Big Digs

Excavations in Ethiopia and Lockport, New York

The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors
The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors Amazon

Ann Gibbons, who wrote our cover story (“Our Earliest Ancestors,”), has been covering human evolution since the early 1990s and is the author of The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (2006). For that book, she visited several hominid field sites in Africa, but she was unable to wangle an invitation to the site in Ethiopia where the first pieces of a skeleton of “Ardi,” a pivotal hominid who lived 4.4 million years ago, were found in 1994. “That was my one big wish,” she says, to go to Ethiopia. Then, in November 2008, Tim White, the lead researcher on the ongoing Ardi project, invited her to do just that. “A couple of weeks later, there I was.”

She would not be disappointed. “One day, coming back from a fossil site, we were on this dusty plain on the Great Rift Valley floor, and in front of us was this volcano and the moon rising over Lake Yardi. Behind us the sun was setting. Tim said something about hominids seeing this moon rising over water here for millions of years. Ethiopia’s Middle Awash is the place where there’s the longest record of human evolution anywhere on the planet; it covers a vast span of human evolution, from 5.8 million to 160,000 years ago. To be in this spot was magical. I’ve been to a number of field sites, but this one was sort of a life-changing trip for me.”

To Joyce Carol Oates’ prolific outpouring of novels, short stories, essays, plays and books for children, add the charmingly affecting piece in this issue, “Going Home Again,”. Smithsonian’s Megan Gambino reached the 71-year-old writer by phone at her home in Princeton, New Jersey.

How much had you thought about “home” prior to this assignment?
Probably more than most people. Because I’m a novelist, a writer of fiction, I probably do think of these things fairly often, fairly consistently. I have stories and novels that are set in my hometown area, and childhood memories are written about. We tend to write about what we know.

Can you talk about how you approached this?
I write in longhand. When I went to Lockport, in October, I was driven around by a relative. I just took notes on everything that I did; I described things. The canal. My old school. I didn’t invent anything.

At the end of the essay, you say that a question asked by an audience member during your presentation didn’t seem very Lockportian. How so?
I’ve never considered Lockport a place where theoretical, philosophical or intellectual ideas were much discussed. It was a very welcome surprise.

Read the rest of the interview »

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