Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ugandapithecus Major: Our cousin, 20 million years ago

For 25 years, a number of scientists have been working at Napak in north-eastern parts of Uganda, to find any fossils. Their resilience and hard work paid off when they discovered a very old skull, a treasure in the archaeology world.

On 18 July, Dr Pickford spotted what looked like two teeth barely poking above the ground at Napak XV, a archaeology fossil site near Iriri in Karamoja. After carefully brushing away the earth around the teeth, the team realised they had found a very, very old skull. They cut around the earth, packaged it like a baby, and rapidly went back to “develop the fossil.”

Dr Pickford of the College Nationale de France and his co team leader Brigitte Senut of the National Museum of Natural History first came to the fossil rich slopes of the Napak volcano in Karamoja in 1985.

Dr Senut recalls that upon her arrival in the region, she was immediately surrounded by a gang of 20 warriors who shot at her car leaving four holes in the chassis.

She shrugs off the incident: “It was a terrible misunderstanding and we soon became friends,” she explains.

The scientists briefly got to work but the 1985 military coup, which toppled the regime of President Milton Obote forced them to cut short their eventful first trip to Uganda. Not to be deterred, their admirable enthusiasm for old bones brought them back in 1986 and they have returned annually since.

Archaeology Excavation

A network composed of 20 international palaeontologists and a number of Ugandan researchers took turns scouring the site for fossils. The slopes of the Napak volcano provide a potent hunting ground for fossil fanatics whose main interest is to understand our ancestry.

Fossilisation is not a common occurrence but when the Napak volcano erupted between 19 and 20 million years ago it provided good conditions for fossil formation as volcanic ash rapidly buried everything. Teeth and bones do not rot and after being buried for some time, chemical changes take place and water and minerals seep into the bones. The end result is a rocky substance, which is essentially a copy of the bone and which provides a direct link to the past.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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