Finding Hominids with Kamoya Kimeu
Journalist Fred Heeren with Kimoya Kimeu
— by Fred Heeren
Kamoya Kimeu is not known for his religious views. Many know him for his narrow escapes from lions, crocodiles, and cobras—and many more as East Africa’s preeminent fossil hunter, perhaps the most successful discoverer of hominid bones in the world.
Paleoanthropologists have a running argument about whether fossil prospectors are better prepared for the job from textbooks in academia or from expert collectors in the field, where they learn skeletal anatomy by handling bones and fragments. Kimeu makes a strong case for the latter.
In addition to finding hominids with Louis and Mary Leakey (starting in 1959) and their son Richard (becoming his right-hand man in 1963 and taking control of field operations in Richard’s absence in 1967) and his more recent field work with daughter-in-law Meave Leakey, Kimeu found now-famous hominid specimens while prospecting with Tim White, Alan Walker, Kay Behrensmeyer, and Andrew Hill. In 1977, the National Museums of Kenya appointed him curator for all of Kenya’s prehistoric sites.
Kimeu’s field-trained eyes were the first to spot the bits of fossils leading to the discovery of the earliest Homo sapiens skull (Omo I), now dated to 195,000 years ago. He discovered the 1.5-million-year old Turkana Boy, the most complete skeleton of the small-brained-but-tall-bodied Homo erectus. And he bagged the most important specimen in the Australopithecus anamensis collection: a partial tibia including where it forms the lower knee joint; it demonstrated that this ape-like creature was walking upright 4.1 million years ago. I could name many more, several of which are named after him.
But as I found out when I joined the Leakeys’ “Hominid Gang” during one field season, none of these contributions to science would have been possible unless Kimeu had decided at the start that his religious views could be adjusted to permit this kind of work. I’ll complete that thought at the end of this piece. First let me explain what I mean by “this kind of work.”
Forced to retire by Kenyan law at 55 (although he stretched his age downward as long as possible), Kimeu now spends his days on the field wherever the prospects of finding more hominids look best. And that’s what brought us both to the Leakey camp in 2007 at the very north end of Kenya, northeast of lake Turkana. Though he is now officially retired, hominid hunting continues to drive him. A typical workday for Kimeu and the Hominid Gang has changed only slightly since the old days.
At three o’clock every morning, the wind begins, drowning out the jackal calls. Tents convulse, their straps flapping and sounding like hail to would-be sleepers inside. Kamoya Kimeu joins other crew members heading out of their tents at 5:30, using flashlights to avoid stepping on snakes. At 6:00 this prospecting team—called the Hominid Gang since the days of Louis and Mary Leakey—loads up into two ten-year-old Toyota Land Cruisers. The men watch the sun come up during an hour’s bumpy drive past brown vistas sparsely dotted with commiphora, which looks like flat-topped sagebrush. Given his reputation for having the world’s best eye for spotting hominid fossils, the crew not only finds Kimeu’s presence inspirational—they believe they can improve their chances of making big finds just by sticking close to the master.
Another group, the collecting team—composed of senior scientists and an international group of post-docs, grad-students, and local field documentation trainees—heads out in two more Land Cruisers at 6:30. They use GIS (Geographic Information System) instruments to find their way to each of the prospecting team’s discoveries from the day before, while the prospectors use it to mark the coordinates of today’s new finds, to be used by the collecting team tomorrow. The area they’re working falls between two volcanic tuffs dated to 1.6 and 1.8 million years ago.
The day is filled with routine animal fossil finds until mid-afternoon, when one of the youngest prospectors, Abdub Sharamo, hired by Richard in Nairobi just this year, decides to spend the afternoon following Kimoya Kimeu along a dried river channel. Kimeu has been working his way alongside a ridge, and then along the dried riverbed below, noting the way recent rains have washed tiny fossils from above. Sure enough, about three o’clock, while following Kimeu’s path, Abdub picks out something Kimeu’s old eyes had missed: an equid tooth, and then, not far away, a bone that looked much more promising, with two small teeth embedded in it.
He calls to Kimeu. Is it a monkey? Kimeu withholds judgment, but the gang gathers round and argues about whether it is a hominid while they record its position and photograph it. Then someone else finds a piece of skull some distance away.
When I fly in with a missionary pilot friend later that afternoon, I find them back at camp. Excitement builds when Meave Leakey, Louise Leakey, Fred Spoor, and the rest of the collecting team crowd around a monitor to view that day’s fossil photos. It’s a maxilla—an upper jawbone—and it’s definitely a hominid.
The next morning, my first on the field, we drive to the end of a trail and then walk over a landscape littered with pebbles and stromatolites, pitted boulders of fossilized algae. Sometimes we pass tall hills of them, which I’m told ancient people piled up as burial mounds. A closer look at the ground reveals that it is also littered, less liberally, with something more distinctive. Louise, Meave’s daughter, who is in charge of logistics, leads me along, pointing at various spots we pass and saying: “Fossil, fossil, fossil, fossil.”
Within an hour, I can find them too. I have cave-dived deep into a Carpathian mountain to reach a tiny gallery strewn with fossilized bones. I have driven for days along Chinese dried riverbeds to see a half-dozen new fossils found at as many sites. But never have I looked out upon a boundless expanse where every few feet you’re bound to find another petrified piece of antler, or bovid femur, or equid molar. Some of them actually sparkle in the sunlight. Everyone who comes here gets the bug—you can’t take your eyes off the ground, and you think maybe you’re going to be the one to find a hominid this season.
But this season that honor goes to Abdub. Meave Leakey directs the crew to cordon off the area, to search it (resulting in the discovery of another tooth), and to sieve it. But the glory of “Max frag. dp4,” as she identifies the specimen in her notebook, is short-lived. Meave Leakey and Fred Spoor tentatively identify it as a juvenile bosei—a wide-jawed hominid not in the human lineage—meaning the jaw is destined to take its place in a backlog of specimens that are relegated for future study, description and publication, while they work on more notable finds, some worthy of publication in Nature.
Not yet knowing this and hoping I’m seeing history in the making, I interview Abdub to get all the details of his find. However, I especially enjoy following Kamoya around as he continues his prospecting on another ridge. It’s not until that night that I get my first truly exciting interview of the trip, under a sky lit by a brilliant Milky Way and the Big Dipper on the horizon. Kamoya Kimeu regales me with exploits from his past, tales that play in my mind like episodes from an old action-adventure movie serial.
He tells me of a narrow escape he shared with Richard Leakey in 1967, when he found that earliest Homo sapiens skull. While crossing the Omo River in southern Ethiopia in a tiny wooden dinghy, Richard, Kamoya, and two others charted a zigzagging course through a hundred gathering crocodiles. One especially large crocodile gave chase and caught up with them just before they reached the other side, clamping its jaw down heavily on the boat’s side. This sent splinters into the air and passengers to the opposite side, almost capsizing them. Nearly swamped, the skiff reached the bank, but the giant reptile sprung ahead for one more snap. Kimeu and Leakey leapt for shore, leaving the creature clamped down on the transom—along with Leakey’s belt and part of his ripped pants.
Another time, while on an expedition with Mary Leakey, Kimeu’s Land Rover was swept away while he tried to drive back across a river during a flash flood. When the vehicle began to sink with the doors jammed, he crawled to the back, which was still partly above water, and escaped out the back window.
While leading a team of prospectors on a remote fly camping expedition over several weeks, Kimeu had a number of encounters with lions. Once one sauntered right between the workers’ cots at night. On another evening, six lions on the hunt invaded the camp, and even after Kimeu got in his car and drove them off with his loud engine and headlights, they kept coming back. He had to post guards to keep watch, two at a time, all night.
On another such remote trip, he heard something moving in his sleeping bag as he was waking in the morning. Before he could get out, he was bitten by a large cobra that had spent the night with him. This initiated two weeks of unrelenting pain while his leg swelled up and friends tried various methods to cut out the poison. So … be careful who you sleep with.
Kimeu demonstrated to me how they cut into his leg: “You cut it just like this,” he said, “and squeeze it hard. Something black came out. Ouch—big thing.”
Kimeu sounded trooper-sanguine about the final result, explaining: “Because I have that poison in my body now, you know, next time when I’m going to be bitten by another snake, I’ll be protected.”
The story of Kamoya Kimeu raises interesting questions for Christians in science: What if he had decided against going to Nairobi to hear from the scientists themselves? What if he’d trusted his first negative impressions?