The prehistoric stone harpoon is graceful and artistic. Even as a weapon of death, it is beautiful, etched carefully with three small lines. The harpoon fits across the palm of the hand belonging to Dr. Elizabeth Sawchuk, the newly appointed assistant curator for human evolution at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Sawchuk discovered the harpoon this summer in Northern Kenya — not on a beach but in a desert. She is co-directing excavations “at an ancient fishing site that used to be on the shores of Lake Turkana when the lake was much larger.” The Turkana Basin has been called the cradle of life because diverse hominid species have lived there for millions of years.
Sawchuk and her team’s research found evidence that the lake fluctuated quite a bit 10,000 years ago. The “ancient fisher-
foragers had to adapt pretty creatively to their changing environments,” she says.
So, what is an anthropologist now based in Northeast Ohio doing in Africa on a three-year grant assignment?
Sawchuk and Dr. Emma Finestone, assistant curator of human origins, were both hired by CMNH in May. The two newly created staff positions round out the team of interdisciplinary scientists focused on connecting the human past with our lives today. The long-buried secrets of human behavior in regard to diet, tool-making, biodiversity, migration, human health and other life practices help us better understand “how these ancestors made a living,” according to Finestone, previously with the Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
Equally important, the research is a foundation and link for ideas of how modern humans could respond and adapt to our own climate change
concerns and other global challenges.
“By using their technology (including the creation of stone tools), our ancestors spread across the globe into new environments where they would not have otherwise been able to. Technology, coupled with biological adaptions, helped them adjust to high altitudes, colder temperatures and differences in UV radiation,” says Finestone, originally from Boston.
Finestone enjoys the entire process of excavating a buried bone, tooth, ostrich egg, stone tool or shell bead. The item is documented, identified, studied and shared (the original or a cast) with the entire world. Throw in a little CSI and Indiana Jones adventure, and you have an idea of what the two new staff members do.
Finestone believes her work is putting together a puzzle from pieces found on archaeological sites. Being able to do that construction at an internationally known and respected institution for human
origins and evolution, such as CMNH, is an incredible opportunity, she says. The two women are part of the expansion of CMNH’s anthropology department, a segment of the museum’s current $150 million transformation campaign.
Sawchuk’s present excavation is being conducted in partnership with The National Museums of Kenya and the Turkana Basin Institute, and funded by the National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and most recently was a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta.
The anthropologist claims much is being learned from the artifacts she is finding and that the projects boost the museum's reputation. But Sawchuk is also worried about the fate of the remains of ancient people discovered on site. The need for preservation is urgent.
“Erosion," she says, "has exposed a number of artifacts and features which are now in danger of being lost forever if not recovered."