Finding Humans: Studying Paleontologists at Work

Wesley Shrum, professor in the LSU Department of Sociology, has received a $105,795 grant from the National Science Foundation to film paleontologists searching for fossils of the earliest humans (and hominids) in Kenya, documenting how they draw grand conclusions about our species:

 

Wesley Shrum behind his camera

Wesley Shrum

Photo by Elsa Hahne/LSU 

I’m a sociologist of science and technology. I’ve been at LSU for 38 years. For the last 26, every summer I’ve gone abroad to do research. Kenya is one of my three primary countries; I study communication networks, the role of the internet in the globalization of science and other changes wrought by the introduction of mobile phones.
 
Close to 10 years ago, I met a couple of young women paleontologists who were striking out on their own after their doctoral work, and my original idea was to follow them in the field to document their first research project. We tried for three to four years to pull this off, but never got the funding. Then, at a hotel near the National Museums of Kenya, I overheard a couple of folks chatting and figured they were probably paleontologists. So, I got to talking with them and over the next couple of years, did some interviews, which led to the project we’re now doing.
 
It’s unique for two reasons. First, one of the principal investigators is a woman, and there are not that many women-led projects in paleontology, so that’s interesting. And the head of the overall project is Kenyan, which is also unusual. This is the only Kenyan-led field team. It’s called WTPP, the West Turkana Paleo Project.

 

We’ve shifted our methodology over the years to start doing more video ethnography as part of our work. This is key. We’re not just writing books and articles—we decided some years ago that that was too boring, if I may say. I wrote books and articles throughout my entire career, and I still do, but the work has to get into a more palatable form. Almost everything we do now has a video component, even if we’re just doing a survey.


We’ve shifted our methodology over the years to start doing more video ethnography as part of our work. This is key. We’re not just writing books and articles—we decided some years ago that that was too boring, if I may say. I wrote books and articles throughout my entire career, and I still do, but the work has to get into a more palatable form. Almost everything we do now has a video component, even if we’re just doing a survey.
 
In this case, we’re documenting the paleontologists and their work. We’re part of their team in the sense that they allow us to be there and film everything, but we’re not ourselves paleontologists. Nor do we find fossils because they’re darn hard to find! National Geographic has done plenty of stories on these folks, but nobody films them actually finding the fossils, and that’s what we’ll do.

 

We sleep in a dry river bed in a tent, and I’m not a camper kind of guy. Last year, I got heat exhaustion. I thought I drank enough water. Heck, that first day, I was jogging around with a camera, and we had a drone with us, so we were flying the drone, and then I started to see double. ‘I need to find a bush and just lie down under this bush, and maybe someone can come and find me.’

 

Wesley Shrum in his LSU office

Wesley Shrum in his LSU office

Photo by Elsa Hahne/LSU 

 In January of 2018 we did a pilot study that was incorporated into our grant proposal and that always helps in writing a successful proposal to NSF. One of the places has the hottest average temperature on planet Earth. The only people who live there are herders in nomadic tribes. The Kenyan guy who runs the project hires some locals to do the cooking, and others are expert fossil finders. You have to be trained to know what you’re looking for, and although the locals sometimes can’t tell what precise era and what species—the paleontologists do that—they can definitely tell when they’ve found a significant fossil. Some of them are employed by the National Museum of Kenya, but most of them are seasonal workers.

 

We sleep in a dry river bed in a tent, and I’m not a camper kind of guy. Last year, I got heat exhaustion. I thought I drank enough water. Heck, that first day, I was jogging around with a camera, and we had a drone with us, so we were flying the drone, and then I started to see double. ‘I need to find a bush and just lie down under this bush, and maybe someone can come and find me.’
 
Thanks to this grant, we’ll be going back to Kenya for the next three years. We’ll spend a couple of weeks in the field each time. We want to follow the scientists into the field with an open mind and document the process of finding and discarding and deciding what’s important, then getting those fossils back to the lab so they can be tested and dated and appropriately described in the scientific literature. Our next trip will be in May.

 

We’re really working at two sites in northwestern Kenya, in the Turkana area. In one, they’ve found the oldest ever stone tools on the planet so far. Also, they’ve found bones from hominids, that is, ancestors of anatomically modern humans, but not homo sapiens. So, we have tools and ancestors, but the tools are actually much older than the ancestors. So, who made the tools? It’s literally a possibility that ‘we’ didn’t, that the human lineage didn’t, and that humans weren’t even the first tool users.


We’re really working at two sites in northwestern Kenya, in the Turkana area. In one, they’ve found the oldest ever stone tools on the planet so far. Also, they’ve found bones from hominids, that is, ancestors of anatomically modern humans, but not homo sapiens. So, we have tools and ancestors, but the tools are actually much older than the ancestors. So, who made the tools? It’s literally a possibility that ‘we’ didn’t, that the human lineage didn’t, and that humans weren’t even the first tool users.
 
The other site is an untapped location for finding fossils. It has never been properly excavated, and they hope to find bones from the earliest anatomically modern humans there.
 
In the grant proposal, I called our project ‘How to Find Humans: A Video Ethnographic Approach to Fieldwork in Paleontology.’ Mostly because the first part was catchy, but it has a double meaning; as the researchers are collecting fossils, we’re collecting the researchers. Maybe at some point someone can collect us; ‘Look at what they were doing back in the 21st century there.’

 

Paleontologists are cool because these people are hardcore scientists, but they also frequently leap from a small bone they find, dated with some level of uncertainty, to gigantic claims about the nature of humans. They go from sitting out in the dirt in the hottest place on the planet to the cover of The New York Times.


One main goal is to get people interested in science, and field science specifically. As we document the process of searching, finding, and identifying fossils, we discover something about the logic of inference, how paleontologists make judgements on the meaning of different fossils and their importance for human evolution. Paleontologists are cool because these people are hardcore scientists, but they also frequently leap from a small bone they find, dated with some level of uncertainty, to gigantic claims about the nature of humans. They go from sitting out in the dirt in the hottest place on the planet to the cover of The New York Times. They find a fossilized bone, but then try to tell a story that’s complex and relevant and says something about our ancestors. It’s fun to sit and hear them talk, and we get to document the process of scientific research in a way that’s never been done before in this field.

 

 

Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development
225-578-4774
ehahne@lsu.edu