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Rwanda And A Golden Monkey

Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park is where Dian Fossey studied the Virunga mountain gorillas.
Michael Nicols
National Geographic/Getty
Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park is where Dian Fossey studied the Virunga mountain gorillas.

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

Rwanda supports an antagonistic relationship between cars, buses, trucks, bikers and pedestrians. Drivers apply a live-free-or-die attitude to piloting their mode of transport, and the resulting no-flinching-allowed game of chicken is remarkable both for its casualness and the relative infrequency of large-scale disastrous fatalities. Not that they don't occur, but we did manage to make it the 75 kilometers from Kigali to Musanze without witness to or participation in any incidents of note.

Excavation Digs

Our home in Rwanda does not resemble any other field accommodations I have experienced in the past. Tents, look not my way! Sleeping bags, I banish you to the Kenyan savannahs! Flashlights, outhouses and solar showers, get behind me! With the lush backyard garden, noontime tea and not one but two full bathrooms, our excavation digs rival my home in D.C.

But oh, there is work to be done, and the dirty nature of that task does not change much from the American Southwest to the dry riverbeds of Kenya to the mountains of Rwanda.

We started the day at the Karisoke Research Center garage, where all of the gorillas' skeletal remains are processed. We cataloged pelts and bones from the comparative mammalian collection and got the research garage in order and ready to handle further gorilla processing — that is, the examination of the bones from the gorillas studied by Dian Fossey and their progeny. Nothing too electrifying, but necessary in order to proceed.

Mummified Monkey Bones

The end of the day brought some excitement in the form of a naturally mummified golden monkey that is to become a part of the comparative collection. Mummification, natural or otherwise, was something I hadn't considered. We decided that he had lived a long, boisterous life before dying, as evidenced by the numerous extra lumps of bone along his vertebral column indicating advanced arthritis and multiple healed fractures in his pelvis and scapula (monkeys, I was reminded, do commonly fall out of trees). We placed him in a 1 percent solution of tergezyme and water to begin cleaning his skeleton, packed up our bags, turned out the lights and left the research garage in search of, perhaps incongruously, food.

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Erin Marie Williams
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