A project led by Portuguese palaeoanthropologist and primatologist Susana Carvalho is researching evolution in the Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique, the least studied part of the Rift Valley and an area that could help solve some of the mysteries about humanity.
The team led by Carvalho, an associate professor at Oxford University and a deputy director at the park, started preliminary work in mid-2016, focussing on the location of what is Mozambique's most important protected area at the southern end of the Rift Valley. From here, the valley runs north through Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya to Ethiopia; it is within it that the most important finds relating to ancient humans have been find.
“Gorongosa is the only part of the Rift that has not yet been studied in terms of human evolution," Carvalho told Lusa News Agency, stressing that geological surveys point to its having formed seven million years ago, when the first hominids emerged.
The project team includes geologists, palaeoanthropolgists, palaeobotanists, archaeologists, primatologists and conservation biologists. It aims to reconstitute the evolution of the eco-systems within the area precisely in the period of seven million years that the researchers are focussing on, with work taking one or two decades.
According to Carvalho, the project could be “the key to understanding some of the most obscure facts of human evolution" such as why the species of hominids that originated in the Rift Valley are not the same as those found in what is today South Africa.
It could also glean pieces that help resolve other puzzles relating to the success of the genus homo in its adaptation to and occupation of the territory despite the extinction of all the other hominids: “Gorongosa could answer” these questions, Carvalho said.
Initial work point to fossils being in good condition thanks to “very old geological deposits” in cave systems, along with others in the open air. In other words it combines characteristics that prevail in southern and eastern Africa.
Carvalho herself has worked on primate archaeology projects in Africa - in Guinea and in Kenya - but said that the diversity of habitats in Gorongosa is unparalleled, with savannah, tropical forest and flood plains among others. The local population of baboons are also likely to provide useful subjects for study to understand how early hominids adapted to such habitats.
“Gorongosa is the best place in the world in my area, because we can research the present and the past in the same space," Carvalho said.