Kenya: Turkana Basin and the Rich Heritage Buried in Arid 'Cradle of Mankind'

opinion

Over the past five decades, Lake Turkana Basin has continued to witness back-to-back discoveries of fossils.

The crowning moment came in 1986 with the discovery of the Turkana Boy - an almost complete fossilised human skeleton - by Mr Kamoya Kimeu in Nariokotome village, Turkana County.

The discovery by Mr Kimeu, a member of a team led by renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, was a major reward for excavation efforts started in the region way back in 1968 by the Leakey team.

Nachukui, Nataruk and Loperot are among the villages where more discoveries on the origins and lifestyles of our ancestors have been made.

World-renowned paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, fossil finders as well as students from different universities across the world have been flocking to Turkana County - the cradle of mankind - where they have discovered and documented fossils of species ranging from whales to humans.

Past massacres

They have also stumbled on evidence of past massacres and stone-age tools.

The paleontological sites in this region are to be found in arid villages dotted with scrublands and inhabited by a welcoming indigenous community.

The rich cultural heritage of the Turkana is expressed boldly through the community's traditional attire, which comprises animal skins and the 'mohawk' hairstyle for most women.

Men in the community herd livestock on the rocky terrain while carrying sticks and traditional stools.

They are generally welcoming; smiling or waving to acknowledge visitors and at times extending their hands for a firm handshake.

The expansive basin, which is in some places rugged with sedimentary rocks, is now easier to access after the Turkana County government graded the roads to Lodwar town and further north to the villages that host the paleontological sites.

Namorutunga stones

Most of these villages are less than 100 kilometres from Lodwar. Tucked to the right some 40 kilometres on the Lodwar-Kalokol road are Namorutunga stones.

These stones have helped unlock clues to the lifestyles of Turkana ancestors who lived more than 4,000 years ago in this area that is now an international tourist attraction site.

Namorutunga is a sacred place where Turkana ancestors are believed to have been joined by their 'earthly god' for the mythical Edong'a dance, with each of the elders admiring his heroic bulls.

The elders are believed to have turned into stones after mocking the gods.

They are said to have been frozen in the various postures they struck as they laughed at the gods; some sitting, some standing and others bending.

'Stony' ancestors

Visitors are encouraged to stop and put at least one stone on any of the 'stony' ancestors as a sign of respect before taking photos or proceeding with their journey.

In Nariokotome village, where the history of human evolution is believed to have begun, the county government in collaboration with National Museums of Kenya has erected a monument replicating the Turkana Boy, who is believed to have died at the age of between seven and 18 years and his skeleton said to be between 1.5 million and 1.6 million years old.

The area around the monument is fenced and tourists brave the harsh conditions to come here and photos of the replica of the boy, artistically designed facing upwards.

In Nachukui village, stone stools deposited 3.3 million years ago were excavated in 2012.

Fossil finders

Experts say visitors, just like the renowned archaeologists, can become fossil finders in this arid landscape, for keen observation is what it takes to spot fossil fragments and ancient artefacts.

Archaeologists bank on the principle that more eyes generate more information, leading to more discoveries, which is why they emphasize on team tours.

Scientists argue that the region was once occupied by Lake Rudolf, whose size shrank due to climate change as a result of increased human activities.

Hostile environment

Today, Lake Turkana lies in the midst of a dry and hostile desert environment.

Scientists say the region was once lush with green vegetation and conducive for agriculture.

Due to tectonic activities, the experts further explain that the earth is divided into layers and with every rainfall, more layers are eroded, providing a good opportunity to see fossils.

In Nataruk village, archaeologists unearthed evidence of ancient warfare.

The 10,000-year-old remains of 27 people discovered in January this year west of Lake Turkana show they were involved in violent clashes and left to die there rather than being buried.

Further evidence shows the 27 were nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Speculating on the causes of the attack, Marta Mirazon Lahr, who led the Nataruk study team, said the "massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources".

It is believed the group was attacked by rival hunter-gatherers who were armed with wooden clubs and arrows or spears tipped with sharpened obsidian, a rare black volcanic rock".

Beaked whale

A beaked whale's remains were also discovered around the lake, which experts say is the only evidence of a stranded whale ever found so far inland on the African continent.

The remains of the whale were dug up nearly 500 miles from the ocean, and so it is thought the creature took a wrong turn and swam up the ancient Anza river 17 million years ago.

Scientists say East Africa was probably flatter, wetter and forested at that time, before the landscape began to rise, the land became dry and the forests died away. This, the experts argue, forced the primates living there to begin walking on their two rear limbs.

The remains of the 'Turkana whale', which were discovered in Loperot village, are estimated to have been 6.7 metres long. The 'Turkana whale' is believed to be related to its more modern cousins - the Baird's and Cuvier's beaked whales.

Scientists have appealed to the national government to allocate resources for further research on the Lake Turkana Basin.

Turkana Basin Institute's (TBI) Director of Research and Science Isaiah Nengo said master's and PhD programmes at public institutions - especially Turkana University College - and field excursions could help register more archaeological findings.

"Lake Turkana Basin is a region where the study of pre-modern human lifestyle mostly by foreign students and researchers has been going on for years since the discovery of an almost complete fossilised human skeleton globally recognised as Turkana Boy in 1986," Prof Nengo said.

He said the story of where all humans came from could not have been told without the fossils so far found in Turkana.

Research and practical studies

He explained that students of cultural anthropology, archaeology and biological anthropology from Stony Brook University have for years relied on the Lake Turkana Basin as a laboratory for their research and practical studies.

He said the New York-based University has been partnering with TBI to help graduate and postdoctoral students from both Africa and America to carry out research and gather knowledge on human origins.

"TBI and palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey have agreed to establish a master's programme at Turkana University College because it is located in the Lake Turkana Basin, which is considered to be the cradle of mankind. We want to do it in a way that everybody, particularly Kenyans, can participate in the research," Prof Nengo said.

Human evolution

He said Kenya lacks the foundation for a programme that would teach human evolution up to PhD level despite the many findings from the Lake Turkana basin.

"If we make Kenyans to appreciate the study of human evolution, to understand the significance of that heritage around Lake Turkana Basin and protect it, we can educate the whole world and make Turkana a place where every human being would want to visit and find out more on how the modern humans came into being," Prof Nengo said.

He confirmed Mr Kimeu, who is in his 80s, was recently honoured by The Case Western Reserve University with an honorary doctorate at an event that was streamed live from Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States of America.

"Kimeu, who was also working as a curator for prehistoric sites at the National Museums of Kenya, was awarded a Doctor of Science Degree by Case Western Reserve University for his enormous contribution in human evolution studies," Prof Nengo said.

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