Looking out across a verdant lake valley alive with game, in a land to be known as Georgia at some remote future time, the diminutive, small-brained, ape-faced creature seems hardly destined for planetary conquest. Yet, from 1.75 million years ago, the slender little hominid — pre-human — is rewriting the story of who we are, where we came from and how we got here.
Translating this epic tale is an energetic and enthusiastic Georgian scientist, David Lordkipanidze, who has waged a decade-long struggle to uncover, substantiate and protect fresh evidence about our origins. Since 1991, amid the uncertainties of a newborn nation and a vestigial budget, he has led an international team in unearthing a trove of ancient hominid remains, stone implements and animal fossils from a site at Dmanisi in central Georgia — the oldest found in Eurasia.
For his enterprise in unveiling new insights into the emergence of hominids in Eurasia, for his perseverance in the face of difficulties, for remarkable team leadership and dedication to preserving a priceless fragment of our heritage, David Lordkipanidze has been selected as a Laureate of the 2004 Rolex Awards.
Since the first revelation in 1991, Lordkipanidze’s discoveries at Dmanisi have set prehistorians in a ferment, shattering the conventional image of a big, tough, smart and well-armed Homo erectus, striding confidently out of Africa about a million years ago to stake a claim to Asia, Europe and the rest of the world.
Instead, says Lordkipanidze, a smaller creature with a lesser brain, a more primitive countenance, perhaps longer arms and shorter legs and a much simpler toolkit seems to have been first to undertake the enterprise of peopling the world. This prehistoric anti-hero is being tantalisingly revealed, a scrap at a time, in four skulls, four jawbones, 16 isolated teeth and 24 other bones, along with more than 3,000 stone tools, from a site totalling no more than 150 square metres.
Early Human Prehistory
When Georgia emerged from a disintegrating USSR into nationhood in 1991, little was known of its early human prehistory. Lordkipanidze and his colleagues have now thrown the spotlight on it with dramatic effect.
The scene of their endeavours is today a rocky, wooded plateau rising between the swift-flowing Mashavera and Pinezaouri rivers. This was the site of the medieval city of Dmanisi which lay on the ancient Silk Road between Byzantium, Armenia and Persia. In 1983 palaeontologist Dr Abesalom Vekua, excavating among the town’s ruined fortress and houses, had unearthed a fossilised rhino tooth. There followed an extraordinary wealth of animal remains dating from the early Pleistocene, 1.5 to 2 million years ago: elephants, gazelles, rhinos, sabre-toothed cats, giraffes, bears, ostriches, wolves and rodents.
In 1984 the first stone tools appeared: cobbles roughly worked to a basic cutting edge — nothing like the elegant hand axes crafted by later Homo erectus — but nonetheless, a blazing signpost to primal human activity.
This was spectacularly confirmed in 1991 when, on the final day of Lordkipanidze’s first digging season, German student Antje Justus was carefully excavating the bones of an extinct sabre-tooth cat. In the earth immediately beneath them lay an unmistakably human-like jaw with a full set of teeth.
A 10-year Debate
"It was a shock ... incredible. I knew it was something important, but at the time I honestly did not understand how important," Lordkipanidze recalls. The pressing question was: how old was it? Initial tests placed the bone at 1.6 million years — a date that went off like a charge of dynamite in a prehistory profession that revels in acrimonious debate. This was far too early for some, who challenged both dating and interpretation.
Then followed the electrifying finds of four skulls and three more jaws — an incredible haul for any prehistoric site. Lordkipanidze felt these showed strong resemblances to the slight, small-brained ancestral humans from Africa, Homo habilis and Homo ergaster (living 2.5 to 1.6 million years ago), predecessors of the larger, brainier and more rugged Homo erectus.
For a decade scientific argument raged. In 2000, he, along with Professor Leo Gabunia and other colleagues, published findings on two of the skulls in the journal Science, along with an authoritative verdict from the Berkeley Geochronology Center, in California: the bones were about 1.75 million years old.
It was finally clear that the Dmanisi hominids were the earliest-known human ancestors to venture out of Africa and occupy other continents. It transformed Georgia from a palaeoanthropological backwater to a focus of international interest. And it revealed hominids as prodigious long-distance explorers, hunters and adventurers — arguably the earliest appearance of these human traits.
Today, Harvard University Professor of Anthropology Ofer Bar-Yosef attests that Dmanisi is "one of the most important projects studying human evolution, if not the most important one".
The hominids of Georgia were small and lithe, barely 1.5m tall but upright and able walkers, says Lordkipanidze. Their crania reveal brains of between 650 and 780cc, comparable with the early African hominids, but smaller than later erectus and half that of modern humans. They inhabited a volcanic landscape fringed by hills and mantled with forest and savannah. They chose their lookout with a hunter’s care — between a lake and a river where game would concentrate and seek water. They worked stone tools and may have carried stones for throwing.
Fascinated by the Past
These hominids are a source of profound interest for Lordkipanidze, who grew up with a family affection for the antiquities. His father founded the Georgian Institute of Archaeology. During his student years, Lordkipanidze was drawn to geology, first at Tbilisi, then completing his Ph.D. at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in Moscow. When he returned to his native country from studies in Russia and Germany in 1991, he joined the Georgian Academy of Sciences and was appointed to lead the excavations at Dmanisi — with early and spectacular results.
Within six years, he was head of the Department of Geology and Palaeontology at the Georgian State Museum in Tbilisi, and then, in 2004, he became the museum’s director. On the way he garnered several awards for science, and was offered a chair at a French university at 25 times his local salary. Bitten by the lure of Dmanisi and loyal to Georgia, he turned it down.
In Germany Lordkipanidze was inspired by the power of combining different scientific disciplines to tackle great challenges. At Dmanisi he has assembled a formidable array of international scientific skills for the task of deciphering the site, its geology, stratigraphy, ancient landscape and lakes, plants, pollen, animals, artefacts and hominid remains.
Over 60 researchers, most of them from France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, have rallied to the task — at times on the sketchiest of budgets — thanks to Lordkipanidze’s drive and enthusiasm. This has greatly enhanced opportunities for young Georgian palaeontologists.
Of the site’s astonishing richness, he says: "It seems that each year we get a new surprise. It’s like a crime story. I adore crime stories. We’re the investigators, and each year there are new victims and clues — but no witnesses."
Protecting the Site
The Dmanisi site is huge, over 13,000 square metres of which about one per cent has been excavated. It is also vulnerable — rain, wind and frost are loosening precious fossils and stone tools in the excavated areas; if the objects fall, they lose context and, thus, scientific meaning.
Medieval and bronze-age sites nearby have been looted and, while this has not yet occurred at the hominid site, Lordkipanidze fears that it is only a matter of time. Furthermore, the local region offers many promising sites yet to be prospected for evidence of early human occupation that the team is planning to explore.
To shield the site from the elements, Lordkipanidze plans to erect a 2,000-square-metre dome of steel and glass, which would also extend the number of months each year in which fieldwork can continue. The dome will house an on-site laboratory to analyse the finds and an on-site museum for the growing stream of visitors. In Georgia, funds for such a structure are scarce, and the Laureate plans to invest money from his Rolex Award for Enterprise towards this goal.
"We are a young country and this is a great moment to show people that science is not just for scientists, but for everybody. The Rolex Award is very important, not just financially, but because of the recognition it brings of the cultural significance of this region. I believe it will help spark the process of development," he says.
Olga Soffer, professor at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Illinois in the United States, says that the Dmanisi project is "the most important palaeoanthropological research project around today ... It is imperative to build a shelter over Dmanisi, not only to preserve it for research purposes, but because it is a most important part of our global cultural heritage and patrimony."
Published in 2004