Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bones of Contention

Last November while we were working on the Ik dictionary project, I was trying to get the Ik word for ‘artifact’. As I queried a few of the guys, one of them lit up. I had mentioned old bones as an example of an artifact (though they aren’t really), and this guy said he found some old bones. Old human bones. When I heard this I became extremely interested in knowing how old those human bones were. “They are like stone,” he said. What?! I couldn’t believe it, so I kept asking questions. Apparently, while digging for gold (by hand) in the forest, he had unearthed a number of fossilized human remains: a skull, and a leg bone. He said that other miners with him told him the remains were a ‘ghost’ and shouldn’t be tampered with. So he just tossed them out of the hole, and they were then reburied. Knowing how important human fossils are to several scientific disciplines, I could hardly contain my excitement as I listened to his account. My imagination spun out of control.

 

That was mid-November, just before we flew back to the United States. At the time I never got the chance to follow up on his story. While in the US, I phoned an Ik friend and told him to tell this other guy that I’d pay him a certain amount if he recovered the fossils and brought them to me. During the three months we were away I often daydreamed and fantasized over the fame I would get and the fortune the Ik would get when world-renown paleontologists flocked to Timu to dig for more bones like the skull I was about to acquire.

 

Not long after we first arrived back in Timu, the guy paid me a visit. He wanted to confirm the message I had sent weeks ago over the phone. I confirmed it, and he said he would go look for ‘it’. A few days later he showed up again, and cryptically asked me to follow him (I was told people would suspect us of witchcraft for handling human bones). We walked down the hill to a clump of grass a few feet from the trail. I sensed that this was the moment of truth. He scrounged around in the grass a bit and produced a burlap sack. The sack was then turned upside-down, and what came rolling out but a…

 

I should’ve known. I should’ve known that what sounds too good to be true probably is. I should’ve remembered the African tendency to tell someone what they want to hear (especially if the person you are telling is becoming visibly excited). I should’ve calculated the extreme unlikelihood of a fossilized human skull being found twenty feet or more underground on the upper edge of the Rift Valley. I should’ve grasped the utter improbability of paying $50 for the next major fossil find. For what came rolling out of the bag was a human skull, sure, but one that couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or fifty years old. I stared dumbfounded at the small, white human skull before me. I tried not to look too disappointed because I knew that that is a common negotiation technique and that the guy would accuse me of it. Slowly, in broken Swahili, I tried to explain why this wasn’t what I was looking for. It took a good half-hour to convince him that I wasn’t trying to scam him. After all, I paid him for his time of digging for the skull, and for emphasis, I left the skull were it lay in the grass.

 

That evening another Ik man showed up with a mysterious looking ‘package’ tucked under his cloak. He had brought me another human skull! Somehow, I guess, word had gotten out that the white guy on the hill is buying human skulls. I knew this was a rumor I should quickly snuff out. It took me less time to convince the second man that I wasn’t out to find recent human remains (with all the strange things that would entail in this culture). The fiasco was almost over and done with, but not before the first man came a few days later with part of a femur of a recently (a few decades) deceased person. I turned that one down too, and since then, as far as I know, no one else has brought me any human bones. Phew!

2 comments:

The Reeds said...

Oh Bummer! The mystery is solved. :( That would spark some VERY curious rumors!!

Tammy On the Go said...

I am sitting here laughing....