Armchair Fossil Hunting in the Turkana Basin

Workers busy documenting a paleontological dig site in a desertic part of the Turkana basin in Kenya where some fossil bones have been found.

Online Citizen Science Project

A new online citizen science initiative, Fossilfinder, is inviting ordinary members of the public to help hunt for fossils in the Kenyan desert. The volunteers will have the opportunity to sift through one million images from the arid Turkana Basin – a key area for fossils of early human ancestors.

The array of photographs was produced by archaeologists using a special aerial camera system mounted on kites, drones and other devices.

 

A hydrological map of Lake Turkana Basin in Africa. The map includes the country boundaries of neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, dams and rivers.
Lake Turkana Basin Topography and Hydrology Map Source: Google Images

Turkana Basin, East Africa

The Turkana Basin, which surrounds the salt lake of the same name and is rich in fossil-containing deposits, stretches from northern Kenya into southern Ethiopia. Much of the Turkana Basin today can be described as arid scrubland or even desert, but the centre of the Basin holds Lake Turkana (at 3.3 degrees north latitude and 36.05 degrees east longitude), a major East African Rift and alkaline lake that supports a wide array of wildlife and a community of local people.

An infographic showing the development of stone tool technology in Eastern Africa Source: Turkana Basin Institute & Stony Brook University.The research concentrates on a particular area that contains a wealth of fossils dating between 1.4 and 1.8 million years old – a period known for the emergence of the first three species in the Homo genus, as well as key developments like the appearance and the spread of stone tool technology among our early ancestors. The region is subject to erosion when heavy rains arrive, which reveals fresh fossils every year.

Scientists want to answer some important questions: “What’s the relationship between these different species? Which one turns out to be our ancestor?”

The site launched on Tuesday 8th September 2015, as part of the British Science Festival in Bradford.

 

Fossil Finder

To ramp up the speed and scale of the surveys already done in the area, led by the Turkana Basin Institute, the UK team has worked with those researchers to build up their bank of images. There is a huge amount of material that could not be searched by any single one person, and it could not really be searched effectively by a computerised system on its own. Therefore, it is an opportunity for the public to take part in this immense search for new fossil material at Lake Turkana.

A screenshot view of the Fossil Finder Website.The first set of photographs covers several square kilometres of ground at a resolution of 3 millimetres per pixel, including large rectangular areas and long strips of land deliberately chosen to criss-cross important locations in the basin.  As well as building up a large-scale view of the environment and its density of fossils, the information volunteers may provide about the pictures will help identify the most promising locations for professional archaeologists to visit in person.

Citizen scientists visiting the website at fossilfinder.org will be shown images of Turkana Basin land and will be asked a series of questions, e.g. categorising the terrain as rocky or sandy.

After identifying different kinds of stones and sediments, the visitors will be asked questions about what sort of fossils and artefacts they might be seeing in the pictures, from ancient tools to mollusc shells, mammal bones, or even ancient hominin remains.

 

Each image will be shown to 10 individuals to ensure the results are as robust as possible. The website forum will provide the opportunity for teamwork should any help be required with the analysis. If anyone finds a new fragment from the latest 1.4 million-year-old hominin, they may even get a chance to be on the committee that names it.

You too could take part take part in this immense search for new fossil material at Lake Turkana. Will you be fossil hunting this September?