Back to the Brook: attending a workshop on a new fossil primate

By Todd C. Rae

Twenty five years ago, as a PhD student at SUNY Stony Brook, I had the good fortune to be part of team collecting primate fossils at Songhor, a 20 million year old site in western Kenya.  The leader of the group was Isaiah Nengo, a Kenyan who was, at the time, also a PhD student at Harvard (that’s him on the right, and me on the left).

Todd C. Rae and Isaiah Nengo

Fossils were found, fried ground nuts were eaten, a preliminary announcement was published and I lost the taste for fieldwork, having contracted cerebral malaria!  I subsequently moved to the UK, changed my research focus to internal cranial anatomy, specifically sinuses, and thought no more of my east African adventure.

Infant primate cranium of Nyanzapithecus alesiThen, a quarter century later, a familiar name popped up in my email inbox.  It turns out that Isaiah, now teaching in California, had been working again in east Africa, and had discovered a fantastic specimen of an infant primate cranium of a new species (Nyanzapithecus alesi) from 13 million year old deposits from North Napudet, in the west Turkana area of northern Kenya.  He invited me, along with my colleague Thomas Koppe, to participate in further analysis, particularly on the sinuses, a topic on which Thomas and I have published extensively.  We couldn’t say yes quickly enough!

Thomas Koppe

Wanting to see the original specimen, rather than just CT scans, I arranged to go to the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, only to be invited to join the second Napudet field season.  So, for the first time in many years, I did some fieldwork on the 2015 Napudet season, which I documented with a video diary.  Suffice it to say that I’ve never eaten so much goat, seen so many scorpions or worked so long in one spot (the now-infamous Red Hill, where the photo of me below was taken) to find one rodent mandible! But, we discovered a forest with over a hundred individual fossil trees and, significantly, more primate remains.

Todd in the field


Turkana Basin Institute

The second phase of study of the fossil commenced with a workshop at Stony Brook, NY, where Isaiah is now working at the Turkana Basin Institute.

Todd and John Fleagle

So, for the first time in 25 years, I returned to Long Island.  It was great to see my thesis advisor, John Fleagle (that’s him on the right, and me on the left) who was also involved in the project, and old friends Fred Spoor, now of the Natural History Museum, London, and Ellen Miller from Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

The sixteen scientists attending the workshop are experts in the fields of hearing, balance, diet, phylogeny, pneumatization, locomotion, development and primate evolution and palaeontology.

Workshop attendees in action

We were dazzled by the wealth of information that could be gleaned from teeth and bones using advanced techniques such as 3D virtual reconstruction from images obtained from a particle accelerator!  A host of new analyses was planned, just as NY was hit by a pretty impressive snowstorm.

New York snow storm

Working with extremely good scientists on an exciting project such as this is an opportunity not to be missed.  The fact that I also revisited the site of my postgraduate work was a bonus, which was only augmented by the presence of so many old friends and colleagues.  The planned analyses will tell us even more about young Alesi, an animal that died as an infant 13 million years ago but will continue to provide new information about a crucial time in the evolution of apes, the group of organisms to which our own species, Homo sapiens, belongs.

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