Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Goings on about town

It's been a busy two weeks for us here, so here's a briefing on the other (non-field trip) bits of our lives.

I'm now pitching fairly regularly again, but haven't been able to replicate my early success after the abdominal surgery. Record: 0 wins 3 losses 9.00 ERA.

I've been collecting these funny advertisements for witch doctors.

Kelsey and I convinced our landlords to allow us to install a larger patio out back for braai parties and just general enjoyment. We started removing aloes last weekend.

Or rather I should say our stalwart gardener Mawazo started removing aloes (pictured here with his friend William on the left and about 400 pounds of aloes).

Here are the garden plans (with black background for some reason)

I had some luck getting publicity for a new paper I have coming out.

Which appeared directly opposite a major toilet scandal in the paper.

And I visited the National Museum in Bloemfontein with my graduate student Eddie. Pictures of Bloem to be posted later, can't get them off my camera.

The museum's logo is a representation of this awesome animal, Pelorovis, the "monstrous cow", which they have abundant fossils of.

They also have great material of Sivatheres, or extinct giraffe relatives. Seriously, this thing is a giraffe.

And, of course, dinosaurs.

The National Museum recently installed a new exhibit on rock art and human material culture, which includes this super cool stone tool panel.

But of course I was working in the collections, where this sort of display is more common.

Finally, I wanted to show this display because the Secretary Bird is about the coolest bird in the world, and because they're very common near my field sites.

Daisies and dinosaurs

You'll remember a few months ago I went down to the Eastern Cape to look at some dinosaur fossils. One of the fossils I checked out was this huge femur lying in a roadcutting, which had been pointed out to my buddy Billy de Klerk by a local farmer Mr. Selby Vorster. 

Selby had, in turn, been notified of the fossil by one of his herdsmen, who accidently sat on it while eating his lunch by the side of the road (recreated discovery scene below).

It turned out that the plant Kelsey is studying, Helichrysum odoratissimum, occurs in the same area, so we decided to partner up and engage in a first-ever husband and wife field season. We were joined by (from left): Brigette Cohen (graduate student at Wits); Armstrong (preparator at Rhodes University); Leo Goosen (Education Supervisor at Rhodes); Zubair Jinnah (Lecturer at Wits); and Billy de Klerk (soon-to-be Emeritus curator at the Albany Museum and Rhodes University). Brigette took many of the great photographs below.

Since the dinosaur was on the edge of a one-lane dirt road (a numbered route down in the Eastern Cape), the local road engineers were happy to erect some signage warning farmers we were there.

This is an insanely beautiful part of the world, and apparently pretty good for trout fishing too. Forgot to pack the rod, though.

Here's the scene when we arrived:

As you can tell by Kelsey's bundling, it wasn't exactly warm. This made the fireside bar at the Mountain Shadows hotel all the more welcome every night:

Anyhow, the dinosaur was preserved in a tough sandstone, making removal a tricky process and requiring use of heavy equipment.  You can always tell the rock saw is working even from a mile away because it throws a 40 foot plume of fine rock dust behind you.

 Here's the progress after day one:

And after day two:

By day three we could sit in the hole we'd dug. 

As we dug through the rock layers, we found some interesting stuff. We were able to tell that the fossil was a sauropodomorph dinosaur (a four legged plant eater the size of a bus) based on the size and shape of the femur and other bones, and we were also able to tell that it had been scavenged by meat eating dinosaurs because we found a bunch of their teeth in the sediments.

Leo dug out these ribs over the course of several days.

And here are some of the smaller theropod teeth I found:

Alas, the sailing couldn't remain smooth for long. Between our second and third days, somebody came by in the night and stole the exposed femur. We had to open a police docket, as such thefts are a serious crime in South Africa, but we don't have any promising leads as of yet.

Below is a composite image of the site after the theft. Individual bones are a dark color, because we've poured glue over them.

Meanwhile, Kelsey and Brigette were driving all over the backcountry, looking for plants by the side of the road. 

This is the sort of area where "traffic" takes on a new meaning.

Great success!

And when we say "country roads", we mean stuff that's close to offroading. This is the road up Naude's Neck pass, see if you can spot it:

Naude's Neck is the highest pass in South Africa.

It seems no matter when you go out or where you are in South Africa, a protea will be blooming.

As if offroad conditions, cows, and fossil-stealing locals weren't enough of a hazard, the occasional "veld fire" breaks out in the dry grass of winter. 

Kelsey had to drive THROUGH one of these:

Back at the dino dig, Zubair and I were able to measure a stratigraphic section

And we recruited a backhoe to do some of the heavy excavations.

The weather was moving in, and we still had miles to go, so we had the backhoe operator cover the site in loose soil to prevent any more thievery. Our net progress appeared to be zero by the time he was done.

Faced with a few afternoon hours to kill, we went to the Denorben rock art site, which is in a sandstone cave about 100 feet long and twenty feet tall. I posted on it before, but didn't have a good overview picture or any young ladies for scale.

This is the view from within the cave.

And this is the farm's outbuildings right next to the cave. Apparently bushmen used to hide stolen cattle there until it was discovered by farmers (who promptly shot the bushmen).

Our last stop was at the gallery of my friend the artist Sarah Swart (among other things, the chief South African lamp post painter to the Queen of England). She lives in the most charming sandstone house, which I showed a picture of before, but I never showed the interior.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Cradle

Over the weekend, we sent the dogs to camp and had a little time for ourselves. We used it to investigate the Cradle of Humankind, the only World Heritage Site within Johannesburg's province of Gauteng. The Cradle of Humankind is about a 1 hour drive from our house in Melville, and consists of several jaw-dropping sites where various human ancestors have been found. Here's an overview, but don't worry - when you come visit us you'll get to experience it for yourselves.

You simply can't drive through the grittier neighborhoods in Johannesburg without a "Sanford and Son" flashback. Here, a desperate attempt to avoid copyright infringement amuses us on our way out of town.

...45km later, we decided to go straight and visit the visitor center at Maropeng first, then circle back and go to Sterkfontein. 

This auspicious sign greeted us along the path from the parking lot to the visitor center. Kelsey was not amused.

Here Kelsey is sitting close to the entrance to the visitor center, which is the strange, flat-topped mound in the background. It's called the "tumulus" which sounds like a cross between a turd and a cloud but actually means a burial mound.

Inside the tumulus, this large water feature foreshadows the strange entrance to the exhibit...

...whereby you are ushered into a small, circular dingy and cast off to experience "Earth's Elements" along a murky subterranean "river" that runs through a tunnel. Certainly, the element of surprise was the most prominent one on display. Kelsey is not amused.

One element down (water?)

Fast forward to the last element, fire. 

After this stunning ripoff of "It's a small world after all," we joyously disembarked from our lifeboat (we both agreed it was kind of neat though).

Now it was time to get serious about evolution.

Kelsey was pleased to see the leading role DNA played in the exhibit. This portion consisted of a button and a random phenotype generator - which was stuck on "red haired" and "left handed".

Also you got to place a call to the Aunt Dodo, who was full of juicy extinction gossip.

And try your hand at primate proctology.

Kelsey is finally amused.

No exhibit on human evolution could be complete without graphically showing you these embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions.

These shots of the rest of the exhibit exemplify that Maropeng is seriously strange and intermittently educational.

Case in point, this exhibit on humans and fire, where the seats were a pyromaniac's fantasy of army men and explosives for blowing them up.

Upon reaching the end of the exhibit, you were led out back, where this forbidding facade ensured you didn't try to hop back into the boat. After wandering the grounds, it was ho! for the Sterkfontein Caves, another Cradle of Humankind locality just 10km away.

Sterkfontein is famous because two Australopiths (ape-men) were found there: "Mrs. Ples" and "Littlefoot". This plaque may be Mrs. Ples' grave, but we're not sure. 

The exhibit at Sterkfontein has some questionable graphical representations of human evolution...the questionable part here, for you nerds, is the implied hybridization event between Australopithecus africanus and Homo habilis

But it also had some gems. like these fossils from the cave deposits, 

and who could not like bubbleskulls?

But by far the coolest thing was that you got to go on a guided tour of the caves where they found human ancestors.

The bottom of the cave is 200 feet below ground level, and has a lake of unknown depth

These stalactites grow at 1cm/year, tops

Parts of the caves are very narrow and require walking like an "ape man" (said our guide).

Upon leaving the cave, you meet Robert Broom, discoverer of Mrs. Ples. You apparently rub the nose for good luck and the hands for wisdom. If you had rubbed either before you went down below ground, you'd probably never have entered the caves at all.

The visitor center at Sterkfontein is neither turd nor cloud.

And no trip on the South African roadway would be complete without seeing a trailer being pulled by an inappropriately sized vehicle.

That's all from the Cradle of Humankind! Come visit us to see more!