Kenya: Cradle of Humankind

Kenya is recognized by palaeontologists globally as a hotbed of archaeological discoveries contributing to the story of human evolution.

By National Museums of Kenya

Original ManNational Museums of Kenya

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. In this field trip we visit archaeological sites in Kenya and see some ancient artefacts.

Here we are on the Oloolua Nature Trail at the Institute of Primate Research in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenya has played an important role in the research on the evolution of primates. In 1947‒48, Louis Leakey led an expedition to Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, where Mary Leakey uncovered one of the oldest apes identified so far: Proconsul africanus, which lived about 25 million years ago and was the first true ape. Proconsul is believed to be the earliest ancestor of humans and the “new world” apes.

Louis LeakeyNational Museums of Kenya

Louis Leakey was one of Kenya's most important archaeologists and anthropologists. His fossil discoveries proved that human origins were centred in Africa and not Asia as previously thought. From 1945 to 1961, he worked as a curator in Nairobi, where he established the Institute of Primate Research.

In 1960, Leakey established the Institute of Primate Research with monkeys as models to understand human evolution and as a facility for collection and studies of East African primates.

Skeleton of Proconsul AfricanusNational Museums of Kenya

Members of the genus Proconsul bore characteristics of both ape and human. They moved on all fours, had prominent canines, and lacked a tail, yet the forehead's shape and limb flexibility were similar to a human’s forehead and limbs. Thus, Leakey concluded that Proconsul was neither ape nor human.

Mandible of Proconsul NyanzaeNational Museums of Kenya

This photo is of the lower jaw of Proconsul nyanzae, discovered in Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, between 1947–1948. Between 1948 and 1993, various scientists uncovered new Proconsul species. This led to Mary Leakey's find to be reclassified as Proconsul heseloni.

Original ManNational Museums of Kenya

These are fossil fragments of Orrorin tugenensis, a hominid species discovered in Tugen, Kenya, in 2000. Orrorin tugensis means “original man in Tugen,” in reference to the possibility that this species, if proven to be a direct human ancestor, could be the earliest hominid on humankind’s family tree.

Koobi Fora, east of Lake Turkana, comprises approximately 700 square miles of sediment deposition from the Pliocene (5.0 million) to the Early Pleistocene (1.0 million) Ages. Extensive paleontological finds have been made here, starting in 1969. At Koobi Fora, the discovery of Homo habilis is evidence of the existence of a relatively intelligent hominid two million years ago. This discovery reflects the change in climate from moist forest grassland to the present hot desert.

Koobi ForaNational Museums of Kenya

Human and pre-human fossils at the Koobi Fora Museum include the remains of 5 species, Australophithecus anamensis, Homo habilis/rudolfensis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens all found within one locality. These discoveries help us to understand the evolution of the human species.

Black SkullNational Museums of Kenya

In 1985, Alan Walker and Richard Leakey uncovered what came to be known as the Black Skull at the West Turkana site. To which species this creature belonged—Paranthropus or Australopithecus—is still a matter of debate, but its extreme age is not.

Turkana BoyNational Museums of Kenya

In 1984, Kamoya Kimeu found a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton of a 9- to 12-year-old boy near Lake Turkana. Nicknamed the Turkana Boy, he was taller than earlier hominids were thought to have been. However, his brain size was still considerably smaller than that of modern humans.

The Kariandusi archaeological site is among the first discoveries of Lower Paleolithic sites in East Africa. Dating back between 700,000 to 1 million years old, Kariandusi is possibly the first Acheulean site to have been found in situ in East Africa. This living site of the hand-axe man was discovered in 1928. The Acheulean 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 South Africa.

Louis Leakey believed that the Kariandusi archaeological site was a factory site of the Acheulian period. He made this conclusion after numerous collections of tool specimens were found lying in the Kariandusi riverbed.

Geological evidence shows that, in the past, large lakes, sometimes reaching levels hundreds of metres higher than the present Lake Nakuru, occupied this basin. As rising lake levels drove pre-historic humans from their lakeside homes, they buried their tools and weapons in a hurry.

Located in the town of Nakuru, Hyrax Hill Museum depicts the lifestyle of seasonal settlement by prehistoric people 3,000 years ago. As a region of archaeological interest, the East African Archaeological Expedition of 1926, led by Louis Leakey, first noted Hyrax Hill. 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.

The hill was named after the hyraxes—small, furry mammals—which were found in abundance in this area, living in cracks within the rocks.

Hyrax Hill Pre-historic siteNational Museums of Kenya

Hyrax Hill is a reference point for investigations of the prehistory of humankind. This photograph depicts a lower excavation site where over 1000 Acheulean hand axes and cleavers were discovered in 1974. Acheulean industry occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended about 11,700 years ago.

Hyrax Hill Pre-historic siteNational Museums of Kenya

This photograph shows the fossil remains of an extinct straight-tusked elephant. Fossils such as this one show that the straight-tusked elephants lived about 750,000 years ago. Scientists believe that they left Africa through the Middle East and travelled to Eurasia.

The Thimlich Ohinga archaeological site is a unique architectural stone structure, situated in Nyanza province, Kenya. The archaeological record of materials found within the Ohinga, or settlement, goes beyond 500 years ago. The stone structure has walls ranging from 1 to 4.2 meters in height and was built of loose stones and blocks without any dressing or mortar. Experts believe it served as a fort for communities and livestock and defined social boundaries.

It seems most likely that Bantus who initially occupied this region prior to the arrival of Luos first built the stone structures. Abundant rocks on the hilly areas provided them with building materials to meet their security requirements.

During the 20th century, abandonment of Ohingnis started en mass. Stone structures were no longer built, and some structures were reduced to mere traces of circumferences or disappeared altogether. Thimlich Ohinga is one of the few stone structures that survived.

The Olorgesailie pre-historic site has the largest number of stone tools found at any site in Kenya. The accumulation of these human tools indicates that these were camping places of early humans. The site is in an ancient lake basin. Here you can see displays of prehistoric materials, including hand axes and fossilized skeletons of extinct species of elephants and hippopotamus from 1.2 million years ago.

Olorgesailie pre-historic siteNational Museums of Kenya

Louis and Mary Leakey started investigations on the site in 1942. They found important evidence concerning the habits and activities of the early prehistoric peoples of the acheuleun or “Hand axe” culture.

Olorgesailie stone tool

Scientists believe this Olorgesailie stone tool is between 45,000 and 35,000 years old. Excellent preservation was made possible by heavy falls of alkaline volcanic ash from nearby Mt. Suswa and Mt. Longonot.

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