Bones The Size Of A Pea

Researchers excavating the skeleton of a mountain gorilla. i i

Veterinarian Tony Mudakikwa directs Amandine Eriksen and anthropologist Shannon McFarlin as they excavate the skeleton of a gorilla. Sabris Bromage hide caption

itoggle caption Sabris Bromage
Researchers excavating the skeleton of a mountain gorilla.

Veterinarian Tony Mudakikwa directs Amandine Eriksen and anthropologist Shannon McFarlin as they excavate the skeleton of a gorilla.

Sabris Bromage

Legendary primatologist Dian Fossey spent decades documenting the lives of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Now, scientists are exhuming the bodies of those gorillas to learn about evolution. Researcher Erin Marie Williams is part of that team, and sent this fourth dispatch from the field.

Rwanda roads are a marvel. Only slightly wider than a single lane of a U.S. highway, they host two-way pedestrian and bicycle traffic, the occasional goat and endless buses, trucks and cars. Unlucky pedestrians sometimes have to jump in the drainage ditches that run alongside when things get too tight on the road.

I took such a road to the national parks authorities' station in Kinigi at the base of the Virunga Mountains to begin the gorilla exhumations. The skeletons we went to recover are from animals that died in the past two years and that were buried with the intention of exhuming and preparing them for study here. A skeletal collection, or any museum-like object of value, remaining in its home country is rather novel. Think Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Only recently have countries that ask, "Dude, where's our heritage?" had much success getting it back. Rwanda has worked hard to keep its heritage.

Two researchers screening dirt from gorilla burial shaft. i i

Anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki (left) and Amandine Eriksen screen back dirt from an infant gorilla burial shaft to locate small bones. Erin Marie Williams hide caption

itoggle caption Erin Marie Williams
Two researchers screening dirt from gorilla burial shaft.

Anthropologist Stephen Nawrocki (left) and Amandine Eriksen screen back dirt from an infant gorilla burial shaft to locate small bones.

Erin Marie Williams

Infant Burial Sites

We started the morning with two infant burial sites.

Veterinarian Tony Mudakikwa, head of ecological monitoring, research and health at Rwandan Development Board and a mountain gorilla veterinarian himself, says about 38 percent of the skeletal collection here is from infants and young juveniles. Life can be rough for little gorillas. For one thing, infanticide is common, just as it is among many primate species. Infanticide helps a male silverback ensure paternity - that his progeny survive. The males also use infanticide to hasten a newly arrived female back into estrous. And what befalls the mother may befall the infant. Finally, infant gorillas are particularly susceptible to disease.

Ten years ago, Mudakikwa realized the research and conservation potential that Rwanda's gorilla skeletons hold and began putting the pieces together to initiate the skeletal preservation project. He is in charge of caring for all of the animals in all three of Rwanda's national parks. Many of the gorilla-related projects in Central Africa are headed by expats, so the fact that this project is homegrown and Rwandan-led is a source of pride for Mudakikwa.

Keeping The Bones Together

Calling "buhoro, buhoro" - "slow, slow" in Kinyarwanda - we uncovered the first infant. After its death, the veterinarians had laid the infant on a burial mat to help maintain skeletal integrity as the soft tissue decomposed. Strict protocols like these exist at every stage of gorilla care, in life and death, to protect the gorillas, their caretakers and the researchers.

Dian Fossey brought international attention to the plight of Rwanda's endangered mountain gorillas. Her own research with the gorillas was stopped short when she was murdered in 1985. Follow an illustrated timeline of her life.

The Karisoki Research Center and RDB have worked with Rwanda's endangered mountain gorillas for more than 40 years. Along with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, they've worked to maintain the gorillas' health through daily patrols, treatment and protocols for what happens when a gorilla dies.

And after seeing some of those hand bones, the size of a pea - so small that even the most high-falutin' princess would miss them under her yoga mat - I am grateful for those protocols.

By the end of the day, the first gorilla infant, Ruhuka Baby, had been successfully recovered. All Rwandan mountain gorillas are named at a ceremony called Kwita Izina. Until then, each bears its mother's name. Ruhuka Baby died, a victim of infanticide, the day it was born. So she will be known for years to come by only her mother's name. We left Ruhuka Baby safely encased in its mud mound on the bamboo mat with plans to return the next day to extract all of the tiny bones. Getting them all, some hardly wider than a piece of thread, requires sharp eyes and a lot of patience, two things in short supply at the end of a long day.

The next day started with a dose a humility as I fumbled my way through Kinyarwandan greetings with Appolionaire, the cook at our home and field station. I'd considered sneaking into the kitchen for coffee without being seen to save him the trouble. But this time I put on my big girl excavation pants and said "Mwaramutse," which should mean "good morning."

We headed back to Kinigi to finish work on Ruhuka Baby and start exhuming another infant gorilla. Shannon and Amandine spent the morning slowly removing soil from Ruhuka Baby, while Stephen Nawrocki and I focused on Umurage's skeleton. This infant had lived through Kwita Izina, the annual infant gorilla naming ceremony, and thus had a name all its own, Umurage.

Having identified the burial outline the day before, we knew where to dig. If you know what to look for, it's relatively easy to distinguish a burial pit from the surrounding soils. The two soil types are different colors and textures, and recently disturbed soil is easier to dig into than stuff that has sat in the same place for years.

We dug with trowels, shoveled the dirt into buckets, and screened it through two-millimeter wire mesh to recover all of the small bones — even fingernails. Lying on our stomachs with our heads stuck down into Umurage's burial shaft, Stephen and I brushed aside soil and talked about lofty things such as comic books, zombie movies, pizza, and desserts we were craving.

After a while, as I scraped my trowel across the shaft floor, the soil stopped falling away and instead popped back into place, as though there was a spring beneath it. I knew this meant that the skeleton was right below. By the end of the day, we had dug around the perimeter of the burial mat, leaving most of the soil holding the bones together in place. Then we gently lifted Umurage out of the burial shaft. Meanwhile, Shannon and Amandine managed to find all but the last digit of a toe from the other infant skeleton. Another day's work ended in success.

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