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Humanity unearthed

Published September 14. 2013 09:00AM

If you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you probably know a bit about paleontology and anthropology; how scientists quarry the Sahara Desert's sands searching for clues to ancient empires or to the earliest forms of mankind.

Matt Bielecki, an anthropologist in the tradition of Indiana Jones, spent three weeks sifting through the Kem Kem Beds in Morocco, North Africa. "It was very hot and dry, about 115 degrees farenheit," he said. "The bugs were insane - large flies and scorpions, and a variety of vipers - not a pleasant place."

Bielecki will be presenting a free program Humanity Unearthed today from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Mauch Chunk Museum, 41 W. Broadway in Jim Thorpe, Pa. - (570) 325-9190. Artifacts and fossils will be on display from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m.

From 1:30 p.m. until 2:30 p.m., Bielecki will deliver a PowerPoint presentation that will focus on his excavations in Morocco, and talk about the people who, in the last century, have changed the way we think about our evolution.

These include Charles Darwin - author of On Origin of Species, Don Johanson - known for the Lucy fossil, Carl Fuhlrott - discoverer of Neanderthal man, Eugene Dubois discoverer of Java Man, Raymond Dart - identifier of the Taung child fossil, and Louis and Mary Leaky - whose discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge revolutionized the field of anthropology.

As a boy, Bielecki loved collecting artifacts. His interest in exploring rocks led him to become a geologist, and as a geologist he traveled around the world studying rocks - along the way collecting artifacts.

"During my midlife crisis, I returned to school and got degrees in anthropology and history," he explained. "I had been collecting material. Now, I wanted to learn to interpret it."

His independent research led him to Africa, Asia and Europe - to England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and France before focusing on the Kem Kem site in Morocco.

The Kem Kem site is in the Sahara, an area subject to a 26,000 year weather cycle. From 5,000 to 9,000 years ago, there was a green Sahara when the region supported a rich variety of plants and a denser human population. Thousands of cycles into the past, dinosaurs roamed this region.

Bielecki came to the Kem Kem site with two other geologists and a guide. They lived in tents during the dig. "In the desert, you don't have to do a lot of digging. You can throw the sand into the air, and the wind blows it away, leaving the artifacts behind. It's a process called deflation."

Bielecki, who currently serves as the volunteer director of education at the Museum of Indian Culture in Allentown, hopes that he can help people gain an appreciation for history.

Besides his presentation, he will have on display and answer questions about fossils and artifacts from Homo erectus and from Homo neanderthalensis - artifacts from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America from the earliest of man until about the year 1700.

"Instead of just displaying fossils, I will describe how they were discovered, what their discoverers originally thought they were, how we got to a modern understanding of them, and how these people proved that these discoveries were valid." Bielecki said.

Perhaps it will help us answer the question - what does it mean to be human?

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