BLOG Linda Rhinehart

NWR Issue 114

Earth Core: the Hominin Project

I attended Julian Ruddock's exhibition at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre twice one week at the end of May. It was intended to showcase the power of combining science and art. Ruddock aimed 'to bring these two worlds [science and art] closer together, to allow for mutual influence in articulating some of the uncertainties of climate change.' Earth Core is based around research and drilling that had taken place in November 2014 at Chew Bahir basin (salt lake) in Ethiopia, near the Great Rift Valley, generally thought, since the discovery of fossils there in the 1970s, to be the place where modern humans originated. The purpose of this journey to Africa, which was undertaken with the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP) along with Professor Henry Lamb of Aberystwyth University, was to explore the question of whether changes in climate may have led to early humans dispersing into other areas, or whether this caused increased adaptability instead. The researchers concluded that climatic pressures had caused increased adaptability, which led our ancestors to venture outside of this area during stable periods.

Several panels near the entrance desk served to explain the purpose of the project and the science behind it – one describing the location of the drilling, another, the scientific methods of the process, and a third detailing the hypotheses. These featured colourful photographs by the artist. The exhibition space was divided into small sections in the centre, with three of these showing continuous video interviews with some of the participants of the study (from the universities of Cologne and Addis Ababa), who spoke about charting patterns in climate history, reconstructing paleo-environments, working with local inhabitants in Ethiopia (mentioning for instance their reluctance to believe in a common ancestor for both humans and apes) and collaborating with practitioners from other fields of study – a theme that was apparent throughout the exhibition. At the back of the room, a 24- hour long film of the sediments from the drilling core 2A, slowly travelling from the surface towards the Earth's core, was shown. The sound effects and lighting that accompanied this simple were particularly effective, as the sounds brought to mind the scraping and drilling that must have taken place during the excavation itself, and the dim lighting made for a more mysterious atmosphere. On the other side of the room, the actual sediment was preserved in a glass case.

When I visited the exhibition for the first time, on 22 May, the section from the drilling in core 2B was still closed to the public and therefore only visible from outside of the tape surrounding it. When I returned to the exhibition a few days later, for its official opening, the photographs and full reconstruction of the 500,000 year-old lake had been laid out. At the opening, both Ruddock and Professor Lamb remarked on the uniqueness of the project and the fact that Ruddock had travelled with the rest of the crew the entire time, and mentioned their hope for taking it to other locations.

For the most part, the most interesting parts of the exhibition were those related to information about evolution and human ancestors. Likewise, a sheet listing the different zones of the Earth from surface to core was helpful and interesting. The 'art' part of the exhibition fell somewhat short, however, although the film of the sediment was fairly mesmerising, with its white, gold and red spots, and I was struck by the photographs of the evocative African landscape. However, a more creatively artistic interpretation of the project or its finding would have been rewarding.

Linda Rhinehart is a recent postgraduate student at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.

This exhibition runs at Aberyswyth Arts Centre until 10 June.

The Hominin Project


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