Laboratory Research in Paleoanthropology

 When paleontological collection and archaeological excavation is complete, the collected antiquities are carefully packed and returned to the National Museum in Addis Ababa.  As the field equipment is cleaned, repaired, inventoried and stored, work on the collected antiquities really begins.  Very important fossil discoveries are often announced to the Ethiopian and international media as soon as they are found.  However, such announcement usually only mentions the discovery of the fossil.  This is because to understand the significance of each discovery, it must be carefully cleaned, molded, photographed, and studied comparatively.  This can take many years of laboratory work.

Most of the artifacts and fossils collected in the field require some form of cleaning.  Often, these antiquities are embedded in very hard stone that must be carefully cleaned from their surfaces.  Some fossils are so fragile that matrix must be removed slowly and carefully, under a binocular microscope, with chemical hardening proceeding during the cleaning process.  Many tools are available for this cleaning, depending on the preservation of the fossil and the type of embedding matrix.  Some preparation is as simple as scraping away matrix with a hand-held dental pick.  Other preparation requires powerful air compressors that drive tiny air hammers that chip away the hard matrix without damaging the bone below.  Preparation of a single hominid skull can take up to three years to complete.

The Paleoanthropology Laboratory at the National Museum is the ideal venue for the cleaning activities because all the necessary equipment is there.  There is also the possibility of comparison with casts and other original fossils to help guide the processing and reconstruction of fossils.  And a fully-equipped casting facility allows the precious original fossils and artifacts to be accurately replicated, minimizing handling of original fossils and allowing comparison with other fossils in different countries without having to export the original fossil overseas, insuring its safety and attractiveness to tourists from abroad.  Comparisons of fossils based on casts, photographs, X-rays, and CT scans are very important in working out the evolutionary and functional implications of the fossils found in the field.