An eight-person team is mountain biking through Africa on an archaeological expedition in search of the origins of man and to find out why so many of Africa's animals are disappearing. Follow along here as they update their diary.
John Fox Communicates with Baboons and Baboon Researchers
October 23, 1998
CHULO RANCH, UASO NGIRO BABOON RESEARCH CENTER, Kenya -- "Eck!!" One small male baboon shrieks and scampers down the rocks, looking over his shoulder at the Arnold Schwarzeneger of baboons.
Dr. Shirley Strum looks on and gives a play by play commentary, calling the baboons by name, like a TV sportscaster on Monday Night Football. "Looks like Caterpillar just threatened Wiggle for trying to get too close to Rebecca, Caterpillar's friend."
Dr. Strum, an anthropologist, has been studying baboon society for over 20 years. She knows each baboon by name and has learned how to read their expressions and behavior. She tells us that baboons can't form words or speak like humans, but they do have ways to communicate. Through grunts, screeches, and body language, they can tell each other they are excited, content, afraid, happy to be reunited with a friend, hungry, or depressed.
The evolution of language was an important step in becoming human. What else makes us unique? As we explored earlier, the ability to walk upright enabled early humans to use their hands. So it seems walking and talking are related as key pieces of the human puzzle. What else might be important? Art, perhaps?
I asked Dr. Strum, "Do these baboons have the ability to make art, or do they at least have some artistic sense?"
Dr. Strum shook her head. "No. None whatsoever."
I scratched my head, grunted, and ambled away with a sense of relief. I still have one up on the monkeys!
Climate Changes Cause Tense Social Climate
October 22, 1998
LAIKIPIA PLATEAU, Kenya -- "The earlier we get out of here, the less likely we are to get shot," Cherian said at breakfast this morning. He was talking about the bandits we'd heard were on the road between Dr. Shirley Strum's camp and today's destination. Shirley Strum's last bit of advice before we departed to travel north was, "Just make sure you get there before dark."
The climate is tense here in the region at the base of Mt. Kenya. People are arguing over land for farming and ranching. Farmers are in conflict with animals that eat their crops. Different animal species, like lions and cattle, aren't getting along either.
The tense social climate may be, in part, a result of the changes in the meteorological climate. Scientists have found that the climate in Africa has been getting drier over the last few thousand years. Drought has resulted in crop loss and land devaluation. And, as native prey populations decrease, animal attacks on livestock have increased.
Climate changes throughout history have affected both animals and early humans. For instance, scientist Elizabeth Vrba found that about two and a half million years ago, the temperature in the Rift Valley dropped by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This cold phase, combined with a drought, caused forests to shrink and savanna grasses to spread. The changing ecosystems resulted in the extinction of certain antelope species.
Is it a coincidence that two new types of early humans emerged at the very same time? Could it be that, throughout history, some of the same factors that allowed humans to evolve have also caused animals to go extinct? What does this tell us about possible evolution or extinction in the future? Are modern humans, with our advances in technology, somehow immune to these climate changes? Or, will we feel the effects of climate change, like the animals we really are?
Meet the Pumphouse Gang!
October 21, 1998
CHUOLO RANCH, Uaso Ngiro Baboon Research Center, Kenya -- Dr. Shirley Strum's headquarters in the middle of a 5,000-acre ranch which is home to elephants, giraffes, and cape buffalo.
According to Dr. Strum, the ranch's most important residents are a group of baboons she calls "the pumphouse gang." Dr. Strum has been coming to Kenya for 20 years to find out what this troop of baboons can teach us about ancient and modern humans. In theory, we evolved from primates that were similar to today's baboons.
Rising at 4:30 AM for our day of baboon study, we found the pumphouse gang on a steep rock outcrop that towered above the savanna like a medieval castle. As the sun peeked over the horizon, the 28 baboons warmed themselves in the early morning glow. I watched them using body language to say, "I want," "I'm happy," "I'm angry," "I'M REALLY ANGRY," and even, "I need reassurance."
Back at Dr. Strum's camp, I asked her what she had learned during her 20 years of watching baboons.
"It's taught me that baboons are wiser than humans. They don't own things themselves, so they have to cooperate to get the things they need," she replied.
"So, do you think we are like them, and we're just very smart primates?" I asked.
"We're very dumb primates," she shot back. "Look at what we're doing to our environment. We're too smart for our own good."
Pokot Beliefs about Death
October 20, 1998
NANYUKI, Kenya -- It was one of those days when everything goes wrong. Hungry, tired, and sopping wet from fierce afternoon rainstorms, we looked for shelter in a tiny, uninviting village. We ended up taking refuge in the town's Catholic mission, where Father Paul Leyden and I discussed the beliefs of the Pokot people.
Father Paul told me that, for the Pokot, death is a terrifying enemy. When a person dies, he or she is buried in silence. Even family members avoid touching the body for fear of contaminating themselves with death.
The Pokot don't have much sense of life after death, though they do believe in an underworld, where the ancestors live. Termite mounds, which appear on the side of the road like massive sandcastles, are believed to be entrances to this underworld. They are places to communicate with relatives who have passed away. Father Paul has even seen locals burning grasses on top of these mounds, making a kind of offering.
After hearing tales of recent killings and seeing the men with bows and knives the previous day on the road, I was especially interested in Pokot views of death. It seems that my fears during this trip are not unique. The same fierce-looking men I passed on the road are as scared as I am about the bandits and other dangers we face. Perhaps if we could share this fear, we might lessen those dangers.
Day 11: Heading into Pokot Territory
October 19, 1998
RUMERUTI, Kenya -- The Pokot word for "visitor" is the same as their word for "enemy." They, like the Turkana, are a cattle-herding people. Each year, the Turkana travel south to rip off Pokot cattle and the Pokot travel north to swipe Turkana cattle. In the process, they shoot each other. We'd heard lots of stories about the violent Pokot. Now, we were heading into the heart of their territory.
Around mid-afternoon, we approached Tangul Bei. The Pokot village is a forbidding collection of mud huts and wood shacks among thorn trees. We had used up all of our water and worked up a powerful appetite. We needed to stop. We asked Pokot people for help. No one understood us. Just as we were about to head back out in the blazing sun, a bubbly girl wearing a beret, hip clothes, and a beaded African necklace stopped us. "Can I help you?" she asked in perfect English. We exhaled in relief.
The girl, Chemolo, was a modern woman in every way. She had lived in Nairobi for two years while she attended hotel management college. She worked in a luxury lodge in the Masai Mara. I figured she was living in Tangul Bei as part of a service project to help the Pokot.
"Don't you find it hard living among the Pokot people?" I asked.
Our generous host who had treated we visitors as friends exclaimed, "What are you talking about? "I AM Pokot!"
Click here to read the diary from Week One.
Click here to read the diary from Week Two.
Click here to read the diary from Week Four.
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