The archeologists are in a race against time as agricultural expansion destroys the burial grounds. Their findings will enhance knowledge of the stone age people.

Uganda has a rich, ancient history that Peter Schmidt helped unearth for years as a University of Florida anthropology professor.

Now an emeritus professor, Schmidt is once again in Uganda — this time as a National Geographic explorer. Schmidt and two UF colleagues are investigating a group of burials dating from the late stone age in the crater lake region of western Uganda.

They are in a race against time to find what remains of the remains because population growth in the area is destroying much of the land.

“There has been a tremendous impact on the natural environment because of in-migration, particularly over the last 30 years. These are people coming out of the (Democratic Republic of Congo) as well as southwestern Uganda,” Schmidt said. “They have migrated into this area and most of them...don’t have any identity with the ancestors. Most places are extremely sensitive when you begin to excavate ancestral remains. That’s not the case here.”

Schmidt said the newcomers commonly come across the burials in their agricultural activities, including unearthing skulls and long bones.

The region of Uganda with the sites is an ecological mix — some lakes, for instance, are in dreadful condition because of the human activity while other spots are pristine and exceptionally pretty with volcano calderas and lakes, Schmidt said.

Along with other collaborators, Schmidt and the UF team will investigate a group of burials to better understand their significance to ancient African history and help conserve them by limiting further destruction by agriculture.

The burial sites are about 2,000 years old and have been well-preserved because of the terrain and climate of the area. The soil is volcanic and alkaline, which helps slow the breakdown of bone.

While the presence of stone age people can be found in the forested region, Schmidt said it is not known if they had villages and settlements or were nomadic. Trying to determine that would take a lot of time and testing.

“It takes a tremendous amount of radiocarbon dating, and we are far from that at the present time. We may never get there because of the way that landscape is being impacted,” Schmidt said. “The burials are all the more important because they contain some of the last remaining evidence of that landscape.”

Among the UF staff on the trip is John Krigbaum, an anthropology professor who specializes in bioarchaeology — the study of human remains in archaeological context. He and graduate student Katie Bermudez are assisting with the analysis of bones that are found.

The use of isotopic analysis can tell researchers more about the ancient people including what they ate and where they lived, Krigbaum said.

“Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes, in particular, have been quite interesting in identifying a mixed dietary regime that includes hunting and gathering and some cultivation as well,” Krigbaum said in an email from Uganda. “These data will help situate findings from the fieldwork with continued analysis by specialists, such as ancient DNA.”

The bones themselves can tell a lot about the people — whether they had arthritis from carrying heavy loads and whether they had bad health from conditions such as abscesses and disease.

The David Reich Lab at Harvard Medical School has been working with the team on DNA analysis, which has transformed archeology and the understanding of ancient people.

“We are going to get a much better handle on the genetic origins of these populations,” Schmidt said. “It’s only in the last decade that we’ve been looking at ancient DNA on a consistent basis and it is changing all the time. The technology is rapidly advancing and it is really on the cutting edge. It promises to shed a tremendous scientific light on the origins of these forest dwellers.”