Honour finds Kenya’s oldest fossil hunter Kamoya Kimeu
Sunday July 18 2021
On an overcast Sunday afternoon in May 2021, a small gathering of people watched in Nairobi as the one of the world’s most successful fossil finders was awarded a PhD degree.
Kamoya Kimeu, 81, received an honorary Doctor of Science from the Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) of Ohio, US, in a ceremony administered by renowned paleoanthropologist, Dr Richard Leakey.
Kimeu is Kenya’s oldest living fossil finder and one of the most unrecognised masters in the science of human evolution. He has individually discovered more evidence of the existence of early human than any other person. “This honorary doctorate from CWRU means the world to me, and ranks alongside the National Geographic Society's La Gorce medal I received from President Ronald Reagan in 1985,” said Kimeu in his acceptance speech read on his behalf by his daughter, Jenniffer Kimeu.
The La Gorce medal, one the highest awards by the National Geographic Society, recognised Kimeu’s “accomplishment in geographic exploration.” Not only did Kimeu meet the 40th president of the United States, he was awarded $10,000 in prize money and went on a fully-paid tour of the United States.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the convocation event was held virtually and live-streamed to the Nairobi office of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI).
“Kimeu is a Kenyan who has given his entire life to finding the evidence that other people can interpret for the story of our African origins,” said TBI’s founder, Leakey, who conducted the hooding ceremony on behalf of Case Western.
The Turkana Basin Institute is a scientific research centre in Turkana and Marsabit counties in northern Kenya, and Kimeu was Leakey’s right hand man in the field for several decades.
Kimeu is a prophet without honour in his own country. For all of his spectacular finds and contribution to the palaeo-sciences, he has never once been recognised by a Kenyan institution.
Kimeu was born in 1940 in Makueni County, southeastern Kenya. He attended a local primary school but only up to Class Six. In 1960, Kimeu was told by his uncle about work opportunities in Tanzania, which is how he started working for paleoanthropologist, Mary Leakey, in Olduvai Gorge, as an unskilled field assistant at the age of 20 years.
It was a fortuitous collaboration as Mary and her husband, Louis Leakey, were probably the foremost field researchers at the time in the science of human origins. Discoveries made by the Leakeys would elevate East Africa as a region highly significant to our understanding of human evolution. Young Kimeu would greatly add to this reputation in years to come.
Back home, Kimeu’s career was viewed with suspicion because digging up the ‘’bones of ancestors’’ is considered taboo in many traditional cultures across the world. Also, newly Christianised Africans held firmly to the belief that evolutionary theories contradicted religious creationism, a hardline position that persists in Kenya’s Christian sphere today.
Growing up, Jennifer, Kimeu’s daughter remembers that their neighbours could not understand why her father kept casts of hominins (early humans) in the house.
“As a family, it did not bother us because we understood evolution especially since my dad was so passionate about what he did,” she says.
Her mother, a strong supporter of Kimeu’s work, was also instrumental in ensuring that the family combined their knowledge of evolution with Christian values.
No formal education
Despite misgivings by neighbours and religionists, Kimeu persisted in this newfound calling. Richard Leakey says that though Kimeu only had a primary-school education, “he worked his guts out and learned a great deal. Our knowledge today is because of Kamoya.”
Fossil finding is not for the faint of heart. Field teams camp in the open terrain of hot, normally arid regions. Food, essential supplies, and research equipment have to be transported in, on rough or non-existent roads, dust storms, difficult radio communication and vehicle breakdowns are the norm.
In Turkana, northern Kenya, where the majority of palaeontological research takes place, Kimeu and his colleagues had to contend with camels for conveyance and faced potential attacks by armed bandits known as ‘’Shiftas.’’
“But in all those years, I never once heard my father complain about his work,” said Jenniffer.
In 1977 Kimeu was appointed Curator of Inland Prehistoric Sites for the National Museums of Kenya. By now, he was knowledgeable enough to supervise the fieldwork in expeditions led by Richard Leakey (who is the son of Mary Leakey), his wife Meave, and, in later years, their daughter Louise.
Leakey credits many of his field discoveries and the resulting global acclaim to Kimeu’s astuteness in the field. However, in earlier years, significant fossil discoveries were attributed to Leakey or other qualified scientists on an expedition and not field specialists like Kimeu.
From the most unlikely barren ground, Kimeu has unearthed everything from ancient apes to elephants and humans in a manner that seems, to inexperienced people, supernatural.
Kimeu credits his detection skills to his rural upbringing and the experiences he had growing up herding goats in the village. “This tacit knowledge allowed me to read the landscape and understand its processes as if our ancestors were speaking directly to me,” said Kimeu. He adds that implicit knowhow combined with scientific training is what led to the many spectacular finds over a 55-year career.
In 1964 while working in Tanzania he discovered the lower jaw of Paranthropus boisei, bringing to light a previously unknown hominin and discrediting the notion that only one species of human ancestors could exist in the same place and time.
A partial tibia bone of Australopithecus anamensis that Kimeu located near Lake Turkana proved that our primate ancestors were already walking 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 earliest known specimen of modern man. The site of the fossil find was named Kamoya’s Hominid Site.
In 1973 he found the skull of Homo habilis (handy man), a human ancestor that lived 1.5 – 2.4 million years ago. Two extinct primates have been named after him, Cercopithecoides kimeui, based on a partial skull he found in southwestern Kenya in 1982, and Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni whose teeth are thought to be the oldest ever found of an extinct ape that lived about 26 million years ago.
But the fossil finds that immortalised 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 that lived between 1.6 – 1.5 million years ago. To date, it remains the most complete fossil skeleton of early man ever discovered.
For long, western scientists were sceptical that modern man could have originated from Africa, a view driven by prejudice and the lack of concrete evidence. Europe or Asia were the ‘’preferred’’ regions of human origin, even though Charles Darwin, the father of Evolution had in 1871 proposed Africa as the likely birthplace of humankind.
Twentieth century fossil findings in East Africa, vastly enhanced by Kimeu’s specific discoveries, have unquestionably stamped Africa as the ‘’cradle of mankind.’’
Kimeu remembers the advice that Mary Leakey gave him as a young man. That an essential ingredient for success in palaeontology is, “mastering crucial technical skills and taking the time to do the job right,” he said. Like his tutor, Kimeu developed a reputation for sharing his knowledge and mentoring young researchers, people far more educated than he, both African and foreigners.
They include Frederick Kyalo Manthi, head of Palaeontology at the National Museums of Kenya; Prof Isaiah Nengo, director of Research and Science at the Turkana Basin Institute; and Prof Yohannes Haile-Selassie Ambaye of Ethiopia, curator of Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, US.
Prof Nengo first met Kimeu in 1985 at the National Museums of Kenya as a fresh graduate from the University of Nairobi. He is delighted to have witnessed the honouring of his mentor whose contribution, he says, can be compared with celebrated counterparts from America and Europe. “The knowledge and dedicated effort of some indigenous African field technicians like Kamoya in palaeontology and primatology have been critical in many major scientific breakthroughs made in these disciplines,” says Prof Nengo.
Kimeu worked in field research until the age of 75 years, and now in his twilight years, he hopes that his doctorate will motivate young African students who aspire to be “fully-fledged members of the international scientific community of the science of origins.”
Turkana Basin Institute
In 2005, the Stony Brook University endorsed Richard Leakey’s idea of 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 east side of Lake Turkana (TBI-Iwleret) commenced in 2007; the camp was fully operational by year-end and was the site for the first Kenya-based Human Evolution Workshop in 2008.
Construction of the first full field center on the west side of the lake (TBI-Turkwel) was completed in 2012. Construction of permanent facilities at TBI-Ileret commenced in 2012, and is scheduled to be completed in 2016.
Formally, Turkana Basin Institute, Ltd is the title holder for the fixed assets in Kenya known as TBI-Nairobi, TBI-Turkwel and TBI-Ileret (together known as “TBI Kenya”) and is under 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