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Koobi Fora: The Cradle of Mankind

Mark Namaswa journeys to Koobi Fora, an archaeological site in northern Kenya where archaeologists recently discovered a set of footprints dating back about 1,4 million years.



The Journey North

Perhaps Kenya’s most hidden treasures lay in the desert, specifically the dry stretch along the shores of Lake Turkana, all the way across the two northern counties of Turkana and Marsabit. It is mid-August 2016. The journey sets off from Kenya’s capital Nairobi, heads north past Nanyuki and Isiolo towns into the dry, windy northern environs of Lake Turkana.

The first stop is in Loyiangalani Township, a small oasis settlement close to the eastern shores of Lake Turkana. The landscape is dotted with acacia trees, sparse shrubs, lots of heat and vast swathes of land covered in stones. Small manyattas – the equivalent of kraals – sprout out of the seeming desolation. Herds of white spotted goats and sheep, the most common in the area, can be seen disappearing and re-emerging from the hilly shrubbery and stones.

Loyiangalani is known for its cocktail of cultures, most of them nomadic. Its water makes it a settlement of choice since Lake Turkana’s water is too saturated with fluoride. The Samburu, Rendille, Turkana and El Molo are some of the resident communities.


Some live off fishing in the lake but most rely on herding; an art perfected over centuries of surviving along the receding lake and soaring temperatures. In fact, almost 800 sites have been dug up around Lake Turkana, many yielding fossilised remains of extinct creatures both human and animal. But Loyiangalani, for most tourists, remains a stopover location for replenishing supplies before daring to take on the desert.

The journey north leads to the Sibiloi National Park. It is not uncommon to travel for over 300 kmin the searing heat without spotting a single human being. But do not be fooled. Out of sight, in the hills, rocks and shrubs, herders keep watch over their sheep, camel and goats. Any small disturbance will quickly reveal the number of observant eyes of armed Borana, Rendille, Samburu or Dasanach herders. The northern part of Kenya is said to have a large number of firearms but many of these people carry arms in order to secure their livestock.

Sibiloi National Park is part of this large expanse of open, arid land. Shrubs dot the plain, sometimes hilly countryside. Flocks of goats and sheep surface, then disappear. Once in a while, you encounter the odd tourist entourage as you approach the park.


(Photo credit: George Mulei/KTB)

Koobi Fora

Our destination is Koobi Fora, the famed archaeological site. It was thrust into the limelight by the late paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Dr Louis Leakey, after his finds of ancient human remains.

Koobi Fora happens to be in the same locale as Sibiloi National Park. One of the SUVs in our convoy develops tyre punctures – the stony tracks are too much for it. We are forced into the single Toyota Land Cruiser as we head into the park to seek a repairer. An hour later, we are in the park and, for the first time in more than six hours, we encounter signs of human life.


“There is hope,” says Thorn Mulli, a member of the travelling party. In addition to myself, the entourage includes four journalists from Nairobi-based media houses, three staff members from the Kenya Tourism Board and an archaeologist from The National Museums of Kenya.

We travel for what seems like a thousand kilometres north into Sibiloi National Park. The park’s borders are marked only by painted stones. The game rangers at the park’s main gate are friendly. In fact, they offer to prepare a meal for the team as the Land Cruiser ferries our burst tyre to their garage. We end up spending the rest of the evening here before starting out for Koobi Fora at nightfall. Before we do so, a guide sent for by our host, Eric Omenda from the Kenya Tourism Board, arrives.

Into the Cradle of Mankind

The route into the Koobi Fora area is sandy and stony, and in-between the thickets, mazes of tracks in the sand criss-cross each other. We make our way through the wilderness for hours before we spot the distant lights of the Koobi Fora camp miles away. By this time it was almost 11pm.

The camp turned out to be a fairly cool (it was night time) outpost in the middle of nowhere. By this time our smart phones had long been reduced to gadgets used only to tell the time.


“Welcome to Koobi Fora,” says a stocky mzungu, who introduces himself as Prof Jack Harris, as he ushers us into a large hall. Another mzungu shows up: Prof Brian Richmond. We learn that both are into archaeology, Harris having been at Koobi Fora for over 45 years, Richmond about 12 years. As Harris arranges for food to be brought, Richmond has some breaking news.

“You have come at the very moment when less than a week ago, we discovered what might be hot news for you: a new set of footprints dating to about 1,4 million years.”

We glance knowingly at each other and even before we have seen the site, we have started crafting scripts on how best to break the news to the ‘outside world’.

Housing here is remarkably comfortable. The roofs are low-lying, iron sheeting and a layer of thatch held down by chicken-wire meshing. The thatch, we learnt, was to keep out the heat and act as an insulator in the extreme night-time desert chill. Before retiring for the night, we sit around a bonfire, beers in hand, chatting about the way forward for the morning.

Nothing beats the allure of daybreaks and sunrises in strange places. Koobi Fora is one such place. With Lake Turkana a stone’s throw away, the flat sea guaranteed an unhindered distant horizon to spot the rising sun. Down at the lush lakeside, egrets were already up, their white brilliant against the blue of the sky and the green, windy shores.


Sunrise at Koobi Fora (Photo credit: George Mulei/KTB)

The footprints

“There is no place like it in East Africa; it is the vastness of the landscape. You can get into questions like, where did our ancestors live? Was it in the forest or in the grasslands?” begins Jack Harris as we approach the discovery site. “This was a well-watered landscape, with all forms of plants and animals, from lions to giraffes and monkeys – they were all in this landscape; a particular landscape that our ancestors were well adapted to.”

The landscape is acres of grassland and shrubs, the wind continuously blowing in the dry atmosphere. According to Prof Harris, the entire Koobi Fora area and adjacent archaeological area is roughly 3 000 square kilometres. Only two geological features break the monotony of the grassland: Lake Turkana and the eroding hills and their cliffs. In the past half century, he says almost 800 sites have yielded human fossil remains dating from 1 million to 4 million years old.

We disembark and curious eyes are immediately drawn to a group of excavators already at the site.

“The whole area is called Koobi Fora, but there are a number of excavating spots. For instance, just over this hill, there is a spot where they found the jawbone of an ancient human ancestor. Tthis area, this spot – we have numbered it GAJI 10 – we can just call it the Koobi Fora Footprint site,” says Prof Richmond.

Blue tarpaulin covers the site and David Kipkobut, a local fossil hunter, uncovers the find. A set of footprints on what looks like a dried mud patch appears. He says that on the week the discovery was made, almost everyone on the team stumbled upon some sort of footprint and the ritual of celebrating, informing the rest and seeking expert verification followed.


Prof Richmond explains. “We have unearthed for the first time in this area a group of human ancestors that seem to be walking together at the same time, at the same speed. At least seven individuals headed in the same direction. This is very important because you can’t learn about the social behaviour of human ancestors from the bones and teeth or from the stone tools they made.”

Richmond and Harris estimate the footprints date back to about the same period that Homo Erectus, an ancestor of modern man, walked in the same landscape.

“Here we have a snapshot of a day 1,4 million years ago and it shows these individuals are travelling together at the same time. That must mean they were living as a group and cooperating,” says Richmond. “This is the only evidence we have of this kind of behaviour in our lineage.”

Turkana Boy

According to Prof Harris, the footprints were set in the mud roughly the same period another variant of Homo Erectus lived on the western shore of Lake Turkana. Christened Turkana Boy or Nariokotome Boy, the individual stood at about 5 foot 4 inches and died young, possibly at around the age of 14. He was unearthed by Kamoya Kimeu, a local fossil hunter.


His fossils were uncovered in 1984 and are currently stored in a bomb-proof vault at the National Museums of Kenya Headquarters in Nairobi. It is considered the most complete skeletal remains so far recovered. Only the feet are missing but researchers believe the footprints give the closest hint of what his feet looked like—very likely like those of modern man.

“The footprints here could have been made by one of three different human ancestors, but some of them are so large that they could have only been made by Homo Erectus. Homo Erectus is our ancestor,” Richmond explains.

“The other two species went extinct. What is important to us is that it is telling us about the social behaviour of our ancestors, not our extinct cousins. Some of the aspects of modern man are not just 100 000 years old—they are over 1,5 million years old.”

Paleontologists Brian Richmond and Jack Harris

Paleontologists Brian Richmond and Jack Harris (Photo credit: George Mulei/KTB)

How do scientists arrive at conclusive estimates of ages of fossils dating to over a million years? According to palaeontologists affiliated to the National Museums of Kenya, the site at Koobi Fora is older than 1,4 million years old due to the presence of a blue-grey volcanic ash layer present at the site.

“The ash, 30 to 40 centimetres above the site, was laid down by a volcanic eruption. The ash can be dated to at least 1,43 million years ago—plus or minus a few thousand years. There might be an error but we are sure it must be 1,4 million years old,” Richmond says.

The logic here is that whatever is beneath the ash layer is older than the ash layer itself. But scientists here cannot avoid using Turkana Boy as a reference point.


“What we see emerging in the body build of Turkana Boy is what we call a more linear body: a thin, tall, longer body. The advantage of longer legs is that you have a longer gait, so you are able to cover much longer distances,” adds Harris.

The climate, he explains, was getting drier and more seasonal around the time the human ancestors made prints in the mud. And for humans to survive, they had to forage over longer distances. This lead to mass movements, as did the need to domesticate .animals as insurance for dwindling wildlife stocks for hunting.

Indeed, modern humans living in the entire Lake Turkana and Koobi Fora area have had to adapt to nomadic pastoralism. Communities such as Rendille, Dasanach, Turkana and Samburu keep cattle, sheep, goats and camels. The El Molo mainly rely on fishing although dwindling stocks in the lake and increasing salination and siltation of the lake are already threatening their livelihoods.

Koobi Fora Sunsets

The increasingly hostile sun signals the end of our tour but the scenic shores of the lake beckon. We will probably return to the campsite at sunset, hoping not to bump into hippos. But I am sure our ancestors are relieved that we have had a glimpse of how they survived the ravages of climate change by foraging in groups in the Cradle of Mankind.