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Journeys: Bones of Contention

Sheila J. Gibson

It is just after 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and our group of two dozen is making its way to a room in the basement of a museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The route is short, but it’s lined with animal skulls, fossils, and other alluring exhibits, each one tempting us to stop and examine it. All of us are curious—some even enthralled—by the study of human origins, so asking us to resist and press forward is tantamount to suggesting that a compulsive shopper stroll down Rodeo Drive and ignore the display windows. Succumbing to these temptations, however, will leave us less time for what we really came here to see.

The group leaders, ever mindful of the clock, nudge us toward our destination, where Ian Tattersal is waiting patiently for everyone to file into the room. Tattersall is an expert on physical anthropology and human evolution anthropology, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and the author of several popular books on human origins. Slender, bearded, and casually clad, the 57-year-old Tattersall stands over a glass case containing a human skeleton. It is missing half its pelvis, its right femur, and everything below the left knee, and its cranium is a constellation of bone fragments, but it is intact enough to sketch the framework of a human shape.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Tattersall announces as the group members close in around the case, “please meet Lucy.” In life, he explains, Lucy was quite petite: She would have had to stand on her tiptoes to peek inside the 3-foot-tall case that holds her bones, which suggests much about how she and her fellow hominids lived 3.2 million years ago. Hominids, Tattersall explains, are members of the primate family Hominidae, the same family to which Homo sapiens belongs. After we arrived on the scene roughly 40,000 years ago, our Neanderthal cousins eventually vanished, leaving us as the only Hominidae. This, Tattersall informs the group, constitutes an odd development in the natural world. Usually, the appearance of a new species does not mean the elimination of existing species in the same family, but that seems to be what happened in our case. “Homo sapiens are the exception, rather than the rule, in being the only human species,” he says.

Scientists speculate on the events that might have orphaned us: Did we kill off the other Hominidae? Did we absorb them through interbreeding? Did they ultimately just fail to thrive? Because they hold clues to the mystery of how we came to be, Lucy and other traces of our ancient relatives—some of whom were more apelike than others—are infinitely intriguing to experts and arm-chair anthropologists alike. A visit with her is a highlight of the group’s trip, The Human Odyssey, a 20-day, seven-country, private-jet excursion designed and operated by TCS Expeditions of Seattle, Wash. By trekking to some of the archaeological world’s most significant sites, Human Odyssey travelers gain a unique insight into how human beings evolved into intelligent creatures capable of establishing cultures and erecting monuments to them, such as the ancient temples and monoliths in Malta and the Greek and Roman theaters in Sicily that are also included on the itinery.

The Lucy bones, discovered in November 1974 in the Hadar region of Ethiopia, reveal that our ancient ancestors were walking upright a million years before the invention of stone tools, a bombshell discovery that forced scientists to reshape their thinking on how humans evolved. “Lucy was a total revelation,” Tattersall explains, as he points out details that prove she was a biped: the wide pelvis and the conical rib cage that supported her internal organs while she stood erect. Her arms are also longer than her legs, suggesting that Lucy enjoyed the benefits of walking on two feet without sacrificing the advantages her tree-dwelling ancestors knew. Tattersall calls it a “have your cake and eat it, too, strategy,” explaining that some scientists think this body structure helped Lucy and her peers scavenge food. “If we’re lucky, later we may see a leopard kill stashed up a tree. Maybe early humans used their arboreal abilities to steal leopard prey,” he says, then wryly notes, “There is much evidence that they became leopard prey themselves.”

It is nearly 10 o’clock now, and time is up. The plane to Tanzania leaves at 11:25, and our group must clear Ethiopian airport security and immigration before we can board. Tattersall asks his listeners to hold questions for later, and we head upstairs to the buses that are waiting outside to take us on the next leg of the journey: the Tanzanian bush and Olduvai Gorge via our private Boeing 737, in a cabin that resembles one large first-class compartment.

We disembark at Kilimanjaro Airport, where sodas and samosas (meat or vegetarian) await us in the lounge, as do the keepers of the airport shops. We have only 20 minutes before we take off again, so we are faced with a stark choice: snack or spend. Chances to eat are plentiful on this trip, but chances to shop are not. We jam ebony candlesticks, malachite baubles, lapis lazuli necklaces, and tanzanite gemstones into our carry-on luggage as we hurry back out onto the tarmac.

Instead of reboarding the Boeing, we pack ourselves into the tiny cabins of a pair of Twin Otters for a no-frills flight to remote Tanzania.

Parked in a row near the field where our planes land are six white safari vans waiting to take us to Olduvai Gorge. In each country we visit, TCS relies on local professionals to augment the traveling staff, and the leader of the Tanzanian crew is safari director Charles Mwangoma. He rides shotgun in our van, trotting out punch lines older than Lucy. “Here, all roads lead to heaven,” he tells us while we rattle like marbles in a box across the remote Serengeti roads. “They shake the hell out of you before you get there.”

We can’t seem to go 20 feet without lurching to a halt to gaze at a ring-necked dove, a black-chested eagle, or some other feathered creature. “Birders are always the slowest vans,” Mwangoma says with a mild sigh, as one member of the group riffles through a reference book on birds. We do eventually make it to Olduvai Gorge, after becoming more judicious in our stops, braking for gazelles, zebras, giraffes, and lions, but no leopards or their freshly killed prey stashed in trees.

Mwangoma knows better than to bombard us with reams of information about every type of flora and fauna we see. He simply points out a creature, identifies it, and gives us a few seconds to gaze at it before moving on. Over the next few days, we’ll see many more animals doing more interesting things much closer to our van: hyenas lunching, baboons fighting, lions mating, and hippos yawning. Those viewings will make these incidental sightings seem meager by comparison, but this is our first glimpse of safari wildlife on this trip, and we savor it.

However, like the exhibits lining the route to Lucy’s room in the Ethiopian museum, the safari is merely a warm-up act for the headliner, anthropologist Maeve Leakey, who greets us when we arrive at a thatched hut overlooking the gorge. It’s not hyperbole to say that the Leakeys are the royal family of human origins studies, and attending a private speech at Olduvai Gorge is the anthropological equivalent of receiving basketball pointers from Michael Jordan on the court of Chicago’s United Center.

Maeve, a thin, middle-aged woman with a head of short, thick gray hair, speaks to us about the history of Olduvai Gorge, the Leakeys’ role in it, and the anthropological studies she and her daughter are conducting in the neighboring country of Kenya. Maeve’s late in-laws, Louis and Mary, came here in 1935, and their discoveries in the decades that followed established Olduvai Gorge as a font of clues to the mystery of human evolution. Scientists continue to flock to the area to build on the Leakeys’ work. “It really is staggering, the number of finds coming in,” Maeve says. “I just wish I had a longer life so I could see the discoveries to be made in the next 50 years.”

The Olduvai Gorge Museum is opened for us, and we file inside. It is small, consisting of just three rooms, but it makes the most of the space. One entire room is devoted to describing how a team of archaeologists preserved a set of 3.6-million-year-old fossilized footprints that Mary found in Laetoli, Tanzania, near Olduvai Gorge, in 1978. The footprints, believed to have been made by a man, a woman, and possibly a child, indicate that early humans walked upright at least 400,000 years before Lucy was born. Later, Tattersall explains that some scientists think that Hominidae might have been bipedal as early as 4.2 million years ago, then adds, “I don’t see anything to contradict human bipedalism as far back as 6 million years ago.”

The prints rival Lucy in terms of archaeological importance because they are perhaps the earliest known record of human behavior. They indicate that at one point, the female stopped and turned. We will never know exactly why—maybe she heard a volcano erupting in the distance, or spotted a hungry leopard, or just then remembered that she left the fire on back at the cave—but the humanity of her act was not lost on Mary, who wrote in a National Geographic article, “This motion, so intensely human, transcends time. A remote ancestor, just as you or I, experienced a moment of doubt.”

We drive down to see the spot where Maeve’s mother-in-law made the July 1959 find that established the Leakeys’ reputation: a 1.8-million-year-old hominid skull, one of the oldest ever discovered. “When Louis and Mary worked here, it was believed that evolution was a straight line,” she says, referring to the notion that Homo sapiens were the logical and inevitable end result of eons of purposeful progress. “Louis did not believe that.” Largely because of the Leakeys’ work, the human family tree actually resembles a tree rather than a trunk stripped of its branches. The skull that Mary found suggests that human evolution was a rather desultory process, not a one-way express trip from “benighted to enlightened,” to borrow a favorite phrase of Tattersall’s.

Human evolution as a nonlinear process is a recurring theme of this segment of the trip. But by not drawing a straight line from apes to us, The Human Odyssey raises more questions than it answers—and that’s just the point. Whether viewing Ice Age cave drawings in France and Spain or ancient bones in Africa, we aren’t presented with definitive conclusions about how we evolved. Instead, we are brought to places where traces of answers have been found, and then allowed to ponder them.

Planning an Odyssey
Since it was founded in 1992, TCS Expeditions (800. 727.7477, www.tcs-expeditions.com) has conducted 90 private jet expeditions to remote destinations, covering themes ranging from the History of Food and Wine to Sanctuaries of the Ancient World to National Parks of the West. The next Human Odyssey trips (priced at $32,950 per person) are scheduled to begin November 2, 2002 and October 4, 2003. As with the trip described here, guests will visit the Ice Age cave drawings of France and Spain; the ruins of Carthage in Tunisia; Greek and Roman theaters and a 2,500-year-old church on Sicily; the Lucy bones, island monasteries, and the rock-hewn medieval churches of Ethiopia; archeological sites in Olduvai Gorge and wildlife safaris in Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania; and the temples, churches, and megaliths of Malta. The Human Odyssey trip begins and ends in London.

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