The Belo Osagie fund supports collaboration between locals and scientists to produce human origins knowledge in Kenya

2022-12-15 12:58:00

East Africa is the cradle of humankind, yet the pursuit of this knowledge has largely been the preserve of western scientists since colonial times. With support from the Belo Osagie fund, Paleoanthropologist -Dr. Veronica Waweru- from the Council on African Studies at Yale, and colleagues from US and Kenyan institutions, have collaborated with locals in the Mt. Kenya region in the Central Highlands of Kenya to seek evidence of human evolution. The work of Dr. Waweru and her colleagues is unique in two ways; first, it investigates human evolution in the tropical highlands of central Kenya- most of the story of human evolution in the region is based on fossils and artifacts found in the extensive rift valley basin. Secondly, the human origins work includes locals using a knowledge co-production model. Dr. Waweru feels strongly that one does not need a PhD to identify fossils and stone tools. With a few practical skills, interested locals can be co-opted into human origins field research and become active knowledge producers.

The model was piloted in 2020 in the west Mt. Kenya area- a highland region surrounded by the Aberdare mountain range and Mt. Kenya. Four locals were trained and helped identify over a dozen archaeological and paleontological sites covering all phases of prehistoric stone tool technology. Here they found simple chopper tools of the Oldowan tradition- the oldest stone tool technology dating to over 2 million years old. Other technologies found here include massive handaxes. These later change into miniature handaxes and finally into small triangular points. Pottery and evidence of iron smelting are also found here. This evidence supports the region’s occupation from ~ 2 million years to the recent past.  Who made the ancient stone tools? Richard Kinyua, one of the prolific ‘fossil hunters’ discovered a fossil of archaic Homo sapiens dating to ~ 614,000  years-the only human ancestor fossil of that age to be found outside the Rift Valley in Kenya.

How did our ancient ancestors use these stone tools? The local collaborators have also found fossils of numerous species including antelopes, carnivores, hippos, primates, and  Gomphothere- an extinct four-tusked elephant. Some of these animals, such as antelopes were potential prey for ancient human ancestors, and stone tools were used for hunting or processing carcasses.  A new antelope species (Antidorcas kinyuae) was discovered and named after Richard  Kinyua. Our local crew has also found several complete human skeletons. Some despite being unfossilized, have atypical traits not common in modern humans. These will help address questions on the population substructures inhabiting this highland region in the last ten thousand years.  DNA analyses will reveal clues about whether they were related to the  local villagers, what they ate, and even if they were lactose tolerant.

Dr. Waweru felt that it was important that the  villagers know about the  ancient heritage  on their land. Local vernacular TV stations were invited to cover the scientific work. This led to more interest from national media, but most importantly, the people were very proud that this heritage is found in their back yards.

Mt. Kenya- the mountain the Kikuyu tribe believed to be the home of their god ‘Ngai,’ gazes down on the villages with a 2 million-year heritage of human evolution.  Here Christianity Garden-of -Eden human  origins co-exit with local heritage narratives of Gikuyu and Mumbi- the parents of all the Kikuyu people. Dr. Waweru and her team’s introduction of Darwinian science is not aimed at replacing existing origins beliefs,  but to inform locals about the the social value of the amazing ancient heritage found in the Central Highlands of Kenya.

Dr. Veronica Waweru interviews a local collaborator who led the team of scientists to a fossil-rich site on the banks of the Ngobit River, Kenya

Richard Kinyua, a local collaborator, examines Acheulean tools unearthed by road construction at Kaheho, Kenya. Without his efforts, these tools would never have been found.