Koobi Fora excavations have yielded evidence of mankind’s ancestors, like these early hominid skulls.
The first stop of the school session is a private game range on the edge of the Rift Valley. For a week, students camp in an open conservancy and experience life on the African savannah, complete with the roar of lions and leopards in the distance. Next, the crew settled into a base camp in the shadow of Lake Turkana. Known as the Jade Sea for its incandescent glow, Turkana stretches over 250 kilometers, longer than the entire Kenyan coast. It’s the site of the original Koobi Fora settlement established by famed explorer Richard Leakey in the late 1960s. Base camp offers a forum for lectures and classroom work— as well as field showers and laundry in the lake. “At best, you get what we call ‘field clean,’” Biermann said. “You wash off the sweat, but there’s a layer of grime and sand that never goes away.” From base camp, the students and instructors hike deep into the desert for fieldwork. Their research typically takes them to the barren Kurari desert and an arid wasteland near the Ethiopian border called Illeret. “A lot of people think field schools are for hanging out in the summer and digging in the dirt,” Braun said. “Ours wasn’t like that. This is an apprenticeship. If you come here, you are an active participant in important research.” Biermann’s work focused on early human’s stone tools. While scouting alone through Illeret, she stumbled across a field of tool flakes that were likely untouched for two million years. “They were literally crunching under my boots,” she said. “There’s an incredible feeling of freedom when you are out by yourself in the middle of nowhere and your teachers trust you to do your own research. It’s very empowering.” Padalkar’s project brought her in contact with the Daasanach, Turkana’s agro-pastoralist tribe of livestock herders. With an interpreter, Padalkar ventured into the tribal community to observe their lifestyle and traditions. She also participated in what has become an annual tradition between the school and the tribe: Every Fourth of July, the Daasanach invite students to a dance, a tribal custom that celebrates friendship and marriage.
For Braun, the dedication of the Koobi Fora students is as impressive as the landscape. “These kids could spend the summer sitting on a beach with their friends,” he said. “Instead they are out here because they are really passionate about this work.” And while the blistering heat and close quarters can fray nerves, students often return home having forged strong bonds with their fellow participants. “We’ve even had a few field school marriages,” said Braun, who met his own wife on a Koobi Fora dig. By the time the students load up the truck for the trip back home, there are few doubts about whether they are following the right career path. “We rate our success by how many students go into anthropology, whether they choose paleoanthropology or something like public health,” said Braun. “Very few people walk away from here and discover they want to be hedge fund managers.” To many, the ride out of Koobi Fora is more emotional than the journey in. Each year, Braun hears more sighs of sadness than relief. “I miss it,” Biermann said. “I was so lucky to be there. It solidified my decision. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
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