mug of coffee.

I spent two days during the first excursion trekking with Jörg, Tina and others to various potential outcrops. We would typically walk in a long line, following in the footsteps of the ranger who would lead the way. The foliage we walked through was thick, and we would descend down and up dry valleys. So many of the trees had thorns, even the thorns sometimes had thorns! It was incredible how quickly ones eye adapted to which bushes you could brush past without fear of being pricked, and those you needed to dodge. There were times when walking through these forest felt a bit like the game ‘Temple Run’ that had been popular on iPhones a few years earlier - you’d sometimes be constantly ducking, dodging and stepping over things. We typically left early in the day when it was still cool, but it could get rather hot and humid, and walking could totally wear you out.

The first trek was specifically to a fossil site that the team had been to the year before. When we arrived Tina exclaimed that it looked completely different - and it wasn’t until half an hour later that we realised we’d been looking at the wrong part of it. Whilst the Zeray, one of the team’s paleoanthropologists, and René, expert paleontologist, took some students to scan for fossils, I joined the geologists in collecting samples from the valleys that wound through the outcrop: looking for crustaceans and other mollusks embedded in the sediments: this area was once, Jörg believes, an estuary type setting (‘Gorongosa-by-the-sea’). After lunch Jörg and Tina began logging a geological section - finding the lowest point of the area and working upwards, documenting what they found in each layer and its depth. I had the pleasure of wielding a rock hammer for taking samples from each strata: I remember at this point the sky opening and Jörg’s diagram getting completely soaked. Throughout this exercise I found it entrancing hearing Jörg and Tina talking about the different layers - it was a completely foreign language to me (not German!), and it was amazing to see the process that will eventually form the basis for reconstructing the types of environments that had existed exactly where we were standing then, across the millennia before.

 

I joined the explorers once again a couple of days later. This time we were inspecting new sites, whereas before we were revisiting one from the previous year. I remember the day being extremely hot, and walking, synchronised, trance like, soaked in sweat, like one in a line of ants, letting the heat wash over me. Calling what we were walking through a jungle might not be scientifically correct, but it sure did feel like one, and when I did take my eyes off of where my own feet were treading or the vines and branches immediately in front of me all around me was wildlife. We saw some fantastic insects on these day-long walks, bright green beetles with orange stripes; a shield spider, red with giant horns jaggedly ascending from its sides, and moths of all kinds of colors. We experienced some creepier crawlies at the campsite too. This second day walking was tiring for all of us, and by the end of the day I recall morale being low. We had trekked from one outcrop to the next in the boiling heat, with no signs of fossils at any of them. One of the objectives had been to find a basalt deposit that might be used as a reference in dating, but even this was unfruitful - we found basalt, but it was loose, and of little value to us. Nevertheless, during the last 500 meters we still had enough energy to carry on singing.

The insects we saw walking were not the only ones we encountered. Myself, Isabelle, Mary and Kuba spent one of the days with René at the first fossil site whilst the others were off exploring the areas around our camp. We spent a morning scanning for fossils, eventually finding an area with several enamel fragments - a distinctive shimmery purple-blue colour. We then spent the afternoon carrying out a mini-excavation on a particular area where Rassima had, the day before, found a tooth fragment and René had that morning found yet another, matching part. I felt rather satisfied in finding lots of dentine fragments – little hard fragments the orangey colour of terracotta plant pots. Gently brushing away at a surface and picking at it with René’s dentist tools was strangely therapeutic, and finding anything was incredibly satisfying. However, as Kuba would testify on this day in particular, not finding anything is conversely frustrating. Dentine fragments were not the only thing of interest we found. Whilst removing the shallow layers of dust and dirt we encountered two perfectly round holes, the first of which had a little cap on it, which when removed exposed a small spider whose hole was its home. The other hole was much larger, perhaps twice the diameter. Isabelle and Kuba couldn’t agree on whether the spider they thought they saw in there was alive or dead, and so they decided to just ignore it… Minutes later both jumped from their knees and into the air, a big (by British standards) spider had leapt out and directly into the middle of the area they’d been brushing at!

On the final full day of the first trip, by which time Kuba’s skin had turned a different shade entirely, the entire team spent the day together. This morning we spent at a nearby fossil site where those from the day before had found a large fossilized rib, but unfortunately even with a collective effort we unearthed no more. Such was the nature of excavation: whilst Susana, René and Zeray would often talk of the fieldwork they had done in East Africa where fossils were so abundant it was hard not to stand on them, this was certainly not the case here, where any finding was valuable. We spent the rest of that day in high spirits collecting the many findings that had been made from the previous year and during our days spent there. I teamed up with Mary and Isabelle, and we went and collected all the flagged fossils and recorded their exact location on GPS. Kuba, amongst others, was spending some of this part of the morning sieving for any smaller fossil fragments, and sure enough he found something which could very possibly be another part of the tooth that René had been putting together - Rene has a patient way of considering everything you curiously hand him with time and respect, though, it more generally than not turns out that you’ve been mistaken, this time however René wasn’t and we all cheered when he declared it another part of the tooth!

The first of our camping trips ended on a high, with the lot of us, encircling the fire, delivering a drumming performance to the Gorongosa night. After a hurried morning dismantling the camp and packing everything away we had an almost uneventful journey home - until the point that we encountered, in the middle of the road, an elephant matriarch. I remember sat in the back of our car, the engines in our convoy being switched off one after another, and sitting, half nervous half excited, for the elephants to pass. It did occur to me that if these elephants were to charge at us there would be nowhere to go but backwards - and a 6 car convoy reversing all at once seemed out of the question. Fortunately for us, the elephants passed, and as the cars drove onwards we could see 6 or 7 of them amongst the trees staring back at us.

The second camping trip was smaller in scale, many of the senior researchers having flown home. I spent three days in the field this time, based at the first fossil site where we would reap some more fossils to add to our paleontological catalogue. I spent a good share of the time on this extended outing from Chitengo sieving through the dirt and dust that had been removed when excavating for larger fossil fragments, in the hope of finding anything we might have otherwise missed, the first day I remember it being excruciatingly hot, 38 degrees, and feeling really quite dazed - as such I made the tactical decision of sitting with a bucket and a sieve rather than scanning the ground for fossils. At this point in our trip, the third week, it was becoming warmer and warmer, and forest fires had started to breakout sporadically across the park. That night Susana even warned us about how to behave in the event of us awaking to a fire moving through the campsite: quite a harrowing prospect, me and Kuba agreed whilst trying to get to sleep that night in our tent which during the day had taken on the character of a greenhouse. The wind was particularly bad that night, and it played tricks on our ears - both Kuba and I talked that morning of how it had sounded as though there were animals walking around the campsite throughout the night.

The following day I joined Tina and Jörg as they dug a stair section through the outcrop, hauling bucketsful of sediment and organizing it into 8 giant piles based on the strata it had come from. Even the ranger got involved and as he was working with a pickaxe he made one of the largest fossil discoveries yet - something which looked like it belonged to the ankle of an elephant-sized mammal! The task for the next couple of days involved a collective effort in sieving through the masses of dirt. Whilst listening to Paul Simon with Dora and Scarlet I made perhaps my greatest and proudest contribution to the Gorongosan fossil record - a small mandible from what I figured must have once been a fish of some kind - though for all I know it could something else entirely!
 

The final morning that I spend at the fossil site, before returning with Tina and Dora who were soon to fly home, I do so sieving again, it becomes very apparent that we are not going to get through the gallons of sediment that have been tug up, even though everyone on site has gotten involved. Whilst this is ongoing, Jörg, Tina and Dora had gone on a final reconnaissance to inspect potential outcrops. When we returned, all having spent far too long sieving fruitlessly, we met the three of them sat suspiciously. They had found an excitingly ambiguous fossil, the identity of which is, to this date, still unknown… As I left our makeshift campsite for the last time it was with a very excited team making an impromptu trip to the new fossil site in order to plaster what remained of this mystery fossil. Those of us heading back meanwhile enjoyed a scenic journey under the evening sky - couched in the back of a car above mattresses and roll mats, the car speeding through the park as forest fires burnt around us.

Everyone felt that the time spent at the fossil sites was a success, and given the relatively short amount of time we spent out there it seems that we added a considerable number of new fossils to the collection - a valuable addition to what had been found the year before. I enjoyed all aspects of the experience, though scanning the ground with the naked eye always felt exhausting, as with following baboons, it was clear that this kind of research, like any other, requires patience, as well as a trained eye in distinguishing one thing from another. The experience, if I am to be frank, did feel like something of an adventure - exploring jungles, finding treasure (i.e. fossils, tooth fragments, lithic artefacts), treacherous rivers, bizarre insects, tales by the fire (okay - I’m romanticizing, somewhat, but the sociality and novelty of the experience made the hard work, bad hygiene and dust mite bites that formed socks over my feet and up to my ankles worth it). The only thing missing seemed to be the Tsetse flies that the team had a nightmarish experience with the year before, though there absence wasn’t missed, we did encounter a few - enough to enliven the car journeys to and from the campsite. Of course, the paleontological work didn’t end here, and in the following days there was plenty of work to do in cataloguing and carefully removing fossils from the plaster they’d been kept in for the sake of their integrity. I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what we found this field season and where it fits within the bigger picture of Gorongosa’s that is still emerging!

BEYOND RESEARCH

The time spent directly involved with the Paleo Primate Project was not limited to the experiences described above - I haven’t elaborated on the meetings held, the time spent typing up data and keeping up to date with my field notes, organising equipment and setting up and packing away the lab at the start and end of the field season. There was also a fair share of down time after dark, which were fantastic opportunities for getting to know each other better. The generosity of Greg also gave us opportunities to enjoy the park from other perspectives, with the opportunity to see its glory on the ground and from the sky. Living in Chitengo was in general a comfortable experience, and I’ve been warned not to take it for granted: conditions in fieldwork are not always quite so congenial! The investment that has gone in to making Chitengo a site where scientific research and teaching is possible, within the centre of a national park, makes it an impressive example of integrating science within an ambitious restoration and conservation project - already the park hosts some incredible names in scientific research that are overseeing the accumulation and comprehension of an impressive catalogue of the parks fauna and flora, present, and now - thanks to the Paleo Primate Project - past.

This active scientific presence within Chitengo not only facilitates the extensive and ongoing research within Gorongosa, but also provides a source of education to students from universities across Mozambique, as well as to talented local students who were taught alongside undergraduates and postgraduates and even joined us on different parts of the fieldwork. This was an enlightening aspect of the project’s situation, for I had the pleasure of meeting several Mozambican students near the same stage in their academic lives as I was. Jacinto, Gabriela, Rassina and Hijino were not only fantastic company, but talking to them was always a sharing of knowledge about the similarities and differences of our cultures. I hope that I meet them again as we grow in our academic and personal lives.

Given the emphasis for teaching and learning within the Gorongosa Restoration Project, the senior researchers of the PPP were involved in delivering a three day field course in which everyone got involved. This was a welcome break from baboon following, and allowed us all to become better equated with the breadth of the research being done. These lectures ranged from techniques used in geoarchaeology to the evolution of lithic industries, baboon genetics and even a lecture on the flora of Gorongosa. When it came to geology I felt more or less clueless - I think a lot of what I learn in the Human Sciences is really just becoming better versed in the language and discourse of the subject - but as far as Geology was concerned, Jörg might as well have been speaking German. Perhaps the highlight of the series of lectures, and the subject that provoked the most questions from students, was an impromptu presentation by Dora, following the infanticide event, on grieving behaviours across the animal kingdom, which I think blurred the lines between animality and humanity for all of us. Beside the lectures there was also a day of activities - in which I used trigonometry for a practical purpose for the first time in my life (a technique used by geologists to calculate something’s height when logging a geological section). We were also shown how to knap stone tools by Will, I remember writing an essay on stone tool industries the year before, and being skeptical about how complicated the readings made the process sound - that skepticism up and died as I sat with hammer stone in one hand and the yet to be knapped core in the other, hopelessly trying to replicate what Will seemed to effortlessly achieve.

During our stay, Iona and I had the opportunity to join Greg on a visit to some of the local villages south of Chitengo to see some of the developmental aspects of the restoration project’s aims. We walked through Vinho, the closest village to Chitengo, seeing on our way farmland and a small ‘model farm’ - filled with a diversity of ripe fruit and vegetables. In Vinho we met with the Doctor, Pedro, who drove us to a mobile health clinic that he was overseeing in a village some miles away, which had previously been inaccessible as a result of conflict in the region. The clinic did not conform to our British expectation of how a clinic might appear. In the village are a variety of stalls, staffed by nurses who go across the entire region providing this kind of service. When we arrive we are greeted by the people who live there. Demographically speaking, most of the villagers are children, and most of the women we meet carry babies. The mobile clinic provides many services, amongst them are stations providing vaccinations, nutritional evaluation and guidance for the healthy nutrition of babies and children, eye testing for trachoma, a station for general triage and medical issues, one for family planning and prenatal care as well as for treatment of HIV and malaria. Whilst in the village we also meet some of the ‘model mums’ which act as role models for others - when we see them they are surrounded by others from the village talking about how to incorporate soups and other nutritious supplements into their diets.
 

The experience is, for me, emotionally exhausting, the reaction of local people to us is positive, but not overwhelmingly so. Although it seems that they are grateful for the support from the GRP, they are nevertheless struggling, and view the Park as not only that which provides but also limits that which can be given. The dilemma for Greg and Pedro is not one  they can resolve however, as they explain to me, the park operates strictly within the legislative framework for sustainable development set out by the Mozambican government - to give more than that which the government could otherwise provide would not be that. Rather, the park’s strategy is one that aims to improve the prospects for those who call Gorongosa home by promoting ecotourism, and bringing investment and employment into the region. Speaking to Pedro as we drive back it becomes clear that even when the vaccines, contraceptives, medicines and nutritional supplements are available, their delivery and uptake poses a serious limitation on their effectiveness. Gorongosa experiences extreme changes with the seasons. Whilst we spent our time there during the winter, the dry season, the summer brings with it rain. With the rain comes severe flooding - transport between villages is severely impeded, food supplies diminish, even children cannot go to school for lack of waterproof shelter. Whilst the climate in Gorongosa may be part of that which allows such biodiversity, it is, for local people, a condition that impedes access to the sort of services that they seek. The challenges involved in a project such as this feel overwhelming. Here in the UK I work in a hospital, and I share this experience with Pedro. The contrast between the healthcare that I spend my vacations involved in and the kind of healthcare that occurs here is stark. At home, I typically care for the elderly, people in their seventies, eighties, nineties. To put it crassly, in Britain, and elsewhere in the ‘developed’ world many of the economic problems associated with healthcare are part of a demographic issue; people are living too long. In rural Sofala it is rare for people to live to the age of the average inpatient in the Hospital where I work, a significant portion do not survive to the age of me and my peers in Oxford.

The centrality of local people in the project’s aims was something I thought of often during the trip. The scientific presence poses an interesting dimension to the restoration project, which aims to conserve the park biologically whilst also emphasizing the conservation of local cultures. How the import of a scientific world view entirely foreign to those people who have for generations inhabited Gorongosa had me thinking about how such scientific values might be reconciled with local beliefs. The speleologists involved with the Paleo Primate Project, when visiting one of the caves, in order to gain access, had to take part in a ritual to the ancestors of those who lived with the cave they were exploring. I asked various members of our team, as well as Greg, a hypothetical question, how would a situation be dealt with if the speleologists, whilst working in this cave, happened to find a fossil hominin? The answers were varied, but what was often commented on was that if, in the unlikely event, hominin fossils were found, they would not, as far as the guardians of the cave were concerned, represent the symbolic conception of their ancestors. In a hypothetical situation such as this then, it seems that due to our different conceptions of ancestry, any conflicts resulting from the attributed scientific value and local symbolic value of these remains were unlikely.

I contacted Domingos Muala, a Mozambican ecological historian with extensive contact and knowledge of local people’s views and beliefs concerning the fauna and flora of the park, in order to pick his brain on the subject. Whilst the possible problems of the question I had posed above seemed resolved, it nevertheless marked the contrast between our scientific beliefs and local beliefs about ancestry - the use of the term ‘ancestry’ to describe such differences in views may be entirely misplaced. However, if one day hominin fossils are discovered here, one would expect it to put Gorongosa on the map internationally, with the potential of transforming it into a site of extraordinary scientific (and tourist) interest. Under such circumstances, it seems unfathomable that local people will not learn of that which makes Gorongosa famous, but in what way might scientific notions of ancestry be incorporated into their indigenous belief systems? Domingos did not know the answers to these questions. Though given that local children have passed through the park through adolescence and gone on to receive an education in the biological sciences, it is possible that something such as this could be investigated ethnographically. Domingos was nevertheless extremely knowledgeable, and talking to someone with such an intimate knowledge of local beliefs was extremely valuable. He was passionate about the conservation of the park, and clearly thought positively about the actions that are being taken to ensure its survival. Discussing local religious beliefs, Domingos told me that local community’s belief systems could be described as totemistic. Different people within and between communities associated strongly with a totem, which formed part of their identity - indeed, one of the many names local people adopted was that of their totem. For Domingos, the diversity of totems, whether they were animals, plants, rocks or elements of other kinds, within these belief systems acted as a buffer against environmental change and degradation - different peoples might defend or advocate the protection of different parts of the Gorongosan ecosystem. Knowledge such as Domingos’ thus emerges vital in how the park is managed and how local people can in more than one way be incorporated into this process. Domingos himself plays an active role in educating children, not via science lessons, but by simply giving them and their parents the opportunity to see the park and the animals within it for themselves, an opportunity they surprisingly did not have beforehand. In light of my conversation with Domingos, I wonder how an anthropological perspective might aid scientists and researchers in the park when trying to communicate conscientiously with local people in future field courses as well as when their research is complete. Might the knowledge of local peoples even complement the scientific aims of the Paleo Primate Project - particularly in their research on primates in the park, just as they do the conservation aims of the restoration project?

These thoughts belonged to a much broader consideration of the many multifaceted social factors that fieldwork involved. The international team of scientists I was part of was embedded in many contexts, not just in Chitengo and Gorongosa, but also at home, within the respective institutions that different researchers came from. This was an important aspect of the scientific process I had not given much thought to before, but organising this research was not simply a case of flying to Gorongosa with an agenda and getting on with it - permissions were required from multiple bodies, be they part of the Mozambican Government, the Gorongosa Restoration Project, various Universities or other institutions. The scientific enterprise emerged as part of a much greater institutional framework that needed to be navigated, something that I had perhaps taken for granted, but is clearly essential when it comes to actually carrying research out. At a smaller scale meanwhile, even the dynamics of the team and our relationship with the park staff and management was something that couldn’t go overlooked, the whole enterprise was one that was entirely social in nature - the popular image of the insular scientist had been, for me, entirely debunked.

I think that the social nature of fieldwork is a good place to finish this perhaps excessively elaborate and lengthy field report. I think it is clear that this month was a very busy one, in which I experienced and learnt a lot, not just about methods used in research but also concerning the nature of research itself! With all this said, the real pleasure at the depth of all this was a social one. None of the fieldwork, nor the mornings, evenings and nights in between were spent in solitude. Though we did all have our own individual errands to run, and of course, some alone time was at times welcome, from start to finish the trip was an experience in social learning and bonding. Besides learning a considerable amount about the park, primatology, paleontology and the fieldwork behind it, I also gained many friends and memories, and once again, I thank everyone who put in the time and energy to pull it off, as well as everyone who I had the pleasure of spending this month with.


See more publications here!

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16/10/2019 19:02:36
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