Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School 2019

Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School 2019 - Field words by Natalie Montegriffo

I was honoured to be able to take part in the 2019 Paleo-Primate Field School in Gorongosa National Park from the 27th of July to the 16th of August. It was a great opportunity to learn more about archaeological techniques and primate phylogenies, while also meeting new people and learning some Portuguese.

I began preparing for the trip by doing some research into the fascinating ecology of Gorongosa National Park. It has a mixture of different habitats including grassland, woodland and rainforest, and I was especially interested in the regeneration that has occurred since the end of the Mozambican civil war in the 1990s. While I was in the Park, I was able to observe for myself the abundance of waterbuck and smaller antelope, while noting the decline in numbers of elephants and other large herbivores. The journey into Chitengo was amazing, with views from the carrier plane including charcoal furnaces and the Pungwe river. I had several lectures in the outdoor amphitheatre at Chitengo, before I went to the fossil site on the 1st of August. My favourite lectures were those on paleo-magnetic dating techniques, the coffee project on Mount Gorongosa, and the genomics of baboons. I was inspired by the fact that the Park works with local communities in order to improve their livelihoods, as well as encouraging them to take part in conservation. A good example of this is the coffee project, where shade trees restore the lost rainforest of Mount Gorongosa, while the coffee is sold to provide a sustainable livelihood for coffee farmers. I was very happy to be able to buy some coffee myself. I was also honoured to be able to meet one of the six female rangers (fiscais) in the Park, and to learn more about the breakfast club which helps to prevent the childhood marriage of girls. I learnt more about Greg Carr’s Gorongosa Restoration Project, and how much it has done to make Gorongosa a popular destination for scientists, conservationists and tourists. While at Chitengo, I took part in a practical that involved finding primate faeces – which was surprisingly difficult considering the number of baboons and vervets around the lodge - and attempting to extract DNA from them. Although I did not succeed in getting a significant amount of primate DNA, I enjoyed learning about the purpose of the complex scientific method used.

Then, I set off to spend six days camping at the fossil site. We loaded several jeeps up with equipment and then crossed over the river via a pontoon. It was nerve-wracking watching the jeeps driving onto the floating platform, but they all got across safely. During the wait, we spent time looking at the beautiful birds, including white storks, and the crocodiles. I was expecting there to be a pre-existing campsite, but the jeep stopped in the middle of a stretch of indistinguishable woodland. Cyclone Idai had made the land so green that it was unrecognisable even to those who had been there the year before. After spending time clearing the grass with machetes, we set up our tents under the trees. There was a campfire every night which meant that we could sit and talk after the day’s work, and admire the clear and unobstructed stars. We spent the daylight hours excavating fossils at the fossil site, starting with surface finds and then moving onto the walls of the shovel test pit. I learnt how to excavate fossils with dental tools and consolidant, and myself and another student excavated a large bone, probably a femur, in this way. Working on the shovel test pit was a great experience as it allowed me to use the “total station” machine, a piece of equipment which precisely records the coordinates of a find so that a visual map can be made of the site. I learnt much about how to excavate fossils and to identify what they are, for example the difference between hypso- and brachydont teeth, and between hard enamel and soft dentine. I also had the opportunity to take part in conversations about primatological fieldwork, which often involves spending months in isolated regions with small numbers of people, and possibly dangerous wildlife. It drew my attention to the risks but also the rewards of this kind of research. We can learn so much about modern humans from studying primates, and in Gorongosa National Park, primate finds could provide the missing link between chimpanzees (Pan) and Miocene hominins from 7-8 million years ago. I really enjoyed my time at the campsite, especially the companionship, and the amazing food and fresh bread that the cook made for us. I will never forget listening to two of the Mozambican students singing in Changana around the campfire at night, and nor will I forget hearing lions growling around our tents in the dark.

After I left the campsite, the second group of students arrived and began excavating the new pit that we had dug while we were there. Excitingly, they found several primate teeth, and Gorongosa now has the largest collection of Miocene fossils in the southern hemisphere. I arrived back at Chitengo on the 6th of August, and had six days of lectures and swimming in the swimming pool before both groups of students were re-united. During a safari, I was awed at the site of six female lions, with their majestic and slow movements, framed by the breath-takingly wide flood plain. I also got to see a civet, a genet and a yellow mongoose. In the subsequent lectures, I learnt about forensic archaeology, general anatomy, and mammal and primate phylogeny. I was especially interested to learn about the closest genetic relative to elephants, which is the surprisingly-small hyrax. The lecture by Jacinto Mathe on Reducini and Tragelaphus antelope was fascinating, and even more so when we found several waterbuck and kudu skeletons on our bone survey. Challengingly, we also found a very human-like baboon skeleton, which served to remind me how closely related we are to the Papio genus. I enjoyed learning about the unique baboons at Gorongosa National Park, which are a hybrid between chacma and yellow baboon species.

It was great to be re-united with all the other students before we left the Field School programme, and it gave me the opportunity to ask for more Portuguese music to listen to on my phone, to enjoy and to help me learn more of the language. I got to listen to the famous ecologist Kenneth Tinley, who planted a tree in the Park alongside Dominique Gonçalves, an inspiring Mozambican elephant ecologist. Just before a meal at the lodge restaurant, hosted by Greg Carr, I cycled 25km to and from the nearby town of Vinho. Those of us on the trip visited the hospital, funded by the Gorongosa Restoration Project, and saw the primary school and the crops planted by the Project. The meal hosted by Greg Carr was the last night of the Field School, and I have many happy memories of singing around the campfire afterwards. The experience has provided me with much practical knowledge that will be useful in my degree, and it has also helped me to decide what I want to do afterwards. More importantly, I will never forget the people that I met on the Field School, the wide range of things that I learnt, and the memories that I have of such a beautiful and ecologically-rich place.

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