Paleoenvironmental Research Laboratory

Paleoenvironmental Research Laboratory


Welcome to the home page of the Paleoenvironmental Research Laboratory at Rutgers University

Our research, teaching and outreach efforts are based out of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, along with the Department of Anthropology.  The laboratory is located in the Biological Sciences Building on Douglass Campus in New Brunswick.  Support for our work comes from the National Science Foundation, International Continental Drilling Program, the Leakey Foundation, the Care Foundation, and the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies.


EarthRates Workshop  Cat Beck hosted a drilling workshop at Hamilton College, 20-22 April, 2018, to begin planning for the next coring campaign in the Turkana Basin.  Twelve scientists from around the world met to consider options including a long core from a floating platform on Lake Turkana, a single deep land-based core, or a transect of overlapping shorter cores.  All are intended to target the important Plio-Pleistocene stratigraphic window that has yielded the rich fossil and archaeological record of the basin.

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Bob Raynolds discussing deposodes at the EarthRates Workshop.


West Turkana 2016   This summer, fieldwork in West Turkana tackled four localities: Kaitio, Central Island, Kabua, and Locherangan.  The field team included Craig Feibel and Melissa Boyd (Rutgers), Cat Beck (Hamilton) and her undergraduate students Mary Margaret Allen and Mary Langworthy, along with post-doc Emily Beverly (Georgia State).  Travelling light, we were able to cover much ground, and adapt to the rapidly changing landscape.  Work at Kaitio was complicated by heavy rains, but we managed to measure new sections and collect critical samples.

Sampling along the Kaitio laga after unseasonal <em>El Nino</em> rains.

Sampling along the Kaitio laga after unseasonal El Nino rains.

Exploration on Central Island focused on a reconnaissanse of the crater lakes.  Flamingo Lake proved a fruitful coring site, while Crocodile Lake lived up to its name (and we kept our distance), and an arduous trek to Tilapia Lake found it considerably reduced in size.

Kabua Gorge continued to produce interesting discoveries, with new tephra and details of Late Pleistocene - Holocene fluctuations in Lake Turkana.

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Exposures of the Galana Boi Formation at Kabua. 

The Miocene locality of Locherangan, last investigated by William Anyonge in the 1980s, proved to have a rich  record of lacustrine clays with extensive paleosol overprints.

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The steep exposures at Locherangan made sampling a challenge. From top Emily, Mary Margaret, Cat and Mary perched on the cliff.


GEO 303   The Geology Module of the Origins Field School at the Turkana Basin Institute moved to Ileret in February.  The two-week field course in northern Kenya trained students in geological field methods, mapping, and the geological history of the Turkana Basin.  Instructors included Craig Feibel and Linda Martin (Stony Brook), along with Bob Raynolds (Denver Museum of Natural History).  At Ileret, students explored the classic exposures of the Koobi Formation, and moderm shorline process along Lake Turkana.  The highlight of the session was our fly-camp near Koobi Fora spit.

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Linda Martin explains sedimentary strata to GEO 303 students in Area 1 at Ileret.  Check out the Spring 2016 TBI Field School blog here.


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Students constructing a sholeline profile on the beach at Lake Turkana.


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Lake margin strata of the KBS Member in Area 123 at Koobi Fora.


HSPDP2 The second annual meeting of the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP) was held in Atlanta, GA, in January 2016.  The research teams for all five 'legs' of the project (Afar, Turkana, Baringo, Magadi and Chew Bahir) met for two days to discuss progress and planning.  Again, the WTK13 coring and analysis team was well-represented.

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Cat Beck shows off the WTK13 core on the GSU Interact Wall.  



Napudet 2015 A new collaboration with the Napudet Paleontological Project, directed by Isaiah Nengo, explored a complex terrane of Miocene and Pliocene strata exposed in the northern Napudet Hills. Though largely volcaniclastic in nature, the deposits preserve some exquisite fossils.  A basalt dated to 12.8 Ma by Ian McDougall and Frank Brown lies under the fossiliferous strata, suggesting a Middle Miocene age for the key localities.

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Prospecting for fossils on the 'Red Hill' at Napudet.


KBS Cyclostratigraphy A stratigraphic analysis of the exposures around the KBS site at Koobi Fora is included in the recent paper by Carol Ward and coworkers (link), describing the associated ilium and femur, KNM-ER 5881.  The geology not only constrains the age of these fossils to 1.9 Ma, but provides a detailed perspective on the cyclical nature of climate-controlled deposition at this time (read more).


GSA Vancouver 2014  The annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Vancouver, BC, was the venue for a series of updates on progress of the WTK13 core project.  Cat Beck presented a synthesis of new results from our lab (pdf), while other talks and posters gave details of related investigations.  

Kanapoi Fieldwork 2014  Working with the West Turkana Paleontology Project (WTPP), Craig Feibel and Melissa Boyd spent a month at Kanapoi investigating the sedimentary context of the fossil assemblages including much of the hypodigm of Australopithecus anamensis.  The work focused on detailing localities in riverine floodplain and delta settings, and circumstances of accumulation, burial and pereservation (read more).

Drilling success!  Our long-awaited drilling project in East Africa, the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP) collected over 200 m of core from West Turkana in June and July, 2013.  This effort targeted Early Pleistocene lake records of environmental change in close association with important paleoanthropological sites.  Our cores are archived at the National Lacustrine Core Repository (LacCore) in Minnesota.  Splitting and sampling began in mid-November 2013.  For updates visit the project website or join us on Facebook.

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The sand river Il Lokeridede in Area 102, Koobi Fora





My lab is built around the premise that patterns and processes of evolution, change over time in the broadest sense, can only be understood in context. We provide context for evolutionary scenarios ranging from the development of the East African Rift System, to the modern savanna community, from hominin evolution to the cultural development that leads to modern civilization, and for climatic change through the modern and ancient worlds. The long-term focus of much of this research has been geographic, centered on the unparalleled opportunities to understand the context of evolution in the Turkana Basin of Kenya and Ethiopia.



Geological Evolution of the Turkana Basin

Investigations into the geological history of the Turkana Basin have been the backbone of studies providing context for the world-famous fossils and archaeological assemblages recovered there over many decades.  A recent review of our current state of understanding the basin can be found here.  We are involved in several on-going projects working to further elucidate various aspects of basin evolution.

West Turkana Drilling

            Our component of the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP) involves a coring effort near Nariokotome on the west side of Lake Turkana. The overall plan, developed through more than a decade of workshops, proposals, and field investigations, will link a series of coring efforts from the Afar in Ethiopia to the Magadi Basin of Kenya, and spanning some four million years of Earth history.  The West Turkana coring recovered over 200 m of lacustrine clays from an interval of basin history known as the Lorenyang Lake.  

Schematic east-west cross-section of Turkana Basin strata showing relationships in the Lorenyang Lake interval.  Tephra and magnetic polarity chronostratigraphy are indicated at right.  Major structural elements of the western half-graben boundary faults and eastern roll-over margin are indicated.  Interfingering lacustrine and lake margin facies are associated with numerous hominin localities and archaeological sites (triangles).

Drilling in West Turkana took place between 23 June and 11 July 2013.  We recovered some 216 meters of core during the drilling operation, which included nighttime work.

Drilling at WTK13

Initial Core Description (ICD) took place in mid-November.  We were able to split, image and describe all of the core over a ten-day period.  

ICD Sampling Party
The ICD party in full swing at the National Lacustrine Core Repository (LacCore) in Minneapolis.  Rutgers undergraduates Beverly Chiu, Monique Girona and Anna Gravina, along with Dr. Sarah Ivory (Arizona) and Rutgers PhD student Cat Beck collecting samples and describing core.

A nice summary of the HSPDP was published by Ann Gibbons in the 2 August 2013 issue of Science.  Updates on drilling related topics are posted regularly on the project website.

Turkana Cyclostratigraphy Project

            Working with colleagues from The Netherlands, France and Germany, we have been developing a high-resolution approach integrating detailed lithostratigraphic records with magnetostratigraphy and Sr isotopic records to better understand the relationship of precessional-scale climatic variability to hominin evolution.  With generous support from the Leakey Foundation and other sources, three field campaigns have recovered an impressive record of environmental variability from lacustrine facies at Koobi Fora and West Turkana.  The first report of the novel Sr isotope proxy we employed was published by Jose Joordens and colleagues in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in 2011 (link).  Our second contribution was published in 2013 in the Journal of Human Evolution (link).
            Fieldwork in West Turkana during the summer of 2013 resulted in several new high-resolution sections.  Again, we targeted the Lorenyang Lake interval (ca. 2.1 - 1.4 Ma), this time along the Kaitio, Kalochoro, Nanyangakipi, and Kangaki lagas.  This season, the paleomag team included Guillaume Dupont-Nivet, Mark Sier and Cor Langereis.  The lithostratigraphy and sediment sampling were shared by Jose Joordens (PI), Jeroen van der Lubbe, Cat Beck, and Craig Feibel.  One of the key advances of this season was completion of a detailed outcrop investigation of the Kaitio section, which provides a companion record to the WTK13 core recovered by the HSPDP.  Initial comparisons between the outcrop and core records were presented at the 2014 Northeastern Section Geological Society of America Meeting in Lancaster, PA (30 MB ppt).

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Kalochoro Laga 2013.  Guillaume Dupont-Nivet and Jose Joordens drill a pmag core while Mark Sier and Cor Langereis log samples.

KBS Cyclostratigraphy   

In the early investigations of stratigraphy around the KBS site in Area 105 of the Koobi Fora region, Ian Findlater recognized evidence for major cut-and-fill cycles.  Initially it was thought that these represented a single "Post-KBS Erosion Surface" marking major erosion after deposition of the KBS Tuff.  Subsequent work has demonstrated that there are many surfaces that vary in the magnitude of incision and thickness of fill, and that they occur both before and afer the KBS eruption.  They are now interpreted to reflect response of the level of the Lorenyang Lake to precession-driven monsoonal variation.  As such, they have the potential for refined temporal control on depositional sequences, at millenial scales.
KBS cycles


            Visualizing the changing landscapes of the Turkana Basin over the past four million years is important as a frame of reference for environmental context, and also serves as a useful tool for exploring the spatial component of environmental variables in the past.  In early attempts undertaken with Frank Brown, I utilized a cartoon-like simplification of major landscape elements in order to convey first-order landscape shifts from lake to river and back.  More recently, working with Rutgers undergraduate Patricia Schwindinger, I've followed the Ron Blakey approach of modeling ancient landscapes in more realistic images.  A selection of these reconstructions are highlighted on the National Geographic Society's Bones of Turkana educational site in Paleogeography of Lake Turkana.

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Patricia Schwindinger's reconstruction of the Lorenyang Lake, which dominated the basin 1.95 million years ago.  The outline of modern Lake Turkana included for reference.


             Research is continuing at the locality of Kanapoi, with its unparalleled record of Australopithecus anamensis fossils and habitats. Current work at Kanapoi focuses on the circumstances of accumulation, burial, and preservation of the Au. anamensis specimens. At the type locality, hominins occur in association with other macrovertebrates and a rich microfaunal assemblage deriving largely from a distinctive paleosol that Jonathan Wynn termed the Dite pedotype.   Sedimentary facies analysis of the Kanapoi sediments currently underway will help to determine whether it is the nature of the soil, burial by volcanic ash, or some other factors that resulted in this important fossil assemblage.

The central area of Kanapoi is shown above, with the pale Kanapoi Tuff and capping Kalokwanya basalt.  The tuff has been dated by Ian McDougall to 4.11 Ma.

In 2014, Melissa Boyd joined the Kanapoi investigations, gathering field data for her Honors Thesis on the circumstances of accumulation, burial, and preservation of the rich Australopithecus anamensis assemblage.  Two distinct settings preserve these fossils, a deltaic channel setting, which yielded additional fossils this year, and the floodplain paleosols typical of the type locality.  Detailed sedimentary logging, sampling and mapping conducted in 2014 have greatly bolstered the record of depositional environments at these localities.

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Melissa Boyd investigates the sedimentary context of a new hominin find.


             Among the most spectacular localities in the Turkana Basin is Lothagam, with its Late Miocene sequence.  Investigated by a variety of research teams from the 1960s through the 1990s, Lothagam is still of tremendous interest as a rich fossil locality documenting the origins of the African savanna community.

lower markers  

The fossil assemblage from Lothagam is tightly constrained by Ar-Ar geochronology thanks to Ian McDougall, utilizing altered tephra beds such as the Lower Markers pictured above.  Conveniently close to the TBI Turkwel campus, Lothagam has become the capstone field experience for my course Geology of the Turkana Basin.  A recent TBI blog from the excursion can be found here.
       The results of more than forty-five years of geological research at Lothagam are undergoing a transformation as part of an integrated Geoinformatics Project, led by Bob Raynolds of the Denver Museum.  This project is assemblig spatial, stratigraphic, temporal and fossil data in and integrated database with a user-friendly access via Google Earth.  A working model of the Lothagam dataset was field tested in February of 2014.


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PRL People

Craig S. Feibel - PI   

Craig S. Feibel

I have been working in East Africa and the Levant for over thirty years.  My main interest is in the reconstruction of ancient environments, and tracing their changes over time.  In order to integrate the diverse array of environmental proxies, I spend a large proportion of my time worrying about stratigraphic frameworks, chronology, and sedimentary facies.

My research career in East Africa began in 1981 with work at Koobi Fora, initially under the supervision of Carl Vondra, and later working closely with Frank Brown.  When Harry Merrick started up the Koobi Fora Field School in 1985, I was fortunate to be able to begin to mesh my research with teaching, and that collaboration stretched to a 12-year stint.  In the 1990s I worked closely with Meave Leakey, first at Lothagam and subsequently at Kanapoi.  The association has continued, through a variety of localities and back to Koobi Fora.   I also joined Hélène Roche's West Turkana Archaeological Project in 1994, another long-term research relationship that continues to the present.  My integration of research with teaching has come full circle with the Turkana Basin Institute's establishment of a new field school, for which I was able to develop a course on the Geology of the Turkana Basin.  My teaching at TBI is highlighted in a series of student blogs, which can be found in postings from 2011-18 here

link to my EPS webpage

Melissa K. Boyd - PhD Candidate, Geology              

Melissa and ngamia

Melissa completed two BS degrees at Rutgers, first in Geology and then in Evolutionary Anthropology.  She joined the lab in 2013, and spent the summer of 2014 at Kanapoi.  In 2015, she began her MS research in West Turkana, investigating the stratigraphy and sedimentary environments of the Lomekwi drainage in association with the West Turkana Archaeological Project.  Her research will integrate tephra and facies analysis to beter understand the context of the LOM3 archaeological site, Kenyanthropus platyops, and other significant finds at Lomekwi.

link to my EPS webpage

Cat Beck - Rutgers Geology PhD 2015

Cat Beck

Cat is a sedimentologist interested in laminites, varve formation, and the climatic implications of layered sediments.

Her research began with studies of classic varves in the glacial Lake Hitchcock deposits under Jack Ridge.  She joined the lab in 2009, and conducted research cruises on Lake Turkana in 2011-13.  Her MS thesis work focused on sedimentary patterns in small deltas in the north basin of the lake.  Her PhD research   integrated fine-grained sedimentation, laminites and ostracods from Ferguson's Gulf, Kabua Gorge, and WTK13 a time-series of environmental records and lake evolution.

Cat moved to the Department of Geosciences at Hamilton College as an Assistant Professor in Fall 2015. Cat's webpage at Hamilton College

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Anna Gravina - Rutgers Geology BS 2015

Anna Gravina

Anna joined the lab in 2013 to study fossil ostracods.  She completed an Honors Thesis in Geology investigating taxonomy and ecology of fossil ostracods from the Turkana Basin WTK13 core.  She participated in the ICD Sampling Party for the Kaitio core in November 2013, and was responsible for processing and analysis of our 550+ sediment samples for ostracods, fish and charcoal.

Anna joined the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona in Fall 2015 as a PhD student.

Robyn Henderek - TBI Field School 2014, Lafayette Geology BS  2015

Robyn Henderek
Robyn came to the lab to work on a lithostratigraphic synthesis of the Kaitio core data, and produced the first graphic section.  She also pursued the hunt for cryptotephra in our sample splits, based on correlations with outcrop information and microscopic study of smear slides.

R. Linda Martin - Rutgers Geology MS 2013

R. Linda Martin
Linda is a stratigrapher/sedimentologist working on the sedimentary sequence exposed north of the Turkwel River along the west side of Lake Turkana.  Utilizing a combination of mapping, stratigraphy and facies analysis, she is focusing on the Late Pleistocene and Holocene evolution of the lake margin, including the enigmatic fossil locality of Lobolo.
Linda is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, and is the Field Director for the Turkana Basin Institute's Field School programs.

Useful Links for Turkana Basin Context

Turkana Stratigraphy

Bob Raynolds' wesite compiles maps, sections, and cross-sections of the basin

Turkana Basin Institute (TBI)


West Turkana Archaeological Project (WTAP)

mpk wtap

West Turkana Paleo Project (WTPP)


Lake Turkana imagery

A daily posting of the MODIS satellite imagery covering the Turkana Basin is available from the NASA website here (
the true-color Terra image at 250 m resolution is a 6.9 Mb file, but very useful. Jon Lacarrubba wrote an Automator workflow that crops this to our area of interest and is adaptable (available on request).

Lake Turkana lake level fluctuations

Satellite altimetry tracking variation in the surface level of Lake Turkana is posted bi-weekly at the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service site here (