Elena Garcea, a member and leader of multiple National Geographic archaeological projects in Africa, has always been interested in studying ancient people’s lifestyles. When she’s not in the field, she teaches paleoethnology and interprets the data from the field.
What project are you working on now?
My current field research takes place in a small island in the Nile River, Sai Island, and on the west bank of the Nile (Amara West) in Upper Nubia, northern Sudan. I’m investigating the major economic and cultural shifts that took place between 10,000 and 4,500 years ago, when the latest hunter-gatherers started to produce their food with domesticated animals and plants, adopting animal herding first, and then plant cultivation. These shifts involved changes in the settlement systems, the production of different pottery vessels and stone tools, and the establishment of new social relations. I usually spend one or two months a year in the field.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?
I like my job because it allows me to work with both my hands and my brain. I enjoy working in the field in Africa, and I am attracted to understanding the beginning of things. My major interests focus on the spread of early Homo sapiens—our human species—as they moved out of Africa between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, first reached southwestern Asia, and then Europe. I’m also fascinated by the dynamics that occurred when the latest hunter-gatherers started to produce their food and domesticated animals and plants, adopting animal herding in Africa some time after 10,000 years ago. An assemblage of worked stones, or potsherds, has many stories to tell us. It can reveal how the people who made those stone tools and those pots adjusted to the environment where they lived, how they survived and developed, and how they related with other groups who lived in the surroundings. Prehistory is the science that deals with common people, their behavior, and their lifestyles. It teaches us to think about a geography and a history different from those designed in the last 2,000 to 3,000 years by wars and armistices, conquerors and vanquished, rulers and subordinates.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
When I was working in the central Sahara desert, I discovered the archaeological remains of the earliest humans of our species, Homo sapiens, who left East Africa and gradually moved towards North Africa, Europe, and then the Middle East. Nobody knew at the time—it was the early 1990s—that the early representatives of our species lived in the Sahara, which was not a desert then, around or slightly before 100,000 years ago. Even the experts in this field had denied it. Understanding the out-of-Africa movements of early Homo sapiens subsequently became another major interest of mine.
If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
“You always wanted to be an archaeologist and you made it!” Young people should find a passion in what they would like to do. Passion is the key to overcome the difficulties and the obstacles that every job can bring.
If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
I would switch jobs with Zinhle “Zinny” Thabethe because she can change the world. While I work to uncover the past, she works for the future to cure and educate HIV/AIDS patients by bringing hope with the music of her choir. She is a person I deeply admire. She can successfully contribute to afflicting problems with her artistic talent. My work is similar, in a way leading an archaeological team is like conducting an orchestra. You need the cooperation of every single voice.
What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Many of the diseases that we are creating with our careless attitudes, as well as everything existing on Earth and in space. However, I hope National Geographic will continue to support archaeological research and understand the value of knowing our human past. A hundred years is not a whole lot of time for an archaeologist.
What one item do you always have with you?
I always have a handkerchief in my pocket. I hate using paper tissues as they are polluting, tearable, and hard to dispose of in the field. Handkerchiefs can be useful for many purposes (wiping, holding something that is too hot or too cold, unscrewing jars, etc.).
What is your favorite National Geographic magazine article?
“The Black Pharaohs” by Robert Draper. The archaeology of Sudan has been long neglected and here it is very clearly presented. Some of it, at least.
If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
I would like to meet Homo habilis, the earliest member of the same genus as ours, Homo sapiens. Homo habilis evolved around 2.3 million years ago and became extinct around 1.4 million years ago in Africa. He is the first species for which there is evidence of use of stone tools.