Petrified Forest National Park expands by 26,000 acres

Petrified Forest National Park
The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona just got bigger to the tune of 26,000 acres.

After years of negotiation, the National Park Service bought the land from a ranching family, the Daily Democrat reports. This land had been enveloped by the park when it expanded from 93,500 acres to 218,500 acres in 2004.

The park is famous for its colorful petrified trees scattered across the landscape. The scenery is equally colorful, with rugged hills striated with differently hued stone.

Since the new acquisition is remote ranching land closed to visitors, it should prove a treasure trove to archaeologists and paleontologists. Traces of prehistoric Native Americans, such as arrowheads and petroglyphs (rock art) are common finds in the park, and many dinosaur bones have also been found. Scientists get first dibs on the area, so it will be at least a few years before it opens to the public.

[Photo courtesy the Petrified Forest Ranger, who has an amazing photostream on flickr]

La Brea tar pits still pumping out history

La Brea tar pits still pumping out history
The La Brea tar pits, just 7 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, have been a treasure trove for paleontologists for decades. Producing more than a million bones since their discovery, the sticky ponds that trapped living creatures tens of thousands of years ago are still pumping out history.

Work over the past few years has involved sifting through 23 boxed deposits and some 16,000 bones reports the Associated Press. Chief curator Dr. John Harris and lead excavator Carrie Howard have been going through the find, discovered in 2006 during the construction of an underground parking garage close to the tar pit location.

“We’re still trying to piece everything together” Harris said estimating it would take five
years to sort through, so long that work has been stopped on another area, Pit 91, where scientists have been working since 1989.

Pit 91 measures 28′ x 28′ and about 14 feet deep. 3′ square grids are used for excavation and after fossils are excavated, they are cleaned, identified, labeled, catalogued and put in storage where they have been made available for research by professionals and students from around the world.

Called Project 23: New discoveries at Rancho La Brea, the Page Museum, part of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, believes this find has the potential to double their collection by three to four million specimens.

Gadling listed the La Brea Tar Pits as one of the World’s Strangest Natural Wonders and it looks like the La Brea tar pits will still be pumping out history for some time to come.

Flickr photo by jkritchter

Day at the Pits from Andy Chen on Vimeo.

Oldest human footprints will soon be on public view

History buffs love to see the places where famous people walked, but how about the thrill of seeing where some of mankind’s earliest ancestors strolled by? Footprints dating back 3.6 million years were discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania by the famous paleontologist Dr. Mary Leakey back in 1976. The prints of three individuals and several animals had been pressed into a layer of ash deposited by a nearby volcano and became fossilized as more and more ash and dirt piled up and pressed the lower layers into a soft rock called tuff.

This find is of major importance to the study of human evolution but the site itself hasn’t been open to the public for 15 years. Now Tanzanian officials have announced that the footprints will again be on view. The prints are in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which already attracts about 400,000 tourists annually.

The tracks are those of three individuals walking upright. One walked in the footprints of another and all lead in the same direction. It’s unclear what hominid (early form of human) made the tracks, but several skeletons of the Australopithecus afarensis were discovered in the region and date to the same approximate period. The famous Lucy skeleton is an Australopithecus afarensis. The photo shows a reconstruction of one at the Cosmocaixa museum in Barcelona.

Scientists are currently studying how to open the site with minimal impact. They expect the process to take up to two years.

This is the latest round in a continuing controversy over how to preserve the prints. Some scientists say the entire section of rock should be removed and placed in a museum. Others say they’re much more compelling where they were found. A protective sealant was placed over the prints in 1995 and the whole area was covered with earth. While this has kept the prints in good condition, it means nobody gets to appreciate them. Hopefully Tanzanian scientists will find a way to preserve the prints while allowing visitors to enjoy this one-of-a-kind discovery.

[Photo courtesy user Esv via Wikimedia Commons]

Utah prehistory week explores state’s amazing past

The American Southwest is famous for its traces of prehistoric civilization. One of the best places to see pueblos and petroglyphs is beautiful Utah, also famous for its hiking and canyoneering.

Starting tomorrow, Utah scientists and museums will be celebrating Prehistory Week by inviting the public to learn more about life in the state hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years ago. Events include a chance to watch the excavation of a dinosaur skeleton, visits to ancient inhabited caves, and museum open houses. At Zion National Park an archaeologist will lead a guided hike to a part of the park rich in ancient structures and inscriptions, while Cedars State Park Museum hosts the Four Corners Indian Art Market. There are events throughout the state, including lots of events for the kids.

Coming attractions: Ethiopia

There aren’t many countries that can truly call themselves unique. France has great cuisine, but so does Italy. India has challenging and beautiful mountaineering routes, and so does Peru.

But Ethiopia really is unique. It’s the only African country that was never colonized, and as far as paleontologists can tell, it’s where the human race evolved from our earlier ancestors.

Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley is a treasure trove of fossils that have revealed our origins from something not quite human and not quite ape, and our slow evolution into something more recognizable. These fossils, including the famous Lucy, are on show at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The great lesson evolution has to teach us is that we’re all related. Ethiopia is everyone’s hometown.

Ethiopia’s great history didn’t end with simply giving birth to the human race. It was home to a series of important civilizations that left a rich cultural legacy. The country boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the eleven churches of Lalibela cut out of solid rock. The one pictured here is called Bete Medhane Alem (“Savior of the World”) and is believed to be the largest rock-hewn church anywhere. Another entry to the list is the ancient capital of Aksum with its towering monoliths. Aksum’s rulers controlled one of the ancient world’s great empires for a thousand years from about 50 BC until 950 AD.

Ethiopians are proud of their history and near Aksum is the battlefield of Adowa, where in 1896 an Italian army determined to colonize the country was gobbled up by a well-armed and disciplined Ethiopian force in one of the biggest defeats of a colonial force by a native army in history. The Italians returned in 1935 under Mussolini, this time with tanks and poison gas, and took over for a few brutal years, but they never really controlled the country and got promptly ejected during World War Two.This is a large nation, almost twice the size of France, with several different cultural and ethnic groups and a mix of Christian, Muslim, and animist beliefs. The population of 79 million speaks 83 languages and more than 200 dialects. In the rugged highlands of the north are the Amhara and Tigrayana, who are mostly Christian. In the dry east are the Muslim Harari, whose main city of Harar is considered one of the holiest cities of Islam. The grasslands to the south are home to the Oromo, who embrace various faiths, and tribal animist cultures such as the Mursi, who are famous for the giant rings they put through their lower lips. There are many more ethnic groups, but it would take a book to cover them all.

One aspect of Ethiopian culture many people in the West have discovered is the food. There’s Ethiopian coffee, of course. Coffee was discovered coffee here and the Ethiopians have a pleasant ceremony to celebrate drinking it with friends. There’s also distinct cuisine that’s beginning to catch on in the West. A spongy, slightly sour bread called injera provided a base for a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. There’s lots for vegetarians to eat in Ethiopia, plus Wednesdays and Fridays are traditional fasting days when most restaurants and private homes won’t serve meat. Ethiopian restaurants have become popular in the U.S. and U.K. and provide a good introduction to the cuisine. If you’re in London, try Merkato Restaurant on 196 Caledonian Road. The best I’ve had in England!

If nature is more your style then try the wild and rugged Semien Mountains, another World Heritage Site, that offers unspoiled trekking where you can see rare species found only in Ethiopia, such as the Ethiopian wolf and Gelada baboon. You might also want to dare the Danakil Depression in the extreme northeast. An inhospitable desert 100 meters below sea level, it’s seen a record high of 64.4°C (148.0°F) and regularly gets up to 48 °C (118 °F).

Get there

A number of airlines fly to Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Since it isn’t a hugely popular destination prices aren’t very competitive but they aren’t outrageous if you shop around. I got a flight on Egyptair from Madrid via Cairo to Addis Ababa for only 550 euros ($830). Few flights from Europe are direct; most stop in the Gulf or North Africa. One odd thing is that many flights land in the wee hours of the morning. I’m getting in at 4am, so I guess I’ll just change some money at the 24-hour bank, hope one of the airport cafes is open, and wait until sunrise.

I’ll be there from February 9-March 27. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see Ethiopia. I’ve been studying the history for years and talking to every expat I can find. Now I’m finally going there! Expect to see lots more about this fascinating country on Gadling.