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Fossils Beneath Our Feet

By Ashley Bales

We pull out of camp at dawn. A quiet group, all the morning greetings dispensed with over too sweet coffee and Weetabix. I grab suntan lotion from my bag and try to smear it on before our Land Cruiser moves off the short road leading from our camp to the cracked flood plain—scarred by torrents of rain, but blisteringly dry now for some 23 months. I slam my hand against the ceiling of the car, bracing myself against the progressive bumps that accompany our traverse from the camp track to the reserve’s main thoroughfare, a newly constructed dirt road running from one side of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the other. One final rev of the engine followed by a predictable crash marks our ascent to the main road. Gabriel, our driver, shifts stickily into a higher gear and we’re off, just slower, for a moment, than the Grant’s gazelle bounding next to the car. It would be so easy for them to turn away, to head off into the endless plain, but millennia of instinct keep them dashing straight ahead of their pursuer. I pull my fleece back on and lean my bouncing head against the window, repositioning my foot against the bar between Rashidi’s legs on the bench seat across from me. I close my eyes to rest and hope, as I do every morning, that it will be a long drive out to the site. A long drive is my favorite way to start the day.

After 20 minutes, Gabriel slows the car as Rashidi yells directions in Swahili. I sit up. We are perched on top of a barren plain, trying to find the best way down a steep wall into the dry riverbed beneath us. This is where we will find fossils.

Every day takes us to a new riverbed. Before long, the six of us in the back are once again bracing ourselves as Gabriel down-shifts and revs the car over the ridge, pointing its nose straight down. We move slowly down the bank, only to speed up just before we would dive into the dirt, the car’s nose lurching back to horizontal, guiding us forward onto the flat bottom of the riverbed. The engine dies and I push open the back doors of the Land Cruiser to inhale the hot cloud of dust we cut from the hill with our arrival. Time to work.

Terry gives us our directions for the day, the same directions as every day: “Head down the riverbed, stay below the brown conglomerate, don’t stray too far, we’ve run into lions at this locality before.” Terry and Rashidi both march ahead, getting in front of the rest of us. Tom and Jaki are next, chatting as they lazily kick at the ground. I head off towards a gulley that no one has claimed. One of many running down from the plain above us, it was cut by long- gone waters to expose four-million-year-old sediments where we hope to find fossils, evidence of our pre-historic ancestors. I lock my eyes on the sea of beige and grey beneath my feet. Fossil hunting is hardest this early in the morning, when the sun is low and shoots its beams across the pebble-strewn ground at an angle, making long shadows and reflecting sharply off the bleached stones. Every few steps I kneel down to turn over a rock. Sometimes I just shuffle along bent in half, hoping not to stumble into a long-needled acacia plant.

By the time I get to my gulley I can no longer see anyone else from the group. They have all either rushed ahead or gone into other gulleys. I take a sip of water and relish the silence and stretching sky overhead. The sun has risen a few degrees higher. The coffee kicks in. I find a large long-bone fragment. The joints are nowhere to be found—smashed or still buried deep in the crumbling ground. Not enough anatomy to identify, though by its size it’s probably an elephant. I leave it in the gulley, but the find is energizing and I open my eyes wider. I scan more slowly.

Five hours later we are all huddled around Terry, back at the car, pulling out our finds for the morning: the ankle bone of a rhino, a gazelle femur, a dik-dik jaw. Tom found a humerus that may be from a primate, but it’s too small to be human and chances are it’s just a cat. A veneer of skepticism doesn’t completely mask the excitement we feel to get back to camp and compare Tom’s humerus to our reference collection. As we pile back into the car we’re all thinking maybe, just maybe, it could be something new—a creature that lived alongside our ancestors four million years ago—something to help us understand these past worlds beneath our feet, to guide us into another year searching the gravel.

[Inspired by Ernest Hemingway]


Ashley Bales received her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from NYU in 2017. She is currently an adjunct assistant professor in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute, and serves as web editor for Assignment Magazine. She is working on her first novel.