By Cathy Comer and Lisa Willhoite
ON THE FIRST
DAY OF A DIG, archaeologist Reid Ferring found himself surrounded
by armed Russian soldiers.
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.
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.
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 cradle of human civilization. When did our ancient relatives
first venture out to settle on other continents? Why did they leave?
and American archaeologists examine part of the excavation site
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.
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.
summer of 1999, team members made a discovery that altered a widely
accepted view of anthropological history.
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
Skull date 1.7
million years old
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.
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.
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
in the two fields use different terminology, sometimes making it
difficult for them to communicate, Ferring says.
to analyze the land and the fossils separately helps him untangle
the history of each site.
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.
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.
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
his students call him Dr. Ferring, others on campus teasingly refer
to him as “Indiana Jones.”
he says with a laugh, “I’m much better looking than Harrison Ford.”