Baringo in Kenya’s north Rift Valley is dry, hot and hilly.
On the day we visited, we trekked on Baringo’s iconic undulating terrain under the searing heat of a blazing sun in a cloudless endless blue sky.
The riverbed from which we started our hike was so dry, it was a crunchy bed of gleaming white sand as we walked gingerly on it.
The trek felt even longer because of the heat. There were no signs of other people except us. Occasionally, we came across a few herders. It’s a stunning lay of land, scattered green scrub and sun-bleached white soils as far as the eye can see. But as we trekked, the land got drier until it was just bare white soil again like at the prehistoric sites of Olorgesailie on the southern side of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and Ileret on the northern end by the Ethiopian border.
It is here that a fossil of an elephant lies. That fossil of an extinct species of elephant lay buried under the ancient soils of Baringo, until Kenneth Kimosop Rutto chanced upon a bone jutting out of the soil in 2018.
In ordinary life, Rutto is a waiter at Island Camp on Ol Kokwe Island, the largest of Baringo’s islands. The island like so many features of the Great Rift Valley is an extinct volcano as are the other islands.
A keen student of history and geography in school, Rutto learned of the famous Leakey family’s work in prehistoric discoveries around Lake Turkana, north of Baringo. As a child, he had seen animal prints etched on the earth near his village which his grandmother had told him were very old. Although Rutto never finished high school, he knew of and had read about the Leakey family’s fascinating fossil finds.
In 2001, a young Rutto started work at Island Camp and on off days searched the plains around his homestead for something ancient.
In his first interview for this paper in 2016, he said, “I knew that the Great Rift Valley was famous for fossils. Dr Richard Leakey and his team had unearthed so many in Turkana. I was sure if l kept looking, I would find something too.”
In 2008, he found his first ancient relics. A trail of footprints of an apparent Homo erectus (upright man) fleeing and preserved in volcanic ash. The Homo erectus lived between two million and 250,000 years ago. No institutions or government authorities took his discovery serious but he went ahead and cordoned off the exposed footprints, which also included those of ancient fauna.
Today the site is registered as the Lung’ok Community Prehistoric Site. “The local community — Tugens on the Tugen Hills, the fishing Il Chamus on the lake and the pastoral Pokot — call me the fossil hunter and are party to conserving these finds. That’s why this site is a community prehistoric site,” said Rutto.
The elephant fossil
“I saw the tip of a bone jutting out of the soil,” explained, Rutto, recognising it as ancient bones. He started to dig carefully around the bone which exposed more others. “I alerted the National Museum of Kenya but no one has visited yet.”
By now, Rutto had painstakingly unearthed a whole animal that he thought was a dinosaur, which meant it was from before 65 million years ago.
But there was no way of knowing what this was unless a paleontologist confirmed it. So out of frustrations and with no former introduction to Louise Leakey, the daughter of the eminent Leakey paleontologists, Meave and Richard, he wrote to her about his findings.
“She called me and flew in on August 28, this year. We hired a vehicle and drove up here to take a look,” he said of Louise Leakey’s visit.
Louise's grandparents, Louis and Mary Leakey, are the famous duo of early human prehistoric findings from the 1930s. Mary Leakey was the first to excavate the Laetoli footprints in 1978 near the Serengeti in Tanzania. Dated 3.6 million years ago, they were the oldest known evidence of hominin bipedalism at that time.
Louise identified Rutto's fossil findas that of an extinct species of an elephant. The bones found make up the backbone, ribs and hind legs. Rutto is convinced that there’s more of the elephant deeper in the soil.
They also found other fossils like a baby elephant’s molar and a crocodile’s tooth, and horns of a species of antelope.
Flying to Ileret
The next big surprise for Rutto came when Louise called him again. “She asked if I would like to go with her to Turkana.” So on August 29, a date clearly etched in Rutto’s memory, Louise Leakey landed at the airstrip in Baringo. It was Rutto’s first time flying.
“We left at 2.42pm and landed at 4.42pm at Ileret. We flew over Lake Turkana but at one point l was really scared when the plane began to go up and down. I asked Louise if we could land and just walk to the place,” Rutto described his experience. An accomplished pilot, Louise explained to him the concept of rising air pockets causing turbulence.
“There are fossils everywhere in Ileret,” said an excited Rutto.
For four days, Rutto was taken on field work to learn how to look for the smallest bone of any animal, how to preserve them and clean them with machines at the Lake Turkana Basin Institute.
“I met the Dassanech people for the first time. They were very curious about where l came from since I just looked like one of them.”
The Dassanech are from the south of Ethiopia, who live in the harsh arid lands.
Rutto returned to Baringo to continue with his search for fossils after the brief stint with Louise Leakey.
“The community around Lake Baringo and the hills are very sensitised about these finds. Whenever they see something, they call me,” said Rutto. In July this year, pupils from the Ekorian Primary School were herding livestock when they found three skulls deep in an exposed gulley, near the elephant fossil. They immediately reported to Rutto.
Rutto, accompanied by village elders trooped to the site. “I was so excited because I thought this was my dream come true of finding a hominin (ancient homo species) fossil.”
But the skulls were of modern humans, and they had been exposed after a recent heavy downpour. The village elders then recalled a story of three clan members who disappeared about 60 years ago. “There was a big dance in another village and those who had attended were returning at night but they decided to rest here, and unfortunately the riverbank collapsed, burying them,” the elders narrated.
The three skulls were collected and given a proper burial as per the clan’s customs. “We need grants and government support to continue work here,” says Rutto. “My hope is that we will have a field station where students and visitors can come, like at Ileret.”
Baringo is rich in natural resources. It was until the late 1990s supporting a thriving birding community of local bird guides and boat operators. But since the collapse of tourism, communities in Baringo rely on food aid.
There is so much to see and do for the intrepid traveller. Boating in the freshwater lake which is still expanding, island hoping for short hikes, bird watching, camping, fishing, and even go snake hunting with local guides. The lakes of the Rift Valley are dynamic – rising from near dry lake beds to recent flooding. With every turn here is something new and interesting.