In June 2021 a collection prehistoric stone tools from Kenya was displayed at a small museum in France. The collection is part of the Homo Faber (‘the one who manufactures’) exhibition going on until November 2021 at the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, southwestern France.
Dated at 3.3 million years old, they are the oldest man-made objects ever found in the world. Their public display in a foreign country raises questions about Kenya’s commitment to the preservation of culture and scientific heritage.
The tools were discovered in 2011 at Lomekwi on the western shore of Lake Turkana, by a team of Kenyan and French scientists in the West Turkana Archaeological Project. The collection consists of sharp-edged flakes, larger stone cores from which the flakes were chipped off, hammers and anvils, as well as bones from extinct carnivores, crocodile and hippo. The Lomekwi artefacts are the oldest cultural relics in the world.
The discovery was announced in July 2015 by the research team and Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia, Director General of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), a trained archaeologist with a PhD in anthropology.
Over 200 pieces have been recovered from Lomekwi and never been exhibited until now. The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, Josephta Mukobe, told our sister publication, the Sunday Nation that the items were loaned to France and not permanently exported.
Raging custody debate
Nevertheless, the transfer to a French museum went against the advice of Kenyan and international specialists. “The fact that the collection was shown to the public in France and not shown here in Kenya is a form of neo-colonialism,” commented renowned Kenya palaeo-anthropologist, Dr Richard Leakey.
His organisation, the Turkana Basin Institute, wrote to NMK’s director general and the ministry opposing the move and requested them to send casts of the items instead but received no reply.
Debate continues to rage globally about the restitution of pilfered African art and heritage objects housed in Western museums and galleries.
It begs the question of why the NMK would lend out priceless, fragile items to a provincial museum in France.
Les Eyzies is a designated Unesco World Heritage site thanks to archaeologically important cave dwellings and ancient rock art sites in the area dated between 10,000 and 200,000 years old. Compare that with the millennia-old Turkana fossils and manmade tools crafted by the ancestors of all mankind.
Perhaps the Louvre or National Archaeology Museum in Paris would have been a more fitting place for these prehistoric objects, if at all it was necessary to send away scientific material.
Lending of items between museums is standard practice worldwide. But typically, high quality casts of the originals are displayed because the real items are exceptionally rare and prone to damage from handling and exposure.
The NMK’s casting department is highly experienced in creating top-notch models of fossils and archaeological pieces.
Modern CT scanning and 3-D printing technology now allow researchers to scan objects and create accurate replicas even when the fossils are covered in sediment or a protective plaster.
The digital models are easily transferred to others who can reproduce exact copies. Scanning and 3-D are also less invasive and destructive compared with traditional ways of handling extremely fragile fossils.
NMK has a decades-long policy of not releasing original artefacts for security reasons, except for scientific analysis if the facilities are not available locally.
“All those responsible for the abrogation of the longstanding policy, which protects our priceless scientific heritage should step aside immediately to allow for independent investigation” said palaeontologist Isaiah Nengo.
Even before 2021, the stone tools had already attracted interest in France. In April 2016, during an official visit by President Uhuru Kenyatta to France, the then Minister for Water and Irrigation, Eugene Wamalwa, presented four resin casts of the Lomekwi stone tools to the Museum of Mankind in Paris.
One would have expected greater public fanfare to accompany the Lomekwi tools on their 2021 journey to France, with the Culture ministers from both countries involved if not the heads of state. The first Kenyans knew of the confidential transaction was through in an article in the Sunday Nation in August.
It is difficult to put a value on an axe, hammer or anvil that is millions of years old, or fathom the risks involved in conveying such delicate pieces overseas.
“If the objects got lost or damaged, the world would be bearing down our heads. The whole international scientific community would rise up and ask, why did you allow this?” said Nengo.
It is unclear whether the Board of the NMK, of which Dr Kibunjia is a member, was aware of this transaction.
NMK is mandated to preserve, study and document past and present natural and cultural heritage. Between March and May 2021, the Nairobi National Museum hosted the Invisible Inventories exhibition to raise public awareness about thousands of cultural objects at foreign institutions. Thirty two thousand ‘invisible’ pieces are listed by Kenyan and European scholars under the International Inventories Programme, removed mostly by colonialists.
Among them are two prehistoric relics: the fossil of a hominid ancestor called Orrorin tugenensis found in the Tugen Hills in Kenya in 2000, and the head of Koitalel Arap Samoei, spiritual and political leader of the Nandi people who was killed by British colonialists in 1905.