A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
When I went to middle school in the 1950s, Africa was viewed as the dark continent, and with the exception of Egypt, nothing was said about its role in the human past. Now, exciting views of Africa--its past, people, and wildlife--are available in the classroom through projects like AfricaQuest, carried last fall on the Internet. AfricaQuest was a six-week, 1,500-mile mountain-bike expedition through East Africa's Great Rift Valley, from northern Kenya to central Tanzania. Via satellite, a nine-person team broadcast daily reports of its progress to the world wide web. The project was geared toward elementary- and middle-school students, and for a $95.00 fee, classes could help choose the bikers' course and interact via e-mail with members of the expedition as well as archaeologists, naturalists, and other experts from such institutions as the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). At the time of writing, archives of the trip were available free of charge at www.classroom.com, but Classroom Connect, the company that produced the project, was unsure how long that would continue.
Sponsored by Sun Microsystems and the AMNH, the expedition was modeled on Classroom Connect's MayaQuest series of journeys through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras between 1995 and 1998. The goal of AfricaQuest, in the words of expedition leader Dan Buettner, was "to explore the link between human origins and issues of conservation as we approach the 21st Century." The team visited archaeological sites, nature preserves, and villages, meeting local people along the way. Guided by archaeologist John Fox, the team explored the 900,000-year-old site of Olorgesailie, known for the thousands of hand axes found there, and fossil hominid sites near Lakes Baringo and Turkana. Although Fox is not an Africanist, he did a fine job of presenting the information in a form suitable for fourth- to ninth-graders.
Several topics were covered each day. History Mystery (Tuesdays) and Fossil File (Fridays) centered on human origins research. Christina's Critters (Mondays and Wednesdays) provided information about and excellent pictures of wildlife, from dung beetles to zebras. Dan's Dilemma (Thursdays) presented ethical questions such as whether the team should give food to begging children. Kid Profile (also Thursdays) featured interviews with local children. And Mystery Photo (daily) presented a photograph of an object--a Turkana wrist knife, for example, worn like a bracelet by men--encountered en route for identification by viewers.
The expedition started on the western side of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Having worked in the area in the 1960s and 1970s, I could not imagine taking a mountain bike through there except securely tied down in the back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. With great initial enthusiasm the team elected to go off road--and in the first 79 miles got 69 flat tires because of thorns, sharp rocks, and hot sand (the air temperature sometimes exceeded 120°F).
Every Monday, students were presented with alternative destinations and could vote by e-mail where the expedition should go next. The first choice, on October 5, was whether to visit a local Turkana village, the fossil hominid site of Kanapoi, or Central Island in Lake Turkana. Kanapoi is an extremely important site where Meave Leakey's team recently found remains of Australopithecus anamensis, one of the oldest known hominids, dated to about 4.2 million years ago. Central Island, though, was touted as a "seething breeding ground" of "some 22,000 crocodiles, some of which are over 20 feet long!" Falling for the obvious draw of man-eating monsters with lots of teeth, the voters chose Central Island. Disappointingly few crocodiles were seen, probably because of years of poaching for meat and hides. (When I was there 25 years ago, there were plenty of crocodiles, some more than 13 feet long.)
While giving kids the vote is a great way to keep them interested, they always chose animals--the fiercer the better--over archaeological sites. After Central Island the kids picked a snake farm near Lake Baringo (79 percent) over thousand-year-old irrigation channels at Sirikwa (11 percent); Ngorongoro Crater, full of wild animals, with 81 percent vs. a measly eight for Olduvai Gorge; and a hunting trip with the Hadzabe people, which beat out Olduvai again, 57 to 20 percent. That AfricaQuest missed three of the most important fossil hominid sites on its route--Koobi Fora, Olduvai Gorge, and Laetoli--belies its stated goal of exploring "the link between human origins and issues of conservation." The organizers could have ensured that audience selection did not compromise the balance of subjects covered by allowing voters to choose sites in groups--Olduvai Gorge and Ngorongoro vs. Laetoli and Tarangire National Park, for example.
On October 14, History Mystery posed the question, "What do you think Homo erectus used hand axes for?" Leading the e-mail discussion from New York was AMNH geologist John van Couvering. Students sent in their thoughts, a number of which were posted on the web site. Van Couvering offered a commentary on the various suggestions, followed by his own best guess, that they were multipurpose tools used for skinning and butchering game and smashing bones to extract marrow. This kind of interactive approach to learning, which encourages students to think about a problem and submit their answers for discussion, is excellent. It would indeed be inspirational for a 12-year-old to see his or her response posted on AfricaQuest for classmates and others around the world to read.
On October 16, Fossil File centered on John Fox's exploration of an area near Lake Baringo, Kenya, where Andrew Hill of Yale University recently found a fragment of an unclassified hominid skull 2.4 million years old. There was a picture of the famous Homo habilis skull 1470 (its museum inventory number) from eastern Lake Turkana, found in the 1970s by Bernard Ngeneo, a member of Richard Leakey's team. Fox described, in language easily understood by a young audience, how H. habilis was the first "true human," the earliest of our ancestors to make tools, about 2.5 million years ago. Being bipedal, H. habilis had his hands free, in Fox's words, to "carry stuff, grab things, pick your nose...whatever." Some discussion of raw material selection and tool use was provided, with a link to the hand-ax History Mystery.
In another History Mystery on October 28, Smithsonian archaeologist Rick Potts focused on Olorgesailie, addressing the question of why so many hand axes were found in one place. (Potts speculated that H. erectus may have used the dry stream beds where the axes were found as paths and, for some reason, congregated in particular places.) Two days later the team visited the site itself, chosen in a 57- to 43-percent vote over a giraffe park in Nairobi. Fox described how H. erectus might have hunted baboons, "smash[ing] the baboons' heads in, and then cut[ting] them up for a baboon buffet!" His wide-ranging report touched also on the origins of agriculture, the world population explosion, and the rise of epidemics.
The graphics, including slide shows, videos, and numerous pictures, were generally excellent. The pictures of traditional peoples were especially good, though in one case the accompanying information could have been better. A slide of a smiling Pokot woman holding a panga (machete) was captioned, "The Pokot words for 'visitor' and 'enemy' are the same." The panga in the picture, however, is used primarily as a working tool rather than a weapon, as the caption might be taken to suggest.
Resources for teachers included a virtual Teacher's Lounge, with references to books, videos, and other materials suitable for a young audience, and links to web sites such as that of the National Museums of Kenya, with a guide to archaeological sites. A curriculum guidebook explained the expedition's organization, themes, and calendar, and included background information and suggestions for classroom activities. Unfortunately, the section on human prehistory was not always accurate. For example, the famous discovery made by Mary Leakey at Olduvai in 1959 was not Australopithecus africanus, as stated on page 37, but Zinjanthropus, now known as Australopithecus boisei. A substantially different species, A. africanus was first named by Raymond Dart in South Africa in 1925.
Overall, AfricaQuest did an excellent job of capturing the world of the Rift Valley, ancient and modern. Adventure is useful as a vehicle for learning, and it is no surprise that by the end of the ride the site had garnered almost 63 million hits. As this issue of ARCHAEOLOGY hits the newsstands, Dan Buettner and his cohort are taking off on GalapagosQuest; expeditions to Asia and Australia, as well as another trip to the Maya area, are planned for the future.
Lawrence H. Robbins is a professor of anthropology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.