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By Cathy Comer and Lisa Willhoite

ON THE FIRST DAY OF A DIG, archaeologist Reid Ferring found himself surrounded by armed Russian soldiers.

The UNT geography professor, his 16-year-old son and an international team of scientists were surveying a rock quarry in the Republic of Georgia (formerly part of the Soviet Union) when they happened upon a hidden part of the largest Russian military outpost in the region.

“All of a sudden we looked up, and there were these screaming, red-faced soldiers running at us,” Ferring says. “They were holding machine guns on us, and they were really agitated.

This is not a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark; it’s a day in the life of Reid Ferring as he delves into the mystery surrounding the first human migration out of Africa.


The ancient mystery

Africa — the cradle of human civilization. When did our ancient relatives first venture out to settle on other continents? Why did they leave?

Georgian and American archaeologists examine part of the excavation site at Dmanisi.

Ferring has been digging for the answers to these questions, and he recently came one step and hundreds of thousands of years closer to the truth.

With funding from the Louis S.B. Leakey Foundation and the National Science Foundation, Ferring has been excavating a site in Dmanisi since 1993. The site is buried beneath the ruins of a medieval castle in the southern portion of the Republic of Georgia.

He and a team of scientists from Georgia, Germany and the United States have meticulously examined the site, sifting through soil with chopsticks to avoid damaging any delicate specimens.


The amazing find

In the summer of 1999, team members made a discovery that altered a widely accepted view of anthropological history.

Heavy rains at Dmanisi had washed away enough soil to reveal part of a young man’s skull. The scientists then found the skullcap of a teen-age girl.

Skull date 1.7
million years old

The skulls were determined to be 1.7 million years old, and their physical characteristics indicated clear African ancestry. They are now considered the oldest fossil evidence of the early human species that first migrated out of Africa.

Because of this discovery, which was reported in the May 12 issue of Science, the scientific community now knows that early humans left Africa hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought.


The archaeologist

Ferring brings a rare combination of talents to the field. His training, with doctorates in the fields of geology (the study of the earth) as well as anthropology (the study of humans) brings him a unique perspective.

Scientists in the two fields use different terminology, sometimes making it difficult for them to communicate, Ferring says.

His ability to analyze the land and the fossils separately helps him untangle the history of each site.


The unanswered questions

The discoveries at Dmanisi are forcing scientists to reassess their perceptions of when and why early humans left Africa.

It was generally accepted that ancient African humans were able to leave their homeland because of certain technological advancements, such as the creation of sophisticated stone tools. The tools uncovered with the skulls at the Dmanisi site were much more primitive than expected, indicating the species that left Africa was not as advanced as scientists thought.

Ferring hypothesizes that the reasons the early humans left Africa were biological and ecological rather than technological. It is possible that physical changes in their bodies permitted them to walk and run more easily and that they added more meat to their diet, which helped them move to climates colder than Africa and allowed them to settle farther from their homeland where higher quality food sources were more abundant.


The adventure continues

Ferring’s work has far from ended. He helped draft a five-year excavation plan after traveling to Georgia again in August. He then returned to Denton to assume his new role as chair of UNT’s Department of Geography.

Although his students call him Dr. Ferring, others on campus teasingly refer to him as “Indiana Jones.”

“Except,” he says with a laugh, “I’m much better looking than Harrison Ford.”


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