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Following in Darwin's Footsteps

Jordi Serrallonga (Ciencia y Aventura)

During a school trip to the zoo in Barcelona, Spain, almost 3 decades ago, Jordi Serrallonga, 11 years old at the time, stopped in front of a rare albino gorilla named Snowflake. The gorilla had been brought back to Barcelona from Equatorial Guinea by Spanish primatologist Jordi Sabater Pi, and as Serrallonga looked at it, he was struck by how similar primates are to humans. He saw a human emotion--despair--in the eyes of Snowflake's 1-year-old son, Urko, as the little gorilla tried in vain to approach his caretaker on the other side of the fence.

Jordi Serrallonga says his expeditions led him "to claim the role, almost forgotten, of the naturalist."

A couple of years later, the centenary of Charles Darwin's death set Serrallonga on his scientific trajectory. Upon learning about Darwin's theory that all modern humans descended from a common ancestor close to the gorilla and originated in Africa--a continent that had fascinated him since he was a small child--he decided he would dedicate himself to tracing human origins.

Now a self-described archaeologist and naturalist, Serrallonga has since blazed an unconventional scientific trail that combines research with a science-focused travel company that helps fund his research. "For me, ... science is adventure, the adventure of knowledge," Serrallonga says.

Preparing for his journey

While Serrallonga worked on his 5-year degree in prehistory and archaeology at the University of Barcelona, he persuaded Sabater Pi, the primatologist whose albino gorilla was so important in piquing his interest in human origins, to let him work with him. He studied chimp behavior so he would be able to better understand the behavior of the first humans in Africa. Serrallonga got other field experience as well: Under the direction of Josep M. Fullola Pericot, a professor of prehistory in his university's department, he spent several summers excavating archaeological sites in northern Spain that dated back to hunter-gatherer ancestors. He even learned some Kiswahili, a lingua franca in East Africa.

Serrallonga went on to do a 1-year master's degree in geology, human paleontology, and prehistory at the European Centre for Prehistoric Research at Tautavel in France. Then, in 1994, he returned to his native country and his original dream. He started a Ph.D., with Fullola Pericot as his supervisor, on the culture and behavior of the first humans in Africa about 2 million years ago. 

Serrallonga spent a couple of years continuing with excavations in the north of Spain and thinking about human origins before his first travel opportunity to Africa arose. During a 1996 conference, Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, an archaeologist at the Complutense University of Madrid, invited Serrallonga to help him on a human-origins expedition in northern Tanzania. Serrallonga was already showing signs of the scientist he would become. He has a "devotion to anything related to human evolution and more specifically, Africa," writes Domínguez-Rodrigo in an e-mail to Science Careers. His scientific proclivities, Domínguez-Rodrigo continues, are "reminiscent of the old 19th century school of naturalists."

On the Tanzanian expedition, the Spanish team worked on archaeological deposits in savannas in the Peninj region. As at many other sites, they found numerous hand axes dating back about 1.5 million years, but their use wasn't yet understood. While collecting plants one day, Serrallonga noticed how the local Masai cut acacia wood with their machetes to make everyday utensils. Serrallonga pictured the first humans doing the same with their hand axes, reckoning that the stone tools would show up in the archaeological record, but not the wood, as it would all degrade over time--except for microscopic particles of silica called phytoliths.

"He challenged me to enquire about microscopic residues in 1.5 million-year-old ... stone tools at a time when the oldest remains ever found in stone tools were not older than 60,000 years," Domínguez-Rodrigo writes. "And the challenge luckily produced positive results." They found phytoliths on the edges of hand axes they uncovered in Peninj--evidence of "the oldest non-controversial wood-working activities recorded in the archaeological record so far."

This and other evidence challenged the long-held idea that the first humans didn't have the intelligence and technology to hunt, eating carrion instead. But it was "very difficult to obtain the international recognition" for these findings, Serrallonga says. Journal reviewers kept questioning their analysis, but eventually all the work was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Their multidisciplinary approach was unconventional. Archaeological stones and bones are "the real information about the past," Serrallonga admits. But to understand the past, it's "very important to study the present," he says. In an era when scientists are expected to specialize, Serrallonga remains a generalist. "When I am doing an excavation, for me it's impossible to study only one thing and not look around me."

(HOMINID Human Origins Group, PCB-UB)

Jordi Serrallonga observes how the Hadzabe tribe of hunter-gatherers make a fireplace in Tanzania.

Serrallonga's first expedition to Africa was not the only important event that year in his career. At the same conference to which Domínguez-Rodrigo invited him to join his expedition, Serrallonga and other students created a network of Spanish scientists from many disciplines interested in human origins that they named HOMINID Human Origins Group. It was a place "where he could contact and invite all the best researchers of the world to discuss all the problems and ideas all around hominization," Fullola Pericot writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Ciencia y Aventura

Serrallonga, now 40, has led fieldwork in archaeology, primatology, and ethnology in Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, continental Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands, and Europe. During these expeditions, the most challenging issue hasn't been the heat, the scorpions, or the lions. It has been the lack of funding. "Many consider our research like something romantic, and romanticism gets good press ... but little concrete support," Serrallonga says.

At first, he got a bursary from the local government to do his Ph.D. He used his savings and money his younger brother lent him to finance his first journey to Africa. He then took a part-time teaching job at the University of Barcelona. Soon, he started supplementing his income by writing articles for the popular press and consulting for local museums and TV documentaries, largely as part of the HOMINID group. But none of this added up to the amount he needed to follow all of his research interests.

The solution came in 2001 when Serrallonga published a book about his adventures in Tanzania titled Los Guardianes del Lago: Diario de un Arqueólogo en la Tierra de los Maasai (Guardian of the Lake: Diary of an Archaeologist in the Land of the Maasai). Suddenly, "many people started asking me how they could visit the places that I described in the book. I started to serve as a guide to some groups of scientists, but then I realized that it wasn't the scientists who were most interested, but normal people with a strong interest in scientific topics," Serrallonga says.

From there came the idea of creating Ciencia y Aventura--a kind of scientific travel-consulting agency for anyone interested in going on a scientific expedition or following in the footsteps of great scientific discoverers like Darwin, for example. As director, Serrallonga's role is to organize the trips and act as a scientific and travel guide once there. He works with five other Spanish scientific guides, local people who help with logistics on-site, and travel agencies.

With the proceeds from Ciencia y Aventura, Serrallonga can now afford to spend as many as 7 months each year on scientific expeditions. Previously, he could afford only 1 month a year. In 2004, he left the University of Barcelona to take a consulting job at the Open University of Catalonia. He also became the director of HOMINID, which has now established itself as a research group at the Scientific Park of Barcelona, though the position comes with no salary or resources.

Serrallonga sees his Ciencia y Aventura activities as complementary to his work as a researcher--and it's not just because of the money he earns. "In every one of my travels with Ciencia y Aventura, some new findings occur that are [then] registered and published," he says. Also, he loves the opportunity to share his passion and knowledge with students and laypeople. "You are with these people in the middle of the savanna, and you don't have a PowerPoint but a real landscape," Serrallonga says. "The best job [in] the world is my work now."

The scientific life Serrallonga chose collides with more traditional views held in academia, including those of his scientific mentors. "Ciencia y Aventura is ... a perfect complement for Jordi's scientific interests and research," Camilo J. Cela-Conde, an anthropology professor at the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain, who today collaborates with Serrallonga, writes in an e-mail. But "it is not easy to make compatible [a] university career with expeditionary work." With so much traveling, Serrallonga still has to write up his Ph.D., for example, and Fullola Pericot worries that he never will. Serrallonga will finish the Ph.D., he insists, but ultimately, "my passion is not for academic positions but for science."

Above all, what Serrallonga has learned from his travels is to value the work of past scientists. "When you are wandering nowadays around the savannas of Africa, everything is exactly identical ... to what the explorers and scientists of the 19th century lived but with a big difference: We are going there equipped with modern GPS, powerful 4x4 vehicles, [and] medicines to combat malaria," Serrallonga says. "They didn't have all these advances available and yet they went deeper into unknown places, risking their lives." His expeditions led him, he says, "to claim the role, almost forgotten, of the naturalist."

"If my scientific travels brought me something, in addition to data for my investigations, it has been to learn that everything that occurs around us is equally interesting and fascinating: the essence of the naturalist."

(HOMINID Human Origins Group, PCB-UB)
Back in the HOMINID lab, Jordi Serrallonga studies some archaeological remains he found in Peninj.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.  

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