Young Indiana Jones was a good story. But the real thing is even better. Meet Andrew Du.
Buried deep in the sand of a remote spit called Koobi Fora hides a treasure trove of artifacts tracing back to the beginnings of humankind. Found on the eastern side of Kenya's Lake Turkana, the site is a prime spot for paleontological research — and there we uncovered a new nonfictional adventurer, in the flesh. Step aside, Harrison Ford: Andrew Du is the real young Indiana Jones.
Du, 22, earned his bachelor's degree in evolutionary anthropology at Rutgers University. Since then he's spent the past three summers in Africa uncovering a trail of rare, 1.5-million-year-old human footprints. Garnering media coverage worldwide, these findings from Rutgers’ Koobi Fora Field School yielded key information about the soft-tissue anatomy of the oldest human-like foot, information that could not be verified by fossilized bones alone.
"Indiana Jones was actually the first thing that got me interested in this work when I was a little boy," he said. But for Du, the thrill itself is not in the pulp-fiction quest to find and protect a precious artifact, but in the scientific process, in finding meaning in a broken clue, and in cracking the puzzling case of man's relationship to the Earth.
In a conversation with Foxnews.com, he described his experiences in Africa as surreal. "Digging up bones is like graveyard work, and far more common. Footprints, on the other hand, bring a greater sense of familiarity. There’s a closer connection to be felt when brushing off evidence left behind by an ancestor who actually walked in those prints."
A picture of the impressions was published on the cover of Science magazine earlier this year. The images were taken using a hi-tech scanning device, called a laser theodolite, which captures a three-dimensional photo using a laser to scan and produce a digitized cast of the prints.
Technology has played a key role in the preservation, efficiency and precision of modern excavation. From the tools used in finding and maintaining historical ruins to the methods of exchanging and analyzing new information, the Internet has made the work simpler and the opportunities endless.
"I remember in my earlier days we excavated using a tool the size of a teaspoon," said Dr. Jack Harris, a Rutgers professor in the Center for Evolutionary Studies and director of the fieldwork program at Koobi Fora. "The only way to replicate an image of a fossil or footprint was by creating a mold using plaster of Paris, which damages the actual print. And the only way to share information was over the phone or through mail, which prolonged the process of actually getting the information out there,” Harris pointed out. "Today, students can excavate by day and be able to view and analyze their findings by night."
During Du’s most recent six-week African adventure, he returned to the same site in time for the discovery of a new set of hominid footprints and hand bones, finds currently under preparation for publication. Andrew has taken the lead in conducting his own research into percussive technology; he presented at a conference in Cambridge, England, and National Geographic filmed some of his experiments. With the passion of an archaeologist and the adventurous thirst of a treasure hunter, he is determined to find a methodology for recognizing and deciphering the implications of early man’s use of primitive stone tools.
"The most alluring aspect of this specific area of study is the incentive to venture out into remote locations like Africa," Du explained. "To find the answers to the most fundamental questions about man—who we are, where we came from, and why we’re here…I do it for the science."