Hominid hunters, our unsung heroes

Saturday August 20 2016

Zandile Ndaba (left) with other fossil finders

Zandile Ndaba (left) with other fossil finders in South Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Rupi Mangat

Zandile Ndaba from South Africa talks with enthusiasm about her job as a fossil finder. She is one of the few women in Africa who can boast that title, and was one of only two women, with Mary Muungu from Kenya, nominated for the inaugural Unsung Heroes of African Prehistory in 2016.

The other nominees, all men, were from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Many are wizened from years of toiling under the sun looking for fragments of fossils for scientists to piece together the story of humankind.

They displayed a certain shyness, seated in the Louis Leakey auditorium at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) on July 28 and 29, in the company of the learned doctors they have worked with in the field.

Among them was the legendary Kamoya Kimeu, who, as part of the Richard Leakey team in 1984, discovered the Turkana Boy (now called the Nariokotome Boy) in Nariokotome south of Lake Turkana. It was the first almost complete skeleton of a 1.6-million-year old hominid, a Homo erectus, said to be the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. The find shot Kamoya to fame and a National Geographic medal.

Ndaba narrated her story as a hominid hunter. Coming from a little farming community near Johannesburg, she did not finish school and worked as a cashier at a small shop that sold groceries.

In 2001, a professor came looking for people to work on excavation sites and she seized the opportunity.

Standing in front of the audience at the Louis Leakey auditorium, she described the work involved in organising a dig — from sifting the sand in the mountains, to getting teams together.

“I love mountains. So I learned how to excavate, and Dr Christine Steininger taught me how to identify bones. I love what I do and it’s what I do best,” she said. Dr Steininger is the project manager of Centre of Excellence in Paleosciences at the University of the Witwaterstrand in Johannesburg.

Becoming a fossil finder changed Ndaba’s outlook. “It changed my focus. I talk to the women in the community. They see me as a role model, but they are scared to try new things or they think they don’t have enough knowledge.

“I tell them that if I can do it, anyone can. It’s not about the education. It’s about passion. And now look at me. I’m in Kenya, nominated as an ‘unsung hero.’ It’s the best thing ever. My hard work has paid off.”

In her list of digs, Ndaba excavated the pelvis of a two million-year-old Australopithecus sediba — the pelvis points to the evolution of upright walking.

“If it weren’t for these guys,” chips in Dr Job Kibii, “our careers would be uncomfortably tougher.” Dr Kibii worked on his PhD at Stekfontein, South Africa, and later at Malapa, where he met Ndaba.

Dr Kibii, head of palaeontology at the NMK, was studying faunal assemblages from deposits in Sterkfontein, South Africa dated between 3.7 and 2 million years old.

“Our ancestors evolved, faced challenges, adapted and thrived for us to be the most widely spread animal species on earth. Some scientists have made their careers by analysing materials excavated by the unsung heroes from various sites,” he said. “These are the people behind the scene, but are usually not recognised. This event is to recognise them.”

Kenya on the pre-history map

Kenya has the richest resources in the world when it comes to our ancient past. “However, not much recognition and support has been provided to these palaeosciences,” said Dr Kibii.

Asked why digging up the past is important for the future, he said, “We need to learn who we are as a species and where we came from, what challenges our ancestors faced, how they learnt to cope, what made them thrive and dominate other species, and what changes have occurred in the environment over the millennia. All this information will help us prepare for the future, because if we don’t learn from the past we are bound to repeat the same mistakes.

“For example, our ancestors coped with climate change. There have been major events in terms of evolution related to climate change: 2 million years ago, 1.4 million years ago, 700,000 years ago, and then 70,000 years ago.

“Two million years ago Homo erectus emerged. The earth was drying up, there were fewer trees. The hominids began to exploit the environment – hunting and killing. But the future for humanity is bleak,” said Dr Kibii. “Although we’re not going to become extinct any time soon, we’re soon going to be fighting over limited resources like water.”