Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Haley Reading Group: Amy Maxmen’s "Digging Through the World’s Oldest Graveyard"


[The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2015)]

By Cynthia A. Campbell

Amy Maxmen’s article “Digging Through the World’s Oldest Graveyard” highlights paleoanthropologists Zeresenay Alemseged and Berhane Asfaw’s expeditions to locate fossils and human skeletal remains in Ethiopia. Maxmen illuminates the discovery of and process of dating the human remains found. Ultimately, the article speaks to Ethiopia being this significant geographical region in understanding the evolution of humans.

Maxmen’s discussion of Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus) was especially enlightening. At one point, Maxmen notes that “the analysis took 15 years and 47 researchers to paint a full picture of…and her surroundings” (184). This point indicates the intricacies and painstaking efforts of thorough research.

After reading Maxmen’s article, what was one point concerning the various species discovered that caught your attention? Why was that point or passage important to you? Please provide a page number citation.

28 comments:

Linda H. said...

Linda Hawkins

I personally found the discovery of the Ardi skeleton to be the most surprising part of the reading. The passage states "the analysis took 15 years and 47 researchers to paint a full picture of Ardipithecus ramidus - Ardi, for short - and her surroundings." (pg.184). I found this section in particular very interesting because it showed how much dedication the researchers had to their discovery. I read this and came to the conclusion that I couldn't see myself spending 15 years searching for the puzzle pieces to a skeleton. I had so much more respect for these researchers because this project obviously meant a lot to them as shown through their dedication.

Unknown said...

I found the discovery of the actual evidence of the use of stone tools interesting. According to the passage, "The marks are unambiguous evidence of stone tool use, 800,000 years earlier than when paleontologists thought it arose"(Maxmen, 187). However, Almeseged could see no reason to doubt this because of the fact that Australopithecus afarensis's have human features such as thumbs and fingers. He also believed that they may of had the intellect to move stones and use them efficiently. The fact that they may have been able to mentally process an ability to use stones in order to benefit them in any way bewilders me. Overall, I thought this was interesting because it shows strong evidence of possible evolution dating back years ago.

Anonymous said...

Kami Douglas

I found the information discovered by Dean Fall, regarding Australopithecus afarensis brains, especially interesting. She found that the brains were fairly advanced when compared with the brains of apes. This shows that even such mammals can construct actual mental processes.
The passage says, "with a higher functioning brain, our ancestors may have had the cognition to create rudimentary technology" (Maxmen, 187). This is interesting because it shows that even mammals from years ago, were able to make mental processes that could benefit them. Overall, this is interesting because it shows the evolution not only according to the physical aspect but also to the mentality aspect of mammals.

Anonymous said...

I found this reading particularly interesting as I am Ethiopian and have been to the Afar region they are describing in this reading. It is interesting to imagine that such scientific advances have been found there like Lucy and Ardi, and that there is most likely more that is yet to be discovered. The drive of the paleontologist on this project astounds me, paying his own money and risking his life for his work.
Fatima B.

LaTrina B said...


After reading Maxmen’s article, what was one point concerning the various species discovered that caught your attention? Why was that point or passage important to you? Please provide a page number citation.
One point in the passage that caught my attention was how Alemseged reported the some first signs of butchery. "In nature, Alemseged and his colleagues reported the first signs of butchery... 800,000 years than earlier than when paleontologists thought it arose." (Maxmen 187) I found this particular part interesting because the team of experts detected that a sharpened stone could bare marks that accounted for the width, shape, and angle of a rib from a large cow.

Upon discovering that, I can just imagine how they felt. That is a turning point in history to discover something that occurred earlier in time than predicted. It also helped them understand that species then particularly the Australopithecus Afarensis used stone tools and they possessed the intelligence to do so. LaTrina B


Anonymous said...

Alexis H.

One point that caught my attention was when Alemseged believe that Lucy and others around her age used weapons (pigs 185-190). This was interesting because I thought that the first use of weapons was during the time of the Homos. To believe that primates were able to use their brains to fight at such an early age is a fun fact. Knowing that they used their brains which I would label as common sense in a sense is fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Jason A

The point that was most interesting to me was one about the unearthing of the fossil named Selam, meaning peace a few Ethiopian languages. I found it interesting to know that even 3.3 million years ago our ancestors had strong enough emotions to have a proper burial for others who had passed. In this case she even drowned and they still recovered the body to be buried in sand. "Slowly, over a period of years, he and his colleagues carefully unearthed a petite skeleton of a child who had likely died in a flood and been buried in soft sand" (Maxmen 180).

Anonymous said...

I found the information about Ardi to be the most interesting just because it took so long for the researchers to build a picture of what happened. The researchers are all so dedicated and the text states that "the analysis took 15 years and 47 researchers to paint a full picture of Ardipithecus ramidus [...] and her surroundings." (Maxmen 184). I find this interesting because at any time they could have given up because it was difficult to uncover but they didn't because they are determined to see the world for how it originally was. It is amazing that they were able to put the skeleton back together so that research could be done on it. I think overtime we just need to remember that things were not always the way that they are today and that we should do our best to see scientifically how we evolved.
-Jasmine Dickerson

Devin Ellis-Martin said...

This article ties together a theme mostly of the on going struggle between man and animal in survival, with the animals continuously losing this battle. On page 69, it states,"It was full of antelopes and wild pigs and all types of monkeys". This quote further proves how the presence of human and the natural instinct of animals are in constant battle, and habitats are constantly changing.

-Devin Ellis-Martin

Rachael Gray said...

I wonder how long it took them to get to Dikika. I feel like having to move the stones out of the way and pushing the jeep as much as they had to would have slowed them down by a few days. This is my first time reading about Lucy, the partial human and partial chimpanzee body that was found in 1974. I think this is astounding. However, I wonder why there are still chimpanzees today if they were supposed to be evolving. It makes me wonder if humans actually started as full chimpanzees or if they just had more similar characteristics and only some of the same bones as chimpanzees do. It is good that Asfawa loves working with fossils so much that he does not want to move. However, if he takes one of those jobs that is offering him a lot of money, he might be able to save up money, go back to Ethiopia, and improve his working conditions (electricity, phone lines, and internet). Alemseged works in California and Ethiopia. I do not think the scratches on the antelope and cow are enough to completely conclude butchery. It could have been from another, huge animal that they have not discovered. Assuming it is a scratch from a stone because it looks that way to them is just not enough information to go on.

Gabrielle H. said...

One discovery that I found very interesting was the species in our family they unveiled to be the "ardipithecus ramidus." This appealed to me because they possibly believed it to be the first genus of our own to walk on two legs which is a substantial step towards what we have evolved into today. I also thought this was important because it describes how long and detail oriented the process is (From removing the grime that covered delicate bones to taking the pieces to another country (Japan) for organization). "From start to finish, the analysis took 15 years and 47 researchers to paint a full picture of Ardipithecus ramidus"(Maxmen 184).

Hannah C said...

Hannah C.

The information about the utilization of resources caught my eye the most. On page 187, the "rib from a large cow and a thighbone from a small antelope bore marks that experts identified as different from the rest...the marks are evidence of stone tool use...This is the first technology" (Maxmen 187). In the prehistoric era, their tool use is not comparable to our technological innovations. However, this stuck out to me because it shows the elevated thinking and logical processes that occurred even millions of years ago. Their form of technology was of use to them and the marks both identified and technologized different pieces of rock.

Anonymous said...

One point that caught my attention the most was the discovery of Selam as she was "a petite skeleton of a child who had likely died in a flood and been buried in soft sand." (Maxmen 180). It was shocking to learn that she had both gorilla and human characteristics as she had "long fingers that betrayed a penchant for swinging on branches," and her bones showed that she walked on two legs and held her head upright. It was quite interesting to learn that Salem's bones lasted over 3.3 million years, and to learn that she is apart of Lucy's, another discovered fossil, species.

Samantha A.

Brian Green said...

One point that was most interesting to me was the fact that Berhane Asfaw wanted to seek out the entire Rift Valley from north to south and look for new fossil sites(Maxmen, 182-183). He stressed the urgent need to form a team to preserve the fossils. During their journey, a finger bone was spotted from Ardipithecus ramidus that they discovered years back.

This was interesting to me because the team had a set goal and passion to find early life at the fossil sites. It was intriguing to know that they recovered over 100 fractured pieces of a single skeleton, bones, and fossils. These remains were from the period, 4.4 million years ago.

This goes to show that what you want to do in life is possible and it only takes the passion and urgency to want to make a difference. Asfaw wanted to make sure that his plan was executed before the fossils that could be lost before they were even found.

Brian G.

Joshua C. said...

Joshua C

The point that was the most interesting to me was the fact that the first and earliest human evolved from Ethiopia. "It's the earliest child in the history of humans...That discovery of 100 percent Ethiopian. It was by Ethiopians, on Ethiopian land, led by an Ethiopian scientist" (Maxmen 180).

This intrigued me because of the stark genetic differences in all humans nowadays. To know that each and every person came from the same geographic and genetic makeup and diversified mutated genes, and everything in between is so powerful.

Caleb A, said...

Throughout the reading, there were various discoveries that I found quite interesting. There was one discovery in particular that I found quite thought-provoking though.

The passage states, "there are bones of our distant family members buried in tumbles of same in Africa" (Maxima, 181). So, referring to primates, it the researchers concluded that some of the evidence finds that some of the species have been found in layers dating back to roughly 3 million years (Maxima, 182). This means that they have lasted five times the duration of our own species so far.

The findings are quite incredible, but what I find to be most intriguing is the question the author poses, "Can we do at least as good as this primitive species?" This question alone provokes the thought of day-to-day life that is presently taking place. Are we in a current condition to last as long? Are we taking steps to correct our wrong-doings to try and last as long? Do we actually want to last as long? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when trying to comprehend the longevity of an entire species in relation to our current state.

Caleb A.

Unknown said...

When I read this, the discoveries found were very interesting to me. I thought the Australopithecus afrensis was interesting because it was a cross between having gorilla like skeletal features and human features; "Selam's gorillaish shoulder blades and long fingers betrayed a penchant for swinging on branches. But bones at the base of her head showed that she held it upright and therefore walked on two legs (Maxmen 180)." I thought this was interesting because the evolution from primate to human with the evidence of this skeleton means that there may be possibles that the unique combinations of the two ends of the spectrum of human and primate gave strengths that cant be replicated in our modern era by us, regardless of its usefulness.
-Andrew H.

Caulder Brantley said...

One point that caught my attention was when Alemseged discussed how he was facing criticism about the possible use of stone tools earlier than previously thought by his colleagues. One part in particular "Mark my words,we will find stone tools from 3.4 million years ago" (Alemseged 189) stuck out to me because I couldn't fathom how his colleagues could just write off his speculation as preposterous. Another point I found intresting and important to the plot was how Maxmen and Alemseged focused on the importance of these discoveries were made in Ethiopia by Ethiopians without outside interference or funding from western countries.

Caulder Brantley

Anonymous said...

The discovery of “Salem” really caught my attention. The passage stated that the skeleton belonged to a petite child, which was the earliest child in the history of humanity. The child had likely died in a flood 3.3 million years ago. Salem had characteristics of a gorilla but also characteristics of a human. I think it is really interesting that people can figure out so much information just based on a skeleton. The skeletons are millions of years old and can still be useful to scientists. (Pg 180)

Alyria B.

Isaiah Andrews said...

Something that really stood out to me was that that first child of the world that was discovered, was so discovered Ethiopia. And to notice that and see everywhere that people are found on Earth now it's amazing. However, the simple spread of intelligence and just how that divided us as a people is saddening.

-Isaiah Andrews

Anonymous said...

One point that piqued my interest while reading this article is was the focus on how there were discoveries of species with human traits that existed long before homo sapiens. I find that theory quite interesting because it contradicts multiple explanations and sayings on how homo sapiens came to be. There is multiple scientific theories, philosophical theories, and spiritual theories on how this world had come to formation.
This discovery of Australopithecus ramidus show how much this earth can evolve multiple species when given time and how much a change in conditions can cause a shift in the development of a species. “Ancient traces of humankind’s past” (179). Overall, this idea that there are traces of species that we could have evolved from due to the change in conditions and time is quite intriguing.
Celeste B.

Mara Bracken said...

As I was reading, I took note of the journey of Alemseged. It seems as though he stopped at nothing to achieve his results/goals. For example, it states, “...Alemsegad realized archaeologists might have been searching for stone tools with a biased image in mind.” (186) The archeologists has been looking for something to represent what stone tools “Ardi” could have used during its lifetime. I liked the persistence that he had even though there were many things that might have stopped him from moving forward.
Mara B.

Anonymous said...

Janay B.
When considering technology today most people immediately think of cell phones. This is why I found the discovery of the use of sharpened stones around the Australopithecus afarensis time period the most interesting. Alemseged states, “The marks are ‘unambiguous’ evidence of stone tool use, 800,000 years earlier than when paleontologists thought it arose”(Maxmen, 187).
Alemseged also refers to this discovery as being “the first technology” (Maxmen, 187). The use of sharpened rocks being referred to as technology prompted me to think about how we have gotten to this point of such advanced technology. You could go as far as to say that we owe our ability to have smartphones to Australopithecus afarensis.

Anonymous said...

In the excerpt, they discovered Salem, the first kid to ever be found. That is honestly baffling that after all the discoveries made this was the first kid. You’d think that some paleontologist or archeologist would have found a child years in advance. Initially, I thought Lucy was the oldest ancestor of the human race but now I know that they discovered Australopithecus. Both Salem and Australopithecus have gorilla like features and when you compare that to the typical human, it really depicts evolution. Ronald A.

Anonymous said...

Amira F.

In particular, what I found most interesting was Alemseged’s findings of large cow bones with sharpened stone marks(186-187) to be most interesting. To me, the fact that they could still identify it as a cow/antelope, and then that they could tell with all of their technology, that this was what they would consider to be the first signs of butchery. To me that was very important because livestock is very important to almost every person in the world today. Unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’re eating meat. To discover that all the different cuts from filets, to t-bones, to ground or topped meat started almost 3.39 million years ago, is very fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I feel like this article did a great job of showing how humans have evolved over the years and showing readers the reasons why we underwent those evolutionary changes. Although the article was interesting I found the last one regarding the conservationists in New Zealand to be more controversial, interesting, and helpful in understanding New Zealanders ideals and thoughts. Gabriel G.

Anonymous said...

I found several aspects about this article interesting. Particularly, the fact about the Australopithecus afrensis really caught my eye. This discovery showed us that this one had both gorilla like features and human features (Maxmen 180). I thought this one was interesting because just based off of the skeleton we were able to discover a big piece in the evolution of primates to human.

Nadira E.

Anonymous said...

The life of a paleontologist must be filled with frustration and patience with the extended time it takes for a skeleton or the like to be found, constricted, and analyzed. The ardiputhecus ramidus, finding articulates just that. “Took 15 years and 47 researchers to paint a picture of the ardiputhecus ramidus and her surroundings.” 184. I’m sure that many people in their field of work don’t understand the time and dedication it may take for their occupation, without a firm unserstanding and acceptance of effort it takes, and even some obsession, it tends to make people miserable and hate their job. It is a blessing that there are people out there willing to put forth themselves and pursue a passion that means plenty to them.

Dylan B