Armchair Archeology

Combining traditional archaeological methods with the power of technology

 
 
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Welcome to the lost forest of Mt. Mabu

How did Dr. Livingstone prepare for his Victorian-era expeditions deep into the heart of Africa? Perhaps he packed quinine to combat tropical illness, sharpened a machete for hacking through undergrowth and enlisted an interpreter to communicate with locals. Nowadays, when scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew prepared to examine the continent, they fired up their desktop computers – and discovered a treasure trove of biological riches.

In 2005 a team of conservationists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, having decided to search for a new project location, began by scouring Google Earth images for areas at least 5,400 feet above sea level. When they spied an unexpected patch of green on a satellite rendering of Mozambique's Mount Mabu, they quickly realized they were looking at the Southern Africa’s largest rain forest.

Remarkably, up until then, the 27-square-mile stretch of lush earth had been completely unknown to science. Kew’s researchers had literally stumbled into uncharted territory hidden from the scientific community by mountainous terrain and civil war. Local villagers had kept the Mabu secret in order to use it as a refuge during the civil war era of 1975 to 1992. Meanwhile, the surrounding African savanna kept it ecologically protected as well.

Mount Mabu in Google Earth

"We were pleased to hear that the Mozambican authorities are now looking for ways to encourage conservation of the forest, and that a conservation project with the local communities has been initiated". -- Jonathan Timberlake, head of the Mount Mabu expedition

When a team of 28 scientists and support staff from the U.K., Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Belgium and Switzerland entered the hidden-in-plain-sight mountain forest in 2008, a pristine paradise of biology and botany was waiting. The team discovered pygmy chameleons, Swynnerton's robin, four new species of butterfly, pseudo-scorpions, crabs, monkeys, antelopes, rare orchids and entire colonies of rare birds. They also brought back more than 500 plant specimens to investigate at home.

The lost forest of Mount Manu vividly illustrates the breadth of opportunities available to intrepid archaeologists who take advantage of both traditional and virtual research techniques.

The Mount Mabu project, among other Mozambique mountain projects, was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a grant-giving body under Defra, an U.K. government ministry. The main partners were the National Agricultural Research Institute (IIAM) in Mozambique, specifically the National Herbarium and Forest Research Department, and the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust, a Malawian NGO. Other partners included BirdLife International (an international NGO), the Forest Research Institute of Malawi (FRIM) and the Mozambique's Natural History Museum in Maputo. Participants on the 2008 expedition included many Mozambicans and Malawians, as well as scientists from Europe. The project was led by the Kew Herbarium and the Millennium Seed Bank, both of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in U.K.

The Kew team on site in the Mount Mabu forest. (Photo courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew)
 
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