Finding Hominids with Kimoya Kimeu
Note: In the summer edition of ASA’s God & Nature magazine, science journalist Fred Heeren tells the unlikely story of one of the world’s most notable hominid fossil hunter, Kimoya Kimeu. Field trained by Louis and Mary Leakey, Kimeu nearly bypassed the opportunity to work with the “hominid gang” because he worried that the religious beliefs of his people did not permit him to participate. This excerpt of the full article is reprinted by permission from God & Nature magazine.
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.
Fredric Heeren has a reputation for writing about the everyday work of leading scientists so that readers wish they too could be out there making these discoveries. Heeren’s recent investigations have taken him to fossil sites that tell the story of life’s evolution — from early Cambrian and Precambrian sites across southern China, to the hominin findings at Koobi Fora, Kenya, to the Romanian Carpathians where he joined cave-divers excavating the earliest modern human remains in Europe. He has covered science news for over a dozen newspapers, magazines, and science journals.