Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School 2018

Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate Field School 2018 - Field words by Lucy Adams

The Oxford-Gorongosa Paleo-Primate field school 2018 is a collaborative project involving senior researchers from across an array of fields - including primatology, geology, taphonomy, botany, paleoecology and human evolution - and students from the University of Oxford (England) and the Universidad de Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique). The aim of the project is to shed light on the historical context of and anatomical mechanisms comprising hominin evolution which is, based on existing evidence, not yet fully understood.

The Paleo-Primate project is unique in its holistic approach to exploring the evolutionary process; by integrating research from two main avenues – the paleo fossil record and modelling the behaviour and anatomy of modern primates – the team aim to investigate the true multifaceted emergence of Homo sapiens and their predecessors. Comparison of fossilised fauna to modern day specimens is valuable for pinpointing the timescale over which hominin anatomical changes emerged and the dating of fossil specimens combined with clues in the geological record reveal archaic topography and the paleoclimate experienced by ancestral hominins which may have affected migration and the selection pressure they experienced pertaining to their modern condition. The project recognises however, that whilst the fossil record and the quantitative anatomical data we can obtain from specimens are hugely useful, alone, they cannot fully explain the experiences and interactions of ancestral hominins. By bringing together geochemists, geologists, taphonomists and archaeologists alongside animal behaviourists, zoologists and modern primatologists, the Paleo-primate project aims to also utilise the modern primate, our closets living relative, to investigate derived ancestral behaviours and anatomy.

Based in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, the project plays a wider role in supporting human and ecological development in the area which is recovering from the 1977-1992 civil war in which 90% of mammals were killed (Pringle, 2017). The collaboration of global researchers (who bring specialist knowledge and tools), with local representatives and a growing body of park rangers called fiscais (who offer great insight into the park and its history) is a mutually beneficial and hence sustainable arrangement. The restorative nature of work being conducted following the 2008 Long Term Agreement between the Mozambican government and American philanthropist Greg Carr (and its subsequent renewal in 2018) means that the park provides a unique environment in which to conduct ecological research as species are gradually re-introduced. Specifically, Gorongosa’s five species of primates – Yellow baboons, Vervet monkeys, Somengo monkeys and two Galagos species – offer a hugely valuable resource in that they can be used in natural re-wilding experiments to test how primates respond to exposure to other species and environments. The park can be used accordingly as a theoretical model for the ecological migratory and behavioural interactions of ancestral primates with their contemporaries and habitats which could offer insight into the formative experiences of hominin ancestors.

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