How Kenya Became the Cradle of Humankind

Olorgesailie pre-historic siteNational Museums of Kenya

A hotbed of archaeological discoveries

Kenya is recognized by paleontologists globally as a hotbed of archaeological discoveries contributing to the story of human evolution. In fact, Kenya has produced fossil evidence which tells almost the entire human evolutionary story. The National Museums of Kenya holds more than 350,000 fossils in its collection, about 700 of which belong to ancient humans. This exhibit is an appreciation of some of the major human fossil discoveries made in Kenya.

Human Evolution, Nairobi National MuseumNational Museums of Kenya

5 facts you need to know about the cradle of humankind

Fact 1: Kenya has a larger diversity of fossil human species remains than any other country in Africa.

Fact 2: Africa's oldest human remains were found in the Tugen Hills in Kenya, and go back 7 million years.

Fact 3: Kenya has some of the world's most complete skeletons including the Turkana Boy (1.6 million years old) which has provided great knowledge of early human physiology.

Fact 4: Kenya is endowed with many prehistoric sites scattered all along the Rift Valley (north to south) and Western Kenya.

Fact 5: Kenya has about 20 Miocene sites while Ethiopia has two. The Miocene is the first geological epoch of the Neogene Period, 23 million to 2.6 million years ago.

Louis LeakeyNational Museums of Kenya

Who is Louis Leakey?

Louis Leakey is one of Kenya's most important archaeologists and anthropologists. His fossil discoveries proved that human evolution was centered in Africa and not Asia as previously thought. He worked as a curator at the Coryndon Memorial Museum (present day National Museums of Kenya HQ) in Nairobi from 1945 to 1961. He also established the Institute of Primate Research (IPR) in 1960 with monkeys as models to understand the human evolution.

Notable discoveries by Louis Leakey's expeditions:

Proconsul africanus at Rusinga, Kenya.
– Acheulean site of Kariandusi.
Zinjanthropus boisei at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.
Homo habilis and Homo erectus at Olduvai.

Skull of Proconsul AfricanusNational Museums of Kenya

Proconsul africanus: 25 million years old

Between 1947 and 1948, Louis Leakey led an expedition to Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, where his wife and fellow paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey uncovered the oldest ape identified so far: the Proconsul africanus. Proconsul africanus lived about 25 million years ago. This fossil holds a special place in hominid paleontology as it marks the point at which 'old world' monkeys and apes diverged, making it the first true ape. The Proconsul is believed to be the earliest ancestor of humans and the 'new world' apes.

Skeleton of Proconsul AfricanusNational Museums of Kenya

Ape or man?

Members of the genus Proconsul bore characteristics of both ape and man. They moved on all fours, had prominent canines and lacked a tail, yet the forehead's shape and limb flexibility was similar to man's. This informed Louis Leakey's conclusion that Proconsul was neither ape nor man.

Mandible of Proconsul NyanzaeNational Museums of Kenya

A discourse in classification

Between 1948 and 1993, Leakey's find maintained the specific name africanus until subsequent archaeological studies prompted a re-evaluation of the Proconsul nomenclature. Various scientists uncovered new Proconsul species, and highly specific details of each could be compared against existing evidence. This led to Mary Leakey's find being reclassified as Proconsul heseloni. Other Proconsul species discovered in Rusinga are Proconsul nyanzae and Proconsul major.

Original ManNational Museums of Kenya

The 'Original Man'

In 2000, a team from the French National Museum of Natural History led by Brigitte Senut and Martin Pickford discovered a possible hominid fossil, estimated to be about 6 million years old, in Tugen Hills, Kenya. It was named Orrorin tugenensis. Orrorin means 'Original Man' in Tugen, in reference to the possibility that this species, if proven to be a
direct human ancestor, could render the australopithecines side branches
of the hominid family tree.

Bone fragments of Orrorin Tugenensis

About 20 fossils of Orrorin tugenensis have been found so far. Between the Orrorin hominid and that of the Black skull, two other fossils were discovered to have lived during this period of time: Australothepicus anamensis, 4.2 million years, and Kenyanthropus platyops, 3.5 million years.

Black SkullNational Museums of Kenya

The Black Skull: 2.5 million years old

Between the Proconsul ape and the earliest human appearance was about 17 million years of hominid existence, which could not be accounted for until the discovery of a black skull in West Turkana, Kenya, by Alan Walker in 1985. This skull belonged to Paranthropus aethiopicus and was about 2.5 million years old. In a press conference announcing its discovery, Alan Walker said: 'Pass me that black skull', earning this fossil its name. Studies indicate the Paranthropus aethiopius coexisted with earlier austrapithecines.

Turkana BoyNational Museums of Kenya

The Turkana boy: 1.6 million years old

Between the black skull hominid and that of Homo erectus, two other hominids existed. These were Paranthropus boisei (2 million years old) and Homo habilis (1.9 million years old). In August 1984, Kamoya Kimeu found a small piece of hominid skull, identified as Homo erectus, on a dry river bank in Nariokotome, on the western side of Lake Turkana. It was nicknamed Turkana Boy (Nariokotome Boy). As a skilled fossil hunter he was able to spot it because it was slightly lighter coloured than the black lava pebble surrounding it. He found other fragments nearby and eventually the whole bank was excavated to find almost the entire skeleton. Despite intensive searching, the bones of the feet and hands were never discovered.

Scientific significance

The Turkana boy is the most complete skeleton found of an early hominid. This skeleton and 'Lucy', found in Ethiopia, are some of the nearly-complete skeletons of early hominids to have been discovered in Africa, and are justly famous.

What did he look like?

Nariokotome boy is thought to have been between 9 and 12 years old when he died, but he was already more than 1.6 meters tall. This was very surprising because earlier hominids were thought to be no taller than chimpanzees, but he was similar in size and shape to modern humans, with long legs adapted to walking and running over long distances. However, his brain size was still considerably smaller than that of modern humans.

How did he get his name?

Nariokotome or Turkana boy was named after the site in which it was found, which is situated on the western side of Lake Turkana.

Other significant Homo erectus fossils were found in Koobi Fora and were dated to about 1.9 million years old.

6 pre-historic sites to explore the orgins of man in Kenya

Koobi ForaNational Museums of Kenya

1: Kobi Fora, Lake Turkana

At Kobi Fora to the north of Allia Bay, extensive paleontological finds have been made, starting in 1969, with the discovery of Paranthropus boisei. The discovery of Homo habilis thereafter is evidence of the existence of a relatively intelligent hominid two million years ago, and reflects the change in climate from moist forest grassland, when the now petrified forests were transforming to the present hot desert.

The human and pre-human fossils include the remains of five species: Austrolophithecus anamensis, Homo habilis/rudolfensis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, all found within one locality. These discoveries were important for understanding the evolutionary history of the human species.

2: Kariandusi pre-historic site

The Kariandusi archaeological site was among the first of the Lower Paleolithic sites discovered in East Africa. There was enough geological evidence here to show that, in the past, large lakes, sometimes reaching levels hundreds of meters higher than the Present Lake Nakuru and Elementaita, occupied this basin.

Dating back between 700,000 to 1 million years old, Kariandusi is possibly the first Acheulian site to have been found in situ in East Africa. Dr. Leakey, a renowned paleontologist, believed that this was a factory site of the Acheulian period. He made this conclusion after numerous collections of specimens were found lying in the Kariandusi riverbed.

This living site of the hand-axe man was discovered in 1928. A rise in the Lake level drove pre-historic men from their lake-side home and buried all the tools and weapons which they left behind in a hurry. The Acheulian stage of the great hand-axe culture, to which this site belongs, is found over a very widespread area from England, France, and Southwest Europe generally, to Cape Town.

3: Hyrax Hill Museum

Located within Nakuru town, Hyrax Hill Museum depicts the lifestyle of seasonal settlement by prehistoric people at least 3,000 years ago.

The hill was named after hyraxes which are found in abundance, living in cracks within rocks found in this area.

As a region of archaeological interest, Hyrax Hill was first noted by the East African Archaeological Expedition of 1926, led by L.S.B. Leakey. In 1937 Mary Leakey undertook some archaeological surveys on the hill. Since then, research has been intermittent, with major undertakings in 1965 by Ron Clarke.

Hyrax Hill is a renowned archaeological research area and a reference point for investigations of the prehistory of East Africa.

4: Thimlich Ohinga Archaeological Site

Thimlich Ohinga is a unique architectural stone structure situated in Nyanza province, 181 km south of Kisumu, in Migori district. Archaeological records of materials found within the site date from beyond 500 years ago.

The stone structure enclosure has walls ranging from 1.0 to 4.2 meters in height, which were built of loose stones and blocks without any dressing or mortar.

5: Olorgesailie pre-historic site

Olorgesailie pre-historic site is world-renowned as the “factory of stone tools”, and the only place in the world with such a large number.

The prominence and accumulation of human tools represents actual camping places of early men, and evidence that human species had a tropical origin. The site is in a lake basin that existed about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Original ManNational Museums of Kenya

6: Institute of Primate Research

Louis Leakey established the Institute of Primate Research (IPR) in 1960, with monkeys as models to understand human evolution, and as a facility for collection and studies of East African primates. Since its inception, IPR has expanded tremendously in both physical and research facilities, and is now focused on the breeding and use of non-human primate study to prevent and/or treat human diseases under the auspices of animal welfare. The Institute has outdoor and indoor housing facilities for breeding colonies of about 270 primates.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting the website.

Exhibit Curator: Joseph Saoli, Marketing Manager, Innocent Nyaga, Marketing Officer National Museums of Kenya.

Bibliography and Research
1. Isaac, G., McCown, E. (1976)Human origins; Louis Leakey and the East African Evidence. Perspectives on Human Evolution, Vol. III. Society for the Study of Human Evolution. Berkeley, California.
2. Grine, F. E., Fleagle, J. G. and Leakey, R. E. (2009) The First Humans: Origin and Early Evolution of the Genus Homo. New York, Springer.

Photography: Ibrahim Mwangi, Audio Visual Department, National Museums of Kenya.

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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