What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
It was great to be at a conference in the Afar region and announce that National Geographic had committed to funding the construction of an interpretive center in the village of Eloha, where people can learn about Lucy—the famous 3.2 million-year-old human ancestor—right near Hadar, the site where she was discovered. And I was honored to go to Eloha and sit down with the village elders and the Ethiopian minister of culture at a festive goat dinner, where the townspeople presented me and the minister with traditional Afar knives. The entire village was celebrating the planned center, which will not only benefit their children but will also designate the town as the tourist destination spot for Lucy. It was wonderful that National Geographic could contribute something to a group of people who, through their decades of toil as field workers on paleoanthropological expeditions at Hadar, helped bring so many wonderful finds to the attention of the world.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
One day at the Lucy site, storm clouds started moving in. Bill Kimbel, a member of the Dikika baby study team, said, "Oh, no! We better get out of here." But the rest of us wanted to stay and look around for fossils. Bill was getting nervous because he's been going to that region for years, and he knew how bad it could get.
As it started to drizzle, he finally managed to get us back to the Land Rover. By the time we had driven halfway to camp, the dry plains had turned to slippery mud and became crisscrossed with fast moving little streams. The Land Rover started slip-sliding all over the place, and we got stuck as we tried to cross a stream. We tried to work the car out of the water, but the mud was so slippery that we couldn't get any traction. Finally, we just had to leave the car there and walk back to camp, totally soaked, muddy, and humiliated that Bill was right.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
When I was in Addis Ababa, I was invited to the palace of Haile Selassie—the Ethiopian emperor who was deposed in 1974—to see his treasures. The collection was set up in the basement like a museum exhibit, reflecting what a head of state might acquire after being in power all of his life: autographs from movie stars, silver bowls and finery from fellow royals, and gifts from foreign dignitaries. But probably the most precious things there were the emperor's beautiful, ornate crowns; big, golden scepters; plush robes; and gilded throne. And in the garage, he had an extensive collection of Rolls-Royces and other luxury cars, limousines, and even an elaborate European-style carriage. Yet, not far from the palace gates, the streets were lined with the sick and infirm, and kids would run up to cars begging for a little money to buy something to eat. I understand the need for royal splendor, but it was strange to see such wealth juxtaposed with such poverty.