Alia Gurtov at the National Museum in Dar es Salaam, analysing animal fossils from Olduvai. Used with the kind permission of Henry Bunn.
**Alia Gurtov was one of six scientists that made up the Advance Science Team on the Rising Star Expedition. Read more here**
“It’s my dream to spend my life in the dirt.”
You can’t get much closer to living your dreams than what Alia Gurtov has been doing for the past couple of weeks in South Africa: 30m underground, in 98% humidity, pulling yourself- plus bags of precious fossils- up tight caving squeezes will entail getting more than a little muddy. But Alia’s experience with finding things in the ground goes back to 3rd grade “Aztec sandboxes”, and -via an interest in cultural anthropology that came from her teenage street punk crowd- has ended up with her specialising in the very oldest archaeology one can dig up: ancient hominins.
In 2007 Alia was awarded a fellowship allowing her to work at Palaeolithic (earliest stone age) sites around the world including Dmanisi in Georgia, Neumark Nord in Germany and Pinnacle Point in South Africa. Her aim wasn’t just to excavate, but to investigate how the study of our ancient ancestors becomes part of our human story today, both at individual and national levels, and the ethical challenges this creates for the discipline of palaeoanthropology.
Alia Gurtov (left) working at the FLKN site, Olduvai. Copyright Henry Bunn.
As well as excavating the still unofficially-identified fossils from Rising Star Cave, for the past three years Alia’s been working on one of the most famous hominin fossil sites in the world: Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Her innovative PhD (at University of Wisconsin) involves trying to see if the ancient human relatives living there around 1.8 million years ago were hunting and foraging differently according to the season. To do this, she’s working on a technique called microwear: if animals that the hominins ate died during the dry season rather than the wet, the last food they were eating would vary in texture, and leave particular patterns of tiny scratches on their teeth. By comparing animal teeth from ancient naturally-accumulated sites and recent hunter-gatherer kills, she hopes to disentangle the microwear signatures caused by seasonality, and test for its presence in hominin sites and possible impacts on their lifestyles.
Despite being lucky enough to already have excavated at the iconic Olduvai, Alia says that the Rising Star cave excavation has provided her most amazing fieldwork memory so far. Rather than the challenging conditions and global attention being uppermost in her mind, its the strangely intimate experience of excavating a human skull, even that of a truly ancient relative:
“It’s incredible to start to see our hominin take on a personality. Faces do that…”
This unique moment is something that other trowelblazers have experienced: Jacquetta Hawkes felt a deep connection, later expressed in her poetry, upon seeing the skull of a female Neanderthal (Tabun 1) that she and Yusra discovered at Dorothy Garrod’s Mt Carmel excavations.
You can follow Alia Gurtov on twitter: @AGurtov
Written by Becky (@LeMoustier).