The additions will help visitors understand the human condition today by analyzing the past.
The prehistoric stone harpoon is graceful and artistic. Even as a weapon of death, it is beautiful, neatly engraved with three small strokes. The harpoon fits the palm of Dr. Elizabeth Sawchuk, the new 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 stood on the shores of Lake Turkana when the lake was much larger”. The Turkana Basin has been called the Cradle of Life because various species of hominids have lived there for millions of years.
Research by Sawchuk and his team found evidence that the lake fluctuated quite a bit 10,000 years ago. The “old fisherman-
the foragers had to adapt quite 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 positions complement the team of interdisciplinary scientists who focus on connecting the human past with our lives today. Long-buried secrets of human behavior in food, tool-making, biodiversity, migration, human health and other life practices help us better understand “how these ancestors made their living”, according to Finestone, previously with the Max Planck
Institute for the Sciences of Human History in Germany.
Equally important, the research is a foundation and nexus for ideas about how modern humans might respond and adapt to our own changing climate.
concerns and other global challenges.
“Using their technology (including the creation of stone tools), our ancestors spread across the world into new environments where they otherwise could not have. Technology, coupled with biological adaptations, helped them adapt to high altitudes, colder temperatures and differences in UV radiation,” says Finestone, a Boston native.
Finestone appreciates the whole process of excavating a buried bone, tooth, ostrich egg, stone tool or shell bead. The object is documented, identified, studied and shared (the original or a cast) with the whole world. Throw a little ITUC and the Indiana Jones Adventure, and you get an idea of what the two new staffers are up to.
Finestone believes his job is to put together a puzzle from pieces found at archaeological sites. Being able to do this construction in an internationally known and respected institution for human rights
origins and evolution, like CMNH, is an incredible opportunity, she says. Both women are part of the expansion of CMNH’s anthropology department, a segment of the museum’s current $150 million transformation campaign.
The current excavations at Sawchuk are 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 originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and was recently a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta.
The anthropologist says you learn a lot from the artifacts she finds and that the projects boost the reputation of the museum. But Sawchuk is also worried about the fate of the remains of ancient people discovered there. The need for preservation is urgent.
“The erosion,” she says, “has exposed a number of artifacts and features that now risk being lost forever if not recovered.”