Smithsonian Global

Human Origins Program: Olorgesailie Drilling Project

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Researchers handle a segment of core drilled from Olorgesailie



Long-Term Research
Global Change

In 2012, a team from the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, led by paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, obtained the first long climate core from an early human fossil site. An international team of scientists, environmental consultants, local Maasai landholders, and engineers drilled up to 166 meters below ground to recover 3-meter segments of core that preserve evidence of ancient environments from more than half a million years ago.

The project goal was to obtain this climate core from the prehistoric site of Olorgesailie, located in the southern Kenya Rift Valley. Previous excavations there documented fundamental changes in the behavior of our early human ancestors over the past 700,000 years. By drilling deep into the earth, the team was able to recover sediment layers underground that preserve a complete, high-precision record of rainfall, temperature, vegetation, and environmental stresses – and how these changed over time – during the critical transitions involved in the origin and evolution of early humans.

The project was a collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya; local Maasai landholders of the Oldonyo Nyokie Group Ranch; Drilling and Prospecting International; Earthview Geoconsultants; Drilling, Observation, and Sampling of Earth’s Continental Crust (DOSECC) and DOSECC Exploration Services; the University of Minnesota’s LacCore: National Lacustrine Core Facility; and a Kenyan site team. The core now resides permanently at the international lake core facility, LacCore, at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and is the subject of multiple ongoing analyses.


Richard Potts  

Paleoanthropologist Dr. Rick Potts directs the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where he holds the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins. After receiving his PhD in biological anthropology at Harvard University in 1982, he taught at Yale before joining the Smithsonian in 1985. Rick’s research investigates Earth’s environmental dynamics and the processes that have led to human evolutionary adaptations.