Kamoya Kimeu, the “legend” of fossil hunting in East Africa, is dead

Kamoya Kimeu, the son of a goat herder whose uncanny knack for spotting and identifying petrified shins, skull fragments and other ancient human remains among the arid, rocky badlands of East Africa hailed as the world’s greatest fossil hunter, died July 20 in Nairobi, Kenya. He did not know his exact age, but believed he was around 84 years old.

Don Kamoya, a grandson, said the cause of death, at a hospital, was pneumonia and kidney failure.

Most paleontologists spend years between finding hominid fossils, and the lucky ones might find 10 in a quarry. Mr Kamoya, as he was known, who had just six years of primary education in Kenya, claimed at least 50 in his half-century on the pitch.

Among them were several groundbreaking specimens, such as a 130,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull, which he found in 1968 in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. The discovery pushed back paleontologists’ estimate of the emergence of human beings by some 70,000 years.

“Kamoya is a legend,” Carol Ward, a University of Missouri anatomy professor who has worked extensively in East Africa, said in a phone interview. “It is responsible for some of the most important fossil discoveries that have shaped our understanding of our evolutionary past.”

His expertise was in high demand by leading scholars in Europe and North America, although he was most closely associated with the Leakey family, the Anglo-Kenyan dynasty that helped revolutionize the understanding of human evolution. from the late 1950s.

The Leakeys trained him, and he in turn trained dozens of Kenyan fossil diggers, so that today many of the country’s top prospectors can trace their professional lineage back to him.

Easy-going and dry-witted, Mr. Kamoya approached his work methodically, walking slowly, head bowed, eyes scanning every object. In the evening, pipe in hand, he could regale his camp mates with stories of crocodiles or armed rebels in the bush.

Mr. Kamoya was in his late teens when, in 1960, he learned that Louis Leakey, the family patriarch, was looking for workers for an upcoming dig. He signed immediately, even though his tribe, the Kamba, believe that touching human remains angers his ancestors.

“Digging human bones was associated with witchcraft,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 2009. “It was a taboo in African custom. But I was just an adventurous young man, eager to travel and see things.

The Leakeys, and in particular Mary Leakey, Louis’s wife, quickly recognized Mr. Kamoya’s ability not only to find fossils but also to identify them; they began offering him lessons in paleontology, evolutionary theory, and excavation techniques.

“At the end of each day looking for fossil bones, I sat down with Louis Leakey, and he taught me how to tell which bones belonged to which animal and how to tell if they were hominids, and the people who drove us,” Mr. Kamoya told the New African Magazine in 2000. “I asked, ‘How do you find them?’ He said: ‘It’s just luck. We can find them. Then I tried very hard. I was very enthusiastic. Then I started finding them.

In the mid-1960s, he was mainly working with Louis and Mary’s son, Richard, around Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya. Almost immediately he became Richard’s most trusted adviser, enough that Richard often left him in charge for long periods when working in Nairobi.

“He spent many, many hours sitting under the trees, making sure people in the community understood what was going on,” Louise Leakey, Richard’s daughter and herself a noted paleontologist, said in a phone interview. . “He was well known and well liked by international scientists, down to the local chief and elders in the field.” (Richard Leakey died in January at age 77.)

Mr. Kamoya’s most significant discovery came in 1984, during an expedition around Lake Turkana in Kenya with Richard Leakey and Alan Walker, a Penn State anthropologist.

One day, Mr. Kamoya went out for a walk along the waterless Nariokotome River. Among the small stones and clods of dirt, he spotted what looked like a fragment of a skull the size of a matchbook—Homo erectus, he surmised, an extinct hominid species.

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who came to see. Soon the whole team was involved in a month-long dig that finally revealed an almost complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus.

The 1.6 million year old specimen was given the accession number KNM-WT-15000, but is better known as Turkana Boy. Its comprehensiveness made it one of the most important discoveries in the history of paleontology and made Mr. Kamoya a celebrity in the scientific community.

In 1985, he won the National Geographic Society’s John Oliver La Groce Medal, among the organization’s highest honors. President Ronald Reagan presented it to him during a visit to the White House. He received an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in 2021.

“For some of our visitors who are inexperienced in fossil hunting, there is something almost magical about the way Kamoya or one of his members can climb a slope that is apparently not littered than pebbles and picking up a small fragment of black, fossilized bone, announcing that it is, say, part of the upper foreleg of an antelope,” Richard Leakey told an interviewer at his family’s foundation in 2019. .“It is not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skills and knowledge.

Kamoya Kimeu was born in rural Makueni County in southern Kenya. The closest his mother, Philomena Mwelu, could come to identify his birthday was in 1938; at the time, his father, Kimeu Mbalu, was working on a railway construction project.

Besides his grandson, he is survived by his wife, Mary Kamoya Mbiki; his sons Stephen Kimeu, Boniface Kimeu, John Kilonzo and Nicholas Makau; his daughters Jacinta Syokau and Jennifer Mwelu; his brother, Kavevo Kimeu; his sisters Teresia Munee, Beatrice Mutoko and Francisca Nduku; and four other grandchildren.

Mr. Kamoya attended a Christian missionary school, but left it once he was old enough to follow his father and the family goats into the fields. He did, however, learn to speak English and Swahili as well as his native Kikamba, a linguistic fluency that came in handy when translating for visiting scientists. In fact, one of the reasons he decided to work for the Leakeys was that Louis, when interviewing Mr. Kamoya, was fluent in Kikuyu, a language close to Kikamba.

In 1977, the National Museums of Kenya appointed Mr. Kamoya as Curator of the Country’s Historic Sites, a position that made him one of Kenya’s top scientists. Two extinct primate species bear his name, Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni and Cercopithecoides kimeui.

Among his latest discoveries is one in 1994: a 4.1 million year old tibia bone from Australopithecus anamensis, the structure of which showed that these early human ancestors already walked upright.

Mr Kamoya slowed down soon after, although he continued to advise expeditions and make field trips into the 2000s – in the hope, perhaps, of making another discovery.

“A lot of people don’t like this job because it’s hard to understand,” he told the New York Times in 1995. “It’s very hard work. It’s very hot, walking and sitting with animals like mosquitoes, snakes, lions. I like to watch.