But Zeray Alemseged has made this forbidding place his life's work.
He's searching for the fossilized traces of our earliest human ancestors.
He's been at it for eight long years, but the payoff has been amazing.
As the work progressed, Zeray revealed an almost complete skull, and tucked beneath it was nearly her entire spine, along with both shoulder blades. Never before had a child's skeleton been found, so ancient and so complete.
An explosion of recent discoveries sheds light on these questions, and NOVA's comprehensive, three-part special, "Becoming Human," examines what the latest scientific research reveals about our hominid relatives—putting together the pieces of our human past and transforming our understanding of our earliest ancestors.
The program explores the fossil of "Selam," also known as "Lucy's Child." Paleoanthropologist Zeray Alemseged spent five years carefully excavating the sandstone-embedded fossil. And we now know that for millions of years, many different human-like species lived together on the planet, until one day there was only us: Homo sapiens, the most complex, adaptable animal on Earth. A radical new theory reveals how episodes of cataclysmic change forced our ancestors to adapt or die.
If the volcanic ash is 3.4 million years old, Zeray's fossil, which was lying just above it, must be younger.
It was a child from the dawn of human evolution, about 3.3 million years ago.
NOVA's cameras are there to capture the unveiling of the face, spine, and shoulder blades of this 3.3 million-year-old fossil child. So get ready for a ride through millions of years of our history.
And NOVA takes viewers "inside the skull" to show how our ancestors' brains had begun to change from those of the apes. It's the story of Becoming Human—our story, right now on NOVA.