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In the Field

It is still pitch black when the first clang and clink of pots and dishes come from the kitchen tent; the cook, Ephraim, and his assistant, Felix, are getting breakfast ready. When the darkness begins to lighten from the rising sun, I get out of my tent and pour myself a hot cup of tea and grab some toasted bread with jam at the breakfast table. We are lucky that we have a cook who can bake in these rustic field environs, as many previous years were spent eating stale and moldy bread brought in from the city weeks before. I grab a chair and turn it to face the horizon, savoring the view of the expansive grassland turning to gold with the light of the rising sun. Morning greetings are exchanged as members of the field team emerge from their tents for breakfast. Fieldwork is a highly collaborative effort and an increasingly international one, such that our team consists of paleontologists, paleobotanists, and geologists from Tanzania, the United States, United Kingdom, and South Africa. After a brief discussion about the locality we will be visiting today, I go back to my tent to get ready for the day. As I brush my teeth, I watch a herd of giraffes run across the distant horizon in that oddly graceful, seemingly slow-motion stride that is so distinctive to them. I smile at the sight, absurdly happy that I am where I am, in the middle of the African savanna.

We pile into the Land Rovers and head for Locality 15 (Figure 1B). It is the westernmost locality at Laetoli and there is

a short section of fossiliferous sediments exposed there. Everyone jumps out of the Land Rover eager to get started with the survey. The team spreads out and looks for fossils (Figure 2). Each person has a specific area to survey and we will often overlap since no one person will see every fossil on the ground due to various factors, such as light conditions, search image and chance. We spread out and intently look for fossils, our backs hunched and eyes glued to the ground. Fossil hunting is generally a silent affair where people are too busy to chit-chat. It is not easy to see fossils on the ground, particularly when they are similar in coloration to the sediment surrounding them and can be easily passed over as an oddly shaped pebble or rock. All fossil specimens that are identifiable, by element and/or taxon, are collected and put into bags that are clearly marked with information on where they were recovered, such as their position in the locality and their stratigraphic placement. At Laetoli, excavation is not conducted because the fossils are spread out over the landscape rather than densely concentrated in a particular area as is sometimes the case at other hominin sites. The distribution of fossils on the landscape is determined by the particular environmental and depositional conditions present when the bones were deposited and fossilized. Fossil collecting is the bulk of our activities in the field, which means that we are walking (and sometimes crawling) for most of the day; thus, aching lower backs, legs, and feet, are not uncommon at the end of the day.

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