With his commitment to both research and teaching, Jack Harris possesses a duality that characterizes many academics. His research work is exciting – uncovering traces of our prehuman ancestors in the fossil beds of East Africa – but perhaps even more remarkable is his reliance on undergraduate students to do the all important excavations. “Why are you letting the students do it?” his colleagues have asked, accusing him of being irresponsible. Harris responds: “How else are they going to learn?”
In collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, Harris runs Rutgers’ Koobi Fora Field School on the eastern side of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, some 500 miles of extremely rough road north of Nairobi. Over 12 field seasons, more than 400 undergraduates have been trained here in the detective work of paleoanthropology, working side by side with skilled excavators from the National Museums.
Of the 400 undergraduates, about half came from Rutgers. The rest were drawn from other anthropology programs in North America and Africa. Koobi Fora alumni occasionally return to the field as interns, assisting in the endeavor. In addition, about 15 Rutgers graduate students have carried out research projects onsite at Koobi Fora over the years.
Adding to the uniqueness of the field school, students begin their six-week sessions at the Mugie Ranch, halfway up the road to Koobi Fora. This game ranch and rhino sanctuary affords students the opportunity to study the ecology – the animals, the plants and the soils of the savanna ecosystem. While the field school locale is a desert today, our ancestors originated on the open savanna grassland that constituted Koobi Fora 1.5 million years ago, Harris said, and the game ranch experience gives them an appreciation of how things were.
“Our research drives the field school,” Harris said, and the research at Koobi Fora is producing some of the most intriguing and important finds relating to our earliest human ancestors. One of the most captivating discoveries there has been a trail of 1.5 million-year-old fossilized footprints – only the second occasion of such evidence and the only one from this time range. In addition to a complete range of well preserved prints including those of birds, giraffes, lions, and antelope, there are multiple hominid footprints. These footprints are likely from a Homo erectus, a probable direct human ancestor.
“Here we’ve got a unique moment in time of animals that were living on that landscape 1.5 million years ago,” Harris said. “From this evidence, we may be able to reconstruct the paleoecology on the level of the community.” Harris describes the site as one of the largest excavations in the study of human origins, covering more than 250 square meters.