Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar: Explore Field Science at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya with Briana Pobiner

Webinar: Explore Field Science at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya with Paleoarchaeologist Briana Pobiner
October 28, 2021

Maggy Benson:
My name is Maggy Benson. I use the pronouns she, hers; and I am a museum educator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and I'm really excited to be your facilitator today.

Now, today's program is really exciting. We are going to learn about the field science at Ol Pejeta Conservancy Kenya with paleoarchaeologist Briana Pobiner. You are going to know exactly what a paleoarchaeologist does by the end of our program.

A couple of logistics about today's webinar, it is a webinar so you cannot turn on your video or your audio, but you can interact with us using the Q&A like you're doing right now to introduce yourself, and by using polls throughout our program. There are closed captions for today's program, which you can turn on using the menu option. And we do have ASL interpretation, so thank you to our interpreter today. You should be able to see closed captions in ASL in your Zoom window. If you have any problems doing so, please send us a message in the Q&A space and one of our other educators will help you out.

We have a team of educators who are behind the scenes here today who are answering your questions and helping you stay on track to have the best webinar experience you can.

Now, about today's webinar. Today, we are going to learn what a paleo-zooarchaeologist does with Dr. Briana Pobiner. Then, Briana is going to take us on a fieldtrip where you get to be her field assistants to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, Africa. Then, Briana is going to tell us a little bit about what it's like to live and work in the field at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Throughout the program, we'll have polls and we'll also pause for a couple of Q&A breaks. But at the end of the program, we'll take as many questions as we can.

We have a lot of friends here today. You won't be able to see their questions or comments, but our team here can see them. If you're feeling like you really have a great question, we are going to try to get to as many as we can, but we may not be able to get to every single one. So, just sending your question once will help us get through as many as we can and see all of the ones that have been asked.

So, here we have our special expert today who has just turned on her camera. Hello, Briana, welcome.

Briana Pobiner:
Hello, Maggy. Thanks for having me.

Maggy Benson:
We're so happy to have you here. So, without further ado, we are going to kick off now. You are an archaeologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means?

Briana Pobiner:
Sure. So, what is an archaeologist? An archaeologist is someone who studies human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains that we did up at those sites. Also, I'm specifically a prehistoric archaeologist. I study human behavior and ancient environments from a long time ago, before written records, before civilization. That's the prehistoric part. And then another part is that I'm a zooarchaeologist. That means that I use animal bones specifically to ask my research questions.

Maggy Benson:
All right. Put that all together to us. That's a lot. You're prehistoric zooarchaeologist.

Briana Pobiner:
Exactly. So, the prehistoric is before written history; zoo means animals, so I study animal remains and bones'; and I'm an archaeologist, so I study this evidence to make discoveries and understand more about prehistoric human behavior and life ways.

Maggy Benson:
And what is one of the big research questions that you're asking as a scientist at the Smithsonian?

Briana Pobiner:
The main big question that I'm investigating in my research is based on the fossil animal bones at different sites in Kenya and other places where I do research dating back to between half a million, a million, a million and a half, even two million years ago. I really want to know who ate these animals. Was it ancient humans or was it other ancient predators? Figuring that out will help us better understand the lives and diets of only humans.

Maggy Benson:
So, if you're studying fossil animal remains, are you also studying human fossil animal remains or animals that aren't humans?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah, good question. Most of the time it's animals that aren't humans. And so, there's other paleoanthropologists that study human remains in particular. Part of that is also because the human remains are a lot more rare. We have a lot more animal fossils and other evidence of early human behavior to study, so mostly just animals.

Maggy Benson:
Very cool. Well, we have our first opportunity for our friends watching right now to participate. So, you're studying fossil animal remains, not as many humans, to learn about early humans, but we haven't really figured out what it is we're learning about early humans. So, friends, we want you to take a moment and think about that.

We have a poll opportunity that will pop up in a moment and we want you to make a prediction. What can we learn about early humans from studying animal remains? Remember, these are mostly nonhuman. Can we learn about where they may have lived, what their names were, what they ate, or how they work together? In this poll, you can select a couple responses, and we'll just give you a moment now.

We can see your responses coming in now. Well done. It looks like everyone found the poll. If you're still looking for the poll, you should be able to see it. It should've popped up on your screen. When you're done, you can hit the red X if you'd like. Okay, and we are going to give you five more seconds. Five, for, three, two, one, close.

All right, well done everyone. You did a great job. Briana, we can both see the results here. We can see that most people have selected what they ate as something that we can learn about early humans by studying animal remains; but also, overwhelmingly, where they lived and how they work together. How did our students do?

Briana Pobiner:
You did very well. All of those are correct answers. From studying animal remains, fossil animal remains, we can figure out what early humans ate, where they live, and sometimes either how they work together. So, absolutely. Nice job.

Maggy Benson:
Well done. All right, so how does this apply to your work, Brianna?

Briana Pobiner:
Great question. I study animal remains to discover new things about human for history. I can study early human diet; I can study the behavior of early humans, how they got the food they ate; and then I can also study the environment where early humans live. Because as we'll learn, animals are a really good reflection of their environment.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. We have a student question that has come in. So, we will just pause here for a moment to ask that. [Hadeel 00:07:44] would like to know what is the smallest bone you have ever studied?

Oh, no. It looks like we have lost Briana. Oh, there you are.

Briana Pobiner:
Sorry about that. I'm not sure what happened. Glad I'm back.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So, we have a question that we'll pause for a moment before we go on our fieldtrip to Ol Pejeta. Hadeel ... Oh, sorry, [Sanjav 00:08:12] wants to know what is the smallest bone you have ever studied?

Briana Pobiner:
Oh, good question. I study lots of bones that are very, very tiny. They're either from very small animals or sometimes, particularly in the fossil record, bones get broken up during the process of getting preserved, sometimes when they're even underground getting fossilized. So, I have studied bone bones that are very tiny.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. Okay, so just a reminder to our friends who are watching, if you have questions throughout this program, you can use the Q&A. Now, Levi wants to know if you have ever seen the bones of a rhino?

Briana Pobiner:
I have seen the bones of the rhino. Absolutely. Both fossil rhinos and modern rhinos. They are pretty big.

Maggy Benson:
All right. We have several people asking, speaking of big bones, is what is the biggest bone that you have ever studied?

Briana Pobiner:
Great question. The biggest land animals around today are elephants, and I have studied bones of both living elephants and fossil houses.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. A lot of people should be happy about that. And we have one more superlative, what is the oldest bone you have ever discovered?

Briana Pobiner:
Oh, that's a great question. Probably the oldest excavations that I've worked on are from a site in Tanzania called Olduvai Gorge. The layers we were excavating were around 1.8 million years old, so a little bit younger than two million years old.

Maggy Benson:
Isaiah and a couple other friends have asked if you have ever found a dinosaur bone? And if the oldest bone you have found is 1.8 million years old, that means that you haven't found dinosaur bones, right?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah, exactly. The places where I'm doing my research to ask questions about early humans, the human evolutionary record goes back to between about six or seven million years old, and dinosaurs went extinct by 65 million years old. So, the places where I'm looking are not in the sediments or the layers that would have preserved dinosaurs.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. We'll do one more before we move on. We have several different related questions asking if you have ever found any early human bones.

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. I haven't found any early human bones in excavations or in the field, but I have found some in museum collection actually that weren't initially recognized as early human bones. So, museum collections are actually another great place to do research and make discoveries.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. Well, thank you all for your great questions. You can keep them coming throughout today's program, but we are going to move on because Briana has prepared for us a fun activity where we are going to go with you, Briana, to one of your field sites.

Briana Pobiner:
Yes, I'm excited to do that even though we're not going in person today. But part of what I really love about my job is traveling to places around the world to look for this evidence of past human behavior and to learn more about the environments that ancient humans lived in.

So, a lot of my friends asked what's it like over there, what do you do every day, and how do you live? So, I want to take you on a trip today to one of my field sites. We're going to travel to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to see what a day in the life of a field archeologist is like.

Maggy Benson:
All right.

Briana Pobiner:
But today, I'm going to take you somewhere unusual because I've been talking a lot about fossils. This is a place where I don't dig up fossils; but a place where, instead, I look for modern animal bones, bones of animals that were recently alive.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a not-for-profit wildlife conservancy situated right on the equator in central Kenya's Laikipia County in Africa. The red star on the left image shows the location of Ol Pejeta, and the video that you're watching shows just a couple of animals, a few different kinds of animals that live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Maggy Benson:
This looks like a beautiful Conservancy in that there are a lot of charismatic animals there.

Briana Pobiner:
There are. It's a wonderful place to be able to see living wildlife today.

Maggy Benson:
All right. Let's go, I'm excited.

Briana Pobiner:
All right. So first, I'm going to talk about why I decided to go to Ol Pejeta. When I started my work there, I was also for another project studying fossilized animal bones that had evidence of being chewed on by ancient predators. I was trying to figure out who those ancient predators or ancient people were that shoot on and butchered those bones. But I realized that if the culprit was a predator, we didn't really have a way to know which predator was chewing on those fossil bones. So, to figure that out, I wanted to study the chewing damage left by different living African Wild predators on their prey to see if I could tell today who ate a bone from the chewing damage on it.

So, how did I do this? I didn't interrupt predators while they were eating their meals, but I collected the leftovers from predator kills and studied the chewing patterns on the bones that lions and other predators left behind.

Maggy Benson:
That's a good thing that you didn't interrupt them eating.

Briana Pobiner:
No, I thought that would be the safe way to go about doing my research. And to figure out how much the predators were eating, I needed to let them finish their meals. But it turns out that predators don't eat things constantly. So, while I was waiting to collect more predator chewed bone samples, I decided to start basically a side project studying the bones of animals that had died naturally, including from those predators on Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

So, again, why is an archeologist interested in recently dead bones? We want to understand the whole community of animals that live in Ol Pejeta and how that community reflects the habitats that the animals live in. This happens mainly because of the kinds of foods that animals eat.

For instance, you could see a skull and a jaw on the left. That's from Ol Pejeta, and that's a zebra skull and jaw. So, what do zebras eat? You can see it in the right picture, they eat grass. That's an Ol Pejeta zebra having a nice mouthful of grass. So, if we find zebra bones, we know there was grassland around because zebras eat grass. And then we can use fossil animal bones that we find in the same way to figure out what those ancient environments were like.

Maggy Benson:
Briana, we have a question to clarify what a conservancy is, which is a really important question here because you really have access to a lot of these animals that live in this Conservancy. So, can you describe that?

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. We might think of it in the US like a national park. It's a protected area where the wildlife is protected.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. Which is why you can actually go out and make these observations of animals eating in their natural habitat and then collect the bones after they finish their meal to be able to study them.

Briana Pobiner:
Exactly.

Maggy Benson:
All right. Great question.

Briana Pobiner:
All right, so are you ready to come to Ol Pejeta with me to be field researchers?

Maggy Benson:
I hope so.

Briana Pobiner:
All right, so if you're coming with me to the field and you're going to be my field assistant for the day, here's what you should expect. We're going to put together our team, picking people with particular kinds of expertise, we're going to look for evidence, we're going to study that evidence and add data to our digital collection. We'll walk through all of those steps, but that's basically what you'll be doing as my field assistant for the day. I hope that sounds fun.

Maggy Benson:
It sounds good to me. All right, let's start at step one, assembling a team.

Briana Pobiner:
Here are some of our teammates, or some of my teammates. Each of us is an expert in something a little bit different. Really, when we work together, we can ask bigger and more complex questions than if we work alone or if we all knew exactly the same thing.

Starting on the left, this is Dr. Ogeto Mwebi from Kenya, and he is an expert in identifying which animals the bones come from. Kind of like matching puzzle pieces together. We're all pretty good at this, but Ogeto is really the master. I'm an expert at identifying which predator chewed on bones based on the chewing damage from some other research that I've done at Ol Pejeta. Dr. Fire Kovarovic from England is an expert in measuring bones to help identify which animals they come from and which habitats they lived in. And then all the way on the right, Dr. Kari Lintulaakso from Finland is an expert in understanding how to compare the living animal community to the bone community. So, we all have a little bit of different expertise although we all work on bones.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. And so, you need a diverse group of people that have different skills and know different things so that you can all ask bigger questions and work together in a better way, right?

Briana Pobiner:
Absolutely.

Maggy Benson:
I'm sorry, this is advancing by itself, but we have another poll opportunity that we do want to pop up for our friends who are watching. We want to know what kind of expert you want to be today if you are going into the field with Dr. Pobiner as a field assistant. So, do you want to be like Ogeto who is an expert at matching the bones to the animals that they came from; like Briana who is an expert at identifying the bones of the carnivores who chewed on them; Fire, measuring bones to match them to the animals they came from; or Kari, comparing patterns between living and dead animal communities?

The votes are all coming in. We'll continue to give you another moment to answer here. The poll should have popped up on your screen. Once we share those results, you can just hit the red circle at the top of the poll to remove it from your screen. Okay, we are going to close this in five, four, three, two, one, close.

All right, Briana, look at those results. It looks like you are going to have a very well-rounded team. Most people would like to be an expert like Ogeto, matching bones; then Kari, comparing patterns; and then like you, identifying the carnivores; and then like Fire, measuring the bones.

Briana Pobiner:
I'm glad I'm going to have lots of different people with lots of different expertise. And I have to tell you that when I first got interested in zooarchaeology, it was because I did a field school where there were a few people who were really good at matching bones to the animals they came from. So, I definitely appreciate that response.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So now that you have your job, we are ready to go into the field with you, Briana.

Briana Pobiner:
All right, I'm so glad you're coming with me to do my fieldwork. This is where we'll live, so we're going to spend a lot of time there; and then this is the field vehicle that we'll use. I'll introduce you to both of those things a little bit later, but they'll be very important in our daily activities. So, are we all ready to go?

Maggy Benson:
Let's go.

Briana Pobiner:
All right. So, we are going to go on a bone walk. Our field methods are actually pretty simple. We do bone walks. We walk usually in a straight line either going north, south, east or west. We usually walk one kilometer, which is a little more than half a mile, and we do our bone walks within specific habitats like open grasslands that you see here, and we look for bones on the grounds.

You can see here we're on a bone walk in more of an open woodland. There's a lot of grass but there's also a few trees or bushes around. And then you can see us on more bone walks in many different habitats, from open grasslands on the left to also open bush lands and closed bush lands and even closed woodlands.

So, I've been back to Ol Pejeta many times to do bone walks since I've started about 20 years ago with my first 30 bone walks. You might notice in the picture of me on the left that I even did field work when I was quite pregnant with my son, who is now 10 years old.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. All right, so we are walking through. We have a lot of observations about walking through and finding things. So, you're looking for bones on the ground and then?

Briana Pobiner:
All right, so now we have found a bone. We have found some evidence. Are we ready to dive in, field assistants, and collect some data? Let's do it.

Maggy Benson:
Yes.

Briana Pobiner:
All right, so if you're going to help-

Maggy Benson:
What do we do first?

Briana Pobiner:
All right, so you're going to help me collect important data or information. You're going to need to identify what kind of bone is this, what animal the bone is from. You'll need to measure and photograph the bone so that we can double check our identifications later and just for good record keeping purposes, and you'll need to know to see if the bones have any predator chewing damage on them and to see how weathered the bones are. That can tell us how long the bones were sitting on the ground before we saw them.

You also need to write a lot of notes in your field notebook. You can see my yellow field notebook in the ground in the picture on the right, which I have right here at home. Our field notebook is very important. But what you don't need to do is collect the bones and bring them somewhere to study later. We just take measurements and photos and put a lot of information into our digital data collection system to analyze later, but we leave the bones where we found them.

Maggy Benson:
Thanks for telling us that, Briana. We did have several questions that are popping up in the chat asking where the bones go. So, if everyone heard that, they stay where Briana finds them.

Briana Pobiner:
They do. Sometimes we even go back and walk the same transect another time, a few years later, to see if we can find the same bones.

Maggy Benson:
And transect is something that you have in science, which is essentially like a measuring tape, right? To help you walk a very specific length?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah. Sorry, transect is really just a bone walk. We do them usually in 1 kilometer distance. Yes, thank you.

Maggy Benson:
Okay. So, what happens when you're at this collection of bones or one bone? What is one of the first steps that you do?

Briana Pobiner:
One of the first things we need to record, if you're ready, is to try to figure out what kind of bone is this. Can you make some observations to figure this out? I'll give you some hints. Oops, I'm disappearing. Sorry about that, somebody just closed on me.

Mammals have the same kinds of bones in their skeleton even if they're shaped differently depending on the kind of animal they came from. And so, you can see three examples on this slide here. There are limb bones, and those are bones from your arms and legs, and they're usually kind of shaped like a cylinder. They're long and a little bit rounded like a tube. Wrist and ankle bones are short and thick, and they can even be boxy or rectangular or irregular shaped. And then skulls and jaws are also pretty irregular shaped and they have teeth in them.

Of those three different kinds of bones, what do you think is the kind of bone that Fire is holding up above her head?

Maggy Benson:
We have a lot of votes already. We will keep the poll open for just another couple of moments. We're asking you what kind of bone is it that is at the top, one that Fire is holding up. Is it a limb bone, like an arm or leg? Is it a wrist or ankle bone? Or is it a skull bone? Okay, we'll close the poll in five, four, three, two, one. All right.

Briana Pobiner:
You are all on your way to becoming zooarchaeologists. You did a fantastic job. This is a limb bone. You're absolutely right. You could tell because it's kind of shaped like a tube or a cylinder. Very nice.

Maggy Benson:
And you know, this is an important skill in science, to be able to identify patterns, and that is one of the basic patterns for a scientist who studies bones. So, you figured out what kind of bone it is. There it is, it's a limb bone. Here's some other limb bones. Then what do you do?

Briana Pobiner:
Then we try to figure out whose bone is this. Now we know it's a limb bone, and we can see that it's pretty big. So, we're going to pick from some of the bigger animals that are at Ol Pejeta. Now it's time for you to try to make a prediction. Is this bone from an elephant, from a rhinoceros or from a giraffe?

You can look at maybe how long those bones are and you can look at, in the pictures of the skeletons, how long the limb bones or the arm and leg bones are. See what you think.

Maggy Benson:
Everyone is voting. We'll give you another couple moments to compare that bone that we're trying to figure out who it belongs to. Is it the elephant, the rhinoceros or the giraffe? Remember, we already identified it as a limb bone, so that is a clue for where to compare. Okay? And we will close the poll in five, four, three, two, one. Times up.

Okay, so the results are in. Fifty-seven percent say elephant. Briana already said that this is the biggest animal out there. Twenty-three percent, giraffe and 20% rhinoceros. Briana, can you help us out?

Briana Pobiner:
I can. It actually turns out that this is a bone from a giraffe. Giraffes have really long leg bones. You can see, if you compare them, that they're some of the longest leg bones out there. But all of those are really good guesses, and that's in part why sometimes we take pictures and we double check and make sure that our identifications are correct.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So, even though the elephant is the largest animal, because these legs are so long, it belongs to a giraffe. And there, we see a giraffe and the leg bone. There is Fire with her evidence.

Okay, you said that the bones don't get collected. But what happens if you don't know what kind of animal it came from?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah, that's a great question and that certainly happens out there particularly if we only find part of the bone, if it's broken, if it's missing a key piece that helps us identify it. We basically consult a bone reference library, a museum collection.

Here's a photo on the left of Ogeto in the collections that he oversees at the National Museums of Kenya in the division of osteology. Osteology is bones. They have the most amazing collections of modern bones and Kenyan animals, which is how Ogeto got to be such an expert at identifying bones.

These museum collections are really important for scientists. They have many examples of the same kind of animal, and that helps us understand variations in the size and shape of bones depending on different factors like how old the animal was when it died, whether it was an adult, whether it was still growing up, or whether it was male or female. We can even take photos that we take in the field and match them and compare them to the bones in the collection to make sure our identifications are good.

Maggy Benson:
All right. And so, you're using a lot of different information here. You're going out on these bone walks, you're finding this evidence, all of our field assistants are, right? We're using that reference library that we just saw Ogeto in, in case we need a little extra help deciding if it is an elephant or if it is a giraffe. But how does that all add up? That's the big question that you're trying to ask. Isn't that, Briana?

Briana Pobiner:
Exactly. So, what we're trying to figure out is what the environment ... We know what the environment at Ol Pejeta was like, but we want to make sure that the animal community is reflecting that environment. As I mentioned before, what the animals are eating is a really good clue to what that environment is like.

So, shall we do our next poll?

Maggy Benson:
Yeah, let's do it. So, another poll should be popping up on your screen. We want to know what this evidence that you just found tells us. What does this giraffe bone reveal about the modern environment? Is it that the environment has trees? It has grass? It has a river? Or it has a desert?

Now, the polls from now on, for the rest of our show, you'll only be able to select one choice. So, take a look at those options and think about it and vote. We will reveal the answers in a moment.

I love seeing all the results coming in so quickly. Well done, everyone. And I see a lot of questions have come in. We will be answering them soon, okay? But we are going to close the poll in five, four, three, two, one. Pencils down. All right, well done, everyone. So, 73% of you think that giraffe bones reveal that the habitat had trees, 22% say grass, 2% a river, 4% a desert. Briana, how did that shake up?

Briana Pobiner:
You did a great job. The only answer that is definitely correct is trees because giraffes eat leaves from trees or bushes. We know that there had to be trees around. There could have been grass, there could have been a river, but not necessarily. So, tress is the right answer. Nice job.

Maggy Benson:
Well done.

Briana Pobiner:
Guys, you're doing a great job as my field assistants.

Maggy Benson:
Absolutely. I think everyone has a future in science here. Everyone definitely does. Okay, so Briana, help us put this all together for your field assistants. We found some evidence, we identified whose it was, what kind of animal it was, and what it says about the habitat. But you are an archaeologist. You're looking for clues about ancient humans. What does the environment have to do with ancient habitats?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah, a great question. When we study the dead animal community, as you mentioned, we compare it to the living animal community, we want to make sure they match, and then we use the proportions or numbers of different kinds of animals to understand those modern habitats. Eventually, we're going to try to understand how these patterns match up to reconstruct ancient habitats. So, why don't we walk through how we would do this?

Maggy Benson:
All right.

Briana Pobiner:
All right, so if you find a giraffe fossil, a fossil of a giraffe, you know that there were leaves around the time the giraffe was living because giraffes eat leaves. Excellent. So, giraffe bones, giraffe fossils means there were leaves around from tress and bushes. And then, if you find a fossil from something else, from a zebra, as we mentioned before, you know that there was grass around because zebras eat grass. So how do we use these individual observations to think about the community?

Let's say we find a hundred giraffe fossils, but we find only 20 zebra fossils. What happens if there's five times as many giraffes as zebras? What do you think that ancient environment would be like? Five times as many giraffes as zebras.

Maggy Benson:
Okay, so we are going to launch another poll. We want you to think about the connections that we just made about the animals in the environment. So, what do you think these animal remains, when we have five times as many giraffe fossils than zebra fossils, says about the environment? Is it that it has more trees than grass? More grass than trees? It has a mountain? Or it has a desert? So, we're thinking about the environment connection here.

Votes are coming in very quickly. Everyone is focused and thinking about archaeology. I love it. All right, they're evening out here, so we are going to do our countdown in five, four, three, two, one. Time's up. Well done. All right, Briana, most folks have chosen more trees than grass.

Briana Pobiner:
You are absolutely right. If you have a lot more tree-eating animals than grass eating animals that's a good indication that there were more trees around than grass. You're all welcome to come along with me as my field assistants. You're doing an excellent job.

Maggy Benson:
And even if you voted more grass than trees, you are doing a great job making some predictions using this evidence. It takes a lot of practice to be a scientist. All right, so Briana, all of these adds up to your work in discovering something about ancient habitats and ancient people.

Briana Pobiner:
Exactly. We're really trying to use the present to understand patterns that we see today, to then understand the past so we can match the patterns today, we can look at the process that creates the pattern today, then we can also look at the pattern in the past and assume that same process was happening, or that same, in this case, it's the same environment, the same ratio of animals that was around.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. So, it's kind of like the present is the key to the past.

Briana Pobiner:
Exactly, and that's something that we definitely, that's a principle that we really use when we study prehistory.

Maggy Benson:
Briana, we have a lot of questions that have built up over the last couple minutes, and we are going to take some time to answer some of them now. Hadeel asks, "If you wanted to find who was chewing the bones, couldn't you just find teeth fossils?"

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. You can, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the teeth fossils from those predators were the ones that were particularly responsible for any individual prey animal that was chewed on. So, it's not so much the teeth fossils, it's the marks and the chewing patterns on the prey fossils themselves. But definitely, knowing what predators were around, having the fossils of the teeth and the skeletons of those predators, is a really good start.

Maggy Benson:
Mason would like to know how many bones does your team find on an average day?

Briana Pobiner:
Oh, that's a great question. Some days we go out there and can find dozens and dozens of bones, and sometimes we do a bone walk and we find maybe only a few. So, it can vary from day to day, but I can't think of a day that we've gone out and haven't found any bones on our bone walks.

Maggy Benson:
The [Hall 00:37:27] family and several others would like to know how you know how old the evidence that your finding is, and specifically how well do you know the fields that you're working on, how old is that?

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. As far as Ol Pejeta, all of the animals died recently, so they're all modern animals. But one way we can figure out how long ago they died, was it last month, was it 10 years ago, we can look at the weathering on the bones. Basically, sort of how disintegrated the bones are, how much the surface of the bones are flaking. Maybe parts of the bones are broken. We can use those weathering patterns to get a sense of how long ago the animals have died.

When we're talking about the fossil record, there are more than a dozen different techniques to figure out. Usually it's not the fossils themselves, but often it's the layer that the fossils are found in that are chemically dated to figure out how long ago those fossils were deposited in the ground.

Maggy Benson:
Related questions to chemical dating, Steve would like to know if there are any chemical analyses or, actually, isotope analyses that you can do to figure out what the animal ate?

Briana Pobiner:
You can. There are a few different isotope systems you can look at. You can look at nitrogen isotopes to figure out if you just have a tooth of an animal and you're not sure what it is, you can often tell where it is, what trophic level, and that basically means was it a predator, was it something that a predator ate, or was it something that was eaten by that thing that the predator ate? It's basically the vegetation, the herbivores and the predators. So, you can tell where in that system that an animal is.

The other thing is that the way that plants sort of grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is in two different pathways, and you can use carbon isotopes to figure out whether the animals were eating plants that use a system that ... Basically, whether they were leaves or bushes or whether they were grass.

Maggy Benson:
Another good example of how understanding the world today really helps us interpret the past. Now, we have a lot of scientists in our Q&A today because they are asking questions about examining the evidence you find and understanding if you can tell how that animal died; for instance, if it scavenged the animal, meaning that it may have eaten an animal that had already died a different way; or if you can even tell if the predator killed the animal in a certain way.

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. That's actually really hard to tell just from the patterns of chewing on the bones themselves. A lot of times, the way that predators kill animals, whether they are biting them on the throat or doing something else, it tends not to actually leave marks in the bones. So, it's hard to tell from individual prey animals whether they were killed by one predator and scavenged by another, or whether the predator that killed them is the one that was doing the chewing damage. It's actually really hard to tell the difference between those things.

Maggy Benson:
Now, we'll just take a couple more before we move on because we want to show where you live and work in Ol Pejeta. We have several questions asking why you leave the bones?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah. That's a great question. So, we leave the bones. One of the things that we're interested in is figuring out how the bones reflect the living animal community over time. When we leave the bones there, we can go back to the same places and see if the same bones are there or see if different bones from animals that have died more recently contribute to those patterns. And so, it's the ability to think about the changing animal community over long term that we want to leave the bones there.

Maggy Benson:
I apologize if you can hear the helicopters over my house. It's kind of loud. Okay, we have just another question before we move on. This one is from [Massama 00:41:46] who asks, what are the causes for the ancient environment to change into the present living environment?

Briana Pobiner:
Oh, that's a great question. So, many different causes. A lot of natural changes having to do with different changes in Earth's systems, sometimes it is geological change, sometimes it is more subtle changes in global weather patterns and things. So, it's a whole variety of different causes for climate changes in the past.

Maggy Benson:
Briana, we haven't covered this yet, but the fossils that you can find about the time period of the people that you study, are those animals similar to the animals that are living today?

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. They are pretty similar. Oftentimes they're not the same species, but they're the ancestors of the animals living today. So, when I'm studying fossils in the collections at the National Museums of Kenya that are, let's say, a-million-and-a-half years old or a million years old, usually they're not the same species of elephants or giraffes or other antelopes, but they're kind of the ancestors of the ones that are living today. So, they are not the same, but pretty similar.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. So, we are going to go back to Ol Pejeta. We have about 15 minutes left in today's program, so we're going to learn about what it's like to live and work at Briana's field site, and then we are going to take more questions. So, we will come back for more questions after we do this, the last part of our fieldtrip. To get us in there, I do want to ask one more question from [Aakash 00:43:30] who asked how you choose your field site.

Briana Pobiner:
That's a great question. So, with Ol Pejeta, there were a few things. One, and then I'll get to a little bit at the end, is that they have a great system to basically monitor the living animal community. If we want to compare the bone community to the living community, we need to know what animals are there. So, not only are they collecting those data, but they're very willing to share the data with us. It's also a place where there is a lot of open grasslands so we can see bones on the ground.

Those are two of the reasons why Ol Pejeta for me, for this research project and for my team, is such a great place to work.

Maggy Benson:
Tell us a little bit about what it is like to work at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah. If you're my field assistant, what's your daily life like? So, let's jump right in.

One of the best parts of being my field assistant at Ol Pejeta will definitely be getting to see so many while we're out doing our bone walks. That's one of my favorite parts of being in the field there hands down.

I will say that working here has given me even more respect for the natural world and making sure that we're honoring the animals by keeping a comfortable distance from them. That distance is different if we're on foot walking around. On the left, you can see a herd of elephants that we're at a nice comfortable distance because we're on foot. And then in a vehicle, the animals are comfortable with us getting closer. You can see that picture on the right which I took from inside our field vehicle.

So, getting to learn what the animals are comfortable with, and honoring that is an important part of doing fieldwork there.

Another is flexibility. So, we have to be flexible in our plans for bone walks. Sometimes there's a big herd of buffalo right where you want to start or end your bone walk, and you can see Fire in the top left picture pointing to buffalo at the end of our bone walk right near our car. Sometimes we might even have cows walking right by where we want to start. So, we'll need to go back to our yellow field notebook, see what other bone walks we were thinking about for the day, and then pick a new place to do our bone walk.

So, you saw this picture before. We live in a place called the stables. This used to be just a research center for people doing research there, but it's not open to tourists. Here is a view of one of the huts at the stables, and these are called these are called bandas. In the bandas, we have mosquito nets over our beds. The bandas have electricity powered by a generator that's on most of the day but it goes off during the night. They have running water for toilet s and showers that's pumped from an on-site big water tank.

Some of the bandas have metal roofs but some have patched roofs. That means they occasionally leak when it rains because the roofs basically have straw on them. And so, here's Fire catching some of the rain with a bucket on a particularly rainy day.

Sometimes I have an extra special roommate in my banda. I brought my son, Toby, who I was pregnant with in one of the earlier photos, to the field with me when he was six, in 2018. He didn't come out with us for our bone walks because it would have been too dangerous with the other animals around, but I found a wonderful Kenyan nanny to watch him during the day while we were doing bone walk. We had a lot of fun exploring the stable's grounds, making observations of nature, eating meals with us, and reading the books and playing with the toys that I had bought for him from home.

So, we wake up in the morning. We'll start our days with the breakfast cooked by the amazing staff at the stables who I'll introduce you to the end. If your birthday is in the summer like mine is, which is usually the time of year that I'm going to Ol Pejeta, they might even help my colleagues bake a surprise birthday cake for me like they did for me last time we were in the field in 2019. Sometimes when you're done eating your meal, the birds even come onto the tables and eat your leftovers like the picture at the bottom left.

So, we'll go out and do a few bone walks in the morning and then we come back to the stables for lunch, then we'll go out in the afternoon to maybe do some more bone walks, and then we'll come back before dark in time for dinner.

If I haven't mentioned it yet, the food at the stables is great. We eat both local food. On the right, you can see a picture of this pile of white in the middle, and that's a Kenyan staple called Ugali, that's made of ground cornmeal. And in this photo, we're eating a meat stew and cabbage. And then we also eat food that's more familiar to us who are visiting Ol Pejeta. You can see on the left is homemade pizza, which is delicious.

Maggy Benson:
It looks delicious.

Briana Pobiner:
And our work doesn't stop just when we come back from the field and doing our digital data collection. We have to download and rename all of our photos, we have to download and back up every day's digital data, we have to catch up on our handwritten field notes in our notebooks, and then we have to make a plan for the next day's bone walks. So, we use tables inside and outside the stables for our work areas.

I mentioned that we get water from a big water tank, and that comes from a pump which takes water from the ground. The water for our showers is heated by a fire, and the wood for that fire comes from nearby naturally dead trees and bushes. We do our laundry in the shower using plastic buckets and laundry powder and we dry everything on a clothesline. It's usually pretty windy there so our clothes will dry pretty quickly.

We don't get a lot of downtime in the field since we try to maximize our data collection when we're out there, but when we do, one of my favorite places to spend a few minutes just relaxing is this hammock on the grounds of the stables. And I promised them that everybody else have a turn too.

So, we get to be really close with each other when we're doing field together, and even with other people who were staying at the stables. Sometimes we'll spend our downtime together. Here, you could see Wesley in the white shirt. He's one of the cooks at the stables. He's giving us a short lesson in how to cook some traditional Kenyan foods. In the photo are my colleague Kari and another woman from India who was working as an intern at Ol Pejeta in 2019.

At night, we'll have one of my favorite fieldwork experiences, which is sitting out by the stables, campfire, sharing fieldwork stories and other stories with our team and other visitors who were there.

You saw this before as well. This is a Smithsonian field vehicle that I'm able to use for my field work. We'll spend a lot of time in our vehicles driving to and from our own walks.

I'd become a pretty good four-wheel vehicle driver in the bush, and occasionally I have to get the vehicle unstuck from a muddy area or one tire landed in a hyena den hole, or I get a flat tire for some other reason and have to change it. And once in a while, we have to pitch in to even help other folks that are staying at the stables like this family whose car wouldn't start one morning, and we all went out to help push that.

Maggy Benson:
That teamwork is very important.

Briana Pobiner:
It is very important. And safety is the most important thing. We have to make sure that we're safe at all times when we're in the field. We have armed guards and patrols who walk with us on our bone transacts. This is a picture of a time that I walked really close to rhinos without realizing it, but I knew that they were still keeping us safe.

Here are just a few of the amazing armed guards and wildlife patrols who keep us safe when we do our bone walks together. We're only allowed to get out of our vehicle to do bone walks when we have at least one-armed guard with us to protect us from potentially dangerous animals like elephants, rhinos, hippos, buffaloes, and lions. Our armed guards are really skilled at keeping us all safe in the bush.

In particular, I want to mention, in the bottom left photo, Isaac in a camouflage and Steven in all green. Those are the folks who we worked with in 2019. In the past years, we've also worked with Robert Solomon and several other guards. The guards teach us a lot about animal behavior, about the plants on the Conservancy, even what kinds of plants might be edible, about the insects, and even fun facts like if you sift through the poop of an insect-eating animal called an aardvark, it looks like there's glitter in it from the shiny parts of the insects that the aardvarks eat.

We also work with other Ol Pejeta staff that do ecological monitoring and conservation, including Samuel and [Benner 00:52:30]. They're really important to our project because of their willingness to collaborate with us and share data on living animal community and the habitat maps.

Finally, as I mentioned before, the stable staff, let's go back one slide, will really feel like family after we stay there. And so, here they are from left to right in the back. There's Helen and Monica, and then there's my colleague Kari, and there's Nancy and Samuel, and then here's me, and then there's Wesley who's the other wonderful cook, and Agnes. And then in the front from left to right are Lydia and Grace and my colleague Fire. The only person missing is the groundskeeper, [inaudible 00:53:08]. We just are so grateful to them for really becoming like family when we're out doing fieldwork.

I hope you had a great trip. Thank you for being my field assistants, for collecting data with me. That was great.

Maggy Benson:
Yay! Thank you so much, Briana. It's so rare that we get to see exactly how somebody lives, and who they work with, and all of the amazing people that make it possible when we learn about science research in the field.

Now, we have about five minutes left so we are going to take some more questions in our final remaining moments. But we do have one more poll for our friends who are watching because we want to know how excited you are to be a field scientist one day. So, you have gone to Ol Pejeta, you have collected some evidence, you have analyzed it, and now you've learned about living and working in the field. So, here is one of our final polls, or second to last one. We want to know how excited you are to be a field scientist one day. Is it not for you; totally not into it; kind of; yeah, you'll go; can't wait; or you're like packing your bags right now, you cannot wait.

You can take your time and answer that. In the meantime, I am going to stop sharing my screen. I'm going to get to a couple of these questions. The first one I want to ask, because we just saw how you live and work in Ol Pejeta, comes from Marina. They want to know when the last time you work, you got to go into the field to study bones.

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah. So that was in the summer of 2019. It was the last time that I got to go in the field with the team that you saw the pictures of. We really miss it and I can't wait to go back.

Maggy Benson:
Yeah, everything's been a little bit more disrupted for the last year or two. All right, we have some more questions. Sorry, I'm just getting organized here. Have you ever found bones with cut marks on them?

Briana Pobiner:
Oh, that's a great question. Every once in a while, we do see bones that seem like they might have cut marks on them. They might be just the leftovers from people from the people that live there today eating things. So, it happens on a rare occasion.

Maggy Benson:
All right, I'm going to share the results. It looks like we have people all across the board. The most responses are kind of into it; then yeah, I'll go. But I think the majority, over 60%, most people want to go on some level. So, well done. If you don't want to go, it's okay. It doesn't have to be for everyone.

Now, this question comes from [Anon 00:55:49]. Could you share a discovery that surprised you?

Briana Pobiner:
Great question. I think as we're doing some of our data analysis and comparing the living to the bone community, we have found sometimes that those patterns don't match. And so, we're interested in why there may not be matching with those patterns, or some animals more representing in the bone community than they are in the living community and why might that be. We're still trying to answer some of those questions.

Maggy Benson:
Okay. We've had several questions about digging, and Tatiana is asking how you decide when it's time to stop digging? And so, can you talk a little bit about just your methods, and if you dig, and how often you can return to the same site?

Briana Pobiner:
Yeah, great question. So, we don't dig things at Ol Pejeta. We dig things at other places where we have fossils and artifacts and archeological sites. But if that question is about the archeology, the answer is usually when we stop finding things. Oftentimes as we're digging down through archeological layers, we will be finding artifacts and fossils, and then we'll get to a point at which we're not really finding anything anymore. So usually, it's at that point that we go, "Okay, maybe we're finished with this particular excavation," and maybe we look for somewhere else to do an excavation.

Maggy Benson:
All right, we are going to ask a big question about your research as we're wrapping up here. This one comes from [Yuvraj 00:57:21]. How do you know what predator chewed the bones from the bite marks on the bones, and how do you know it died and when it died?

Briana Pobiner:
Ah, great question. So, how do you know what predator chewed on the bones? That's a big research question that I am continuing to work on. It's the pattern of chewing on the bones, what parts of the different prey bones are chewed, where the tooth marks are left, how intensively the bones are gnawed on. Different predators have different jaw and tooth adaptations, and some of them are really good at chewing on bones like hyenas. Some of them are not so good. So, it's really looking overall at those chewing damage patterns. Remind what the second part of that question was.

Maggy Benson:
How do you know when it died?

Briana Pobiner:
Oh, that's a good question. Oftentimes, we don't. For the modern animals, sometimes we get alerted to a kill. When I was doing my predator research there particularly, I had a radio that was tied into the radio system of the other people who work on the Conservancy and they tell me when they happen to see a predator killing something or something that had recently died. Sometimes you can also tell by how much is left on that kill how fresh it is.

Maggy Benson:
Okay, I am going to ... We are at time, so I am going to launch one final poll and this is a poll to tell us how you liked today's program. That is launched. You can drag it off your screen because we're going to take one final question about you, Briana. We have a couple questions. This is kind of a combination from Julia, Levi and several others who have asked it, who want to know if you were ever scared when you do your work and why you want to be an archaeologist doing this kind of work.

Briana Pobiner:
The answer is yes, sometimes I am. I feel safe because I know I'm with experts, the armed guards who keep us safe, but I still recognize that there are dangerous animals around when I'm doing my bone walk. Sometimes it's a little bit scary.

I want to be an archaeologist, and the reason I decided to become an archaeologist, is because I really like to discover things. I like to sort of put puzzles together and ask questions. When you study the past, a lot of times it's trying to put a puzzle together where you don't always have all of the pieces. But when you make new discoveries, you sort of add pieces to that puzzle and you get a better sense of what the picture of the past is like.

Maggy Benson:
Well, Briana, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. And thank you to all of our friends who are watching, for asking such amazing questions about archaeology, finding evidence, studying evidence. You made some excellent predictions and connections today.

So, Briana, can you share with our friends who are watching some information about the Human Origins website if they want to learn more?

Briana Pobiner:
Absolutely. If you want to learn more about archaeology and human origins in general, you can visit the Human Origins website at humanorigins.si.edu. We have a page on there that you can see on your screen that is just about this research that we're doing at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. You can also visit the website of Ol Pejeta Conservancy itself. And if you want to learn more about what's going on with prehistory and archeology in Kenya, you can visit the website of the National Museums of Kenya.

Maggy Benson:
Excellent. I just closed that poll so you can move that off your screen if you want. You should have received an email before this webinar that has a link to the Human Origins website along with some other links such as Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the National Museums of Kenya. We will be sending that email again after today's program.

Now, just two final notes. When you leave today's webinar, a Zoom or a survey link will pop up in your Zoom screen. We would love to hear a little bit more about how you liked today's program so that we can make them better for you. So, please participate in that survey. We really appreciate and use your feedback whenever we get it.

We will be back on Science How next month. We will be looking at dinosaur locomotion this time with Curator of Dinosauria and paleontologist, Dr. Matt Carrano. So, mark your calendars, Thursday, November 18th at 1:30 in the afternoon we will be back here on Zoom with Dr. Matt Carrano.

But for now, thank you, Briana, for being here today, being our special guest, bringing us to Ol Pejeta Conservancy. We really appreciate all of the wonderful information you've shared with us.

Briana Pobiner:
Thanks, Maggy. Thanks, everybody, for your great questions.

Maggy Benson:
Thank you all. See you next time.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with Paleoarchaeologist Briana Pobiner aired October 28, 2021, as part of the Smithsonian Science How series. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

Join Paleoarchaeologist Dr. Briana Pobiner for a virtual field trip to her field site in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. In this video, she shares images from this active field site to walk students through what kind of evidence her team is looking for and how it’s discovered, introduces the students to the team of experts that make discoveries possible, and illustrates what it’s like to live, sleep, and eat while doing field work.

Moderator: Maggy Benson, a museum educator at the National Museum of Natural History.

This video complements the "Human Origins: What does it mean to be human?" digital school program (for Grades 6-12) by revealing what human origins field work entails, how scientists work in the field, and what they do on a daily basis

As a result of this video program, students will be able to: 

  • Recall why Briana does field/purpose of field work (to discover evidence to learn more about ancient environments and predators) 
  • List at least two types of evidence that Briana and her team are looking for 
  • Recall how the team looks for evidence and what they do when they find it   
  • Discuss how teamwork and community is essential for successful field research and future discoveries  
  • Summarize in their own words the team’s experience living, eating, and sleeping at the Ol Pejeta field site 

Next Generation Science Standards

MS-LS4-1: Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity

Science and Engineering Practices

Connections to Nature of Science

Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence

  • Science knowledge is based upon logical and conceptual connections between evidence and explanations.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

LS4.A: Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity

  • The collection of fossils and their placement in chronological order (e.g., through the location of the sedimentary layers in which they are found or through radioactive dating) is known as the fossil record. It documents the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of many life forms throughout the history of life on Earth.

Crosscutting Concepts

Connections to Nature of Science

Scientific Knowledge Assumes an Order and Consistency in Natural Systems

  • Science assumes that objects and events in natural systems occur in consistent patterns that are understandable through measurement and observation.

About Smithsonian Science How

Connect your students to Smithsonian science experts in this weekly series of free live, interactive webinars. Hosted by Smithsonian educators, Smithsonian Science How will connect your students to authentic science, discoveries, and collections while inviting them to participate in live polls and ask and answer questions throughout. 

Thematically aligned with NMNH Digital School Programs, the webinars serve as excellent extension activities. Each webinar aligns with core content from the Animal Adaptions, Insect Survival, or Reefs Unleashed school programs, but is an independent experience. 

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Grade Level
3-5
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Topics
Life Science, Paleontology, Social Studies
Exhibit
David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins