Honor finds Kenya’s oldest fossil hunter, Kamoya Kimeu


By KARI MUTU

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in May 2021, a small group of people seen in Nairobi as one of the world’s most successful fossil researchers earned a doctorate.

Kamoya Kimeu, 81, received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Ohio, United States, in a ceremony administered by renowned paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey.

Kenya‘s longest-serving fossil researcher Kamoya Kimeu at the graduation ceremony with Maeve Leakey receiving an honorary Leakey doctorate. PHOTO | TURKANA BASIN INSTITUTE

Kimeu is Kenya’s longest-serving living fossil researcher and one of the most unrecognized masters of the science of human evolution. He individually discovered more evidence for the existence of early humans than any other person. “This honorary doctorate from the CWRU represents the world to me and ranks alongside the National Geographic Society La Gorce Medal I received from President Ronald Reagan in 1985,” Kimeu said in his acceptance speech read in his name by his daughter, Jenniffer Kimeu.

The La Gorce Medal, one of the highest distinctions awarded by the National Geographic Society, recognized Kimeu’s “achievements in geographic exploration”. Kimeu not only met the 40th President of the United States, but he received $ 10,000 in prizes and took a fully paid tour of the United States.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, convocation took place virtually and streamed live to the Nairobi office of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI).

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“Kimeu is a Kenyan who has dedicated his entire life to finding evidence that other people can interpret for the story of our African origins,” said TBI founder Leakey, who led the balaclava ceremony on behalf of by Case Western.

The Turkana Basin Institute is a scientific research center in Turkana and Marsabit counties in northern Kenya, and Kimeu has been Leakey’s right-hand man in the field for several decades.

Kimeu is an honorless prophet in his own country. For all his spectacular discoveries and his contribution to paleosciences, he has never been recognized once by a Kenyan institution.

Kimeu was born in 1940 in Makueni County, south-eastern Kenya. He attended a local elementary school, but only until the sixth grade. In 1960 Kimeu was told by his uncle about work opportunities in Tanzania, so he started working for paleoanthropologist, Mary Leakey, in Olduvai Gorge, as an unskilled field assistant at the age 20.

It was a fortuitous collaboration as Mary and her husband, Louis Leakey, were arguably the greatest field researchers at the time in the science of human origins. The discoveries made by the Leakeys would elevate East Africa as a very important region for our understanding of human evolution. Young Kimeu will add greatly to this reputation in the years to come.

Back home, Kimeu’s career was viewed with suspicion as unearthing “ancestor bones” is considered taboo in many traditional cultures around the world. Moreover, the newly Christianized Africans firmly believed that evolutionary theories contradicted religious creationism, an uncompromising position that persists in the Christian sphere of Kenya today.

Growing up, Jennifer, Kimeu’s daughter remembers that their neighbors couldn’t understand why her father kept casts of hominins (first humans) in the house.

“As a family, it didn’t bother us because we understood the evolution especially since my father was so passionate about what he was doing,” she says.

His mother, a strong supporter of Kimeu’s work, also helped ensure that the family combined their knowledge of evolution with Christian values.

No formal education

Despite the reluctance of neighbors and religious, Kimeu persisted in this new vocation. Richard Leakey says that although Kimeu only had a primary education, “he worked his guts and learned a lot. Our knowledge today is due to Kamoya.

Searching for fossils is not for the faint of heart. Field crews camp in open terrain in hot and normally arid regions. Food, essential supplies and research equipment must be transported over rough or non-existent roads, dust storms, difficult radio communications and vehicle breakdowns are the norm.

Kamoya Kimeu, Meave Leaky and the field team.

Kamoya Kimeu, Meave Leaky and the field team. PHOTO | TURKANA BASIN INSTITUTE

In Turkana, northern Kenya, where the majority of paleontological research takes place, Kimeu and his colleagues have had to deal with camels for transport and have faced potential attacks from armed bandits known as “Shiftas”. “.

“But in all these years, I never heard my dad complain about his job,” Jenniffer said.

In 1977 Kimeu was appointed Curator of Interior Prehistoric Sites for the National Museums of Kenya. By now he was knowledgeable enough to oversee fieldwork on expeditions led by Richard Leakey (who is Mary Leakey’s son), his wife Meave, and later their daughter Louise.

Leakey attributes many of his discoveries in the field and the resulting worldwide acclaim to Kimeu’s astuteness in the field. However, in previous years significant fossil finds were attributed to Leakey or other skilled scientists on an expedition and not to field specialists like Kimeu.

From the most unlikely barren land, Kimeu has dug up everything from ancient apes to elephants and humans in a way that seems, to inexperienced people, supernatural.

Kimeu attributes his scouting skills to his rural upbringing and the experiences he had growing up with goats in the village. “This tacit knowledge allowed me to read the landscape and understand its processes as if our ancestors were talking to me directly,” Kimeu said. He adds that an implicit know-how combined with a scientific training is at the origin of the many spectacular discoveries in 55 years of career.

In 1964, while working in Tanzania, he discovered the lower jaw of Paranthropus boisei, highlighting a hitherto unknown hominid and discrediting the idea that a single species of human ancestors could exist in one place and at the same time.

A partial Australopithecus anamensis tibia bone that Kimeu located near Lake Turkana has proven that our primate ancestors already walked on two legs over four million years ago. Another find, the skull of a 195,000-year-old Homo Sapiens in the Omo Valley of southern Ethiopia in 1967, is the oldest specimen known to modern man. The site of the fossil discovery has been named the Kamoya Hominid Site.

In 1973, he found the skull of Homo habilis (handyman), a human ancestor who lived 1.5 to 2.4 million years ago. Two extinct primates were named after him, Cercopithecoides kimeui, after a partial skull he found in southwestern Kenya in 1982, and Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni whose teeth are believed to be the oldest ever found in ‘an extinct ape that lived about 26 million years ago.

But the fossil that immortalized Kimeu’s legacy is that of Turkana Boy or Nariokotome Boy. Unearthed in 1984, Turkana Boy is the almost intact skeleton of an adolescent Homo Erectus who lived between 1.6 and 1.5 million years ago. To this day, it remains the most complete fossil skeleton of primitive man ever discovered.

For a long time, Western scientists have been skeptical that modern man can originate from Africa, an opinion driven by prejudice and the lack of concrete evidence. Europe or Asia were the “ preferred ” regions of human origin, even if Charles Darwin, the father of Evolution had proposed in 1871 Africa as the probable birthplace of humanity.

The 20th century fossil discoveries in East Africa, largely reinforced by Kimeu’s specific discoveries, unmistakably marked Africa as the “cradle of humanity”.

Kimeu remembers the advice Mary Leakey gave him in his youth. That an essential ingredient of success in paleontology is “mastering crucial technical skills and taking the time to do the job well,” he said. Like his tutor, Kimeu has forged a reputation for sharing his knowledge and mentoring young researchers, people much more educated than him, Africans and foreigners.

Among them, Frederick Kyalo Manthi, responsible for paleontology at the National Museums of Kenya; Professor Isaiah Nengo, director of research and science at the Turkana Basin Institute; and Professor Yohannes Haile-Selassie Ambaye of Ethiopia, Curator of the Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, USA.

Professor Nengo first met Kimeu in 1985 at the National Museums of Kenya as a recent graduate from the University of Nairobi. He is delighted to have witnessed the honor of his mentor whose contribution, he says, can be compared to that of his famous counterparts in America and Europe. “The knowledge and dedicated efforts of some indigenous African field technicians like Kamoya in paleontology and primatology have been essential in many major scientific breakthroughs made in these disciplines,” said Professor Nengo.

Kimeu worked in field research until the age of 75, and now in his twilight years, he hopes his doctorate will motivate young African students who aspire to be “full members of the scientific community.” international science of origins ”.

***

Turkana Basin Institute

In 2005, Stony Brook University endorsed the idea of ​​Richard Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute, committing funds for the project.

Additional fundraising began in 2006; construction of temporary facilities for a long-term field camp on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana (TBI-Iwleret) began in 2007; the camp was fully operational by the end of the year and was the site of the first human evolution workshop in Kenya in 2008.

Construction of the first full field center on the western shore of the lake (TBI-Turkwel) was completed in 2012. Construction of permanent facilities at TBI-Ileret began in 2012 and is expected to be completed in 2016.

Officially, Turkana Basin Institute, Ltd. is the title holder of the Tangible Capital Assets in Kenya known as TBI-Nairobi, TBI-Turkwel and TBI-Ileret (together known as “TBI Kenya”) and is under the terms of ” an agreement with the Government of Kenya, through the National Museums of Kenya, to serve as a repository for the archaeological and paleontological heritage of the Lake Turkana region

About Bradley J. Bridges

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