Kenyan digs into mankind's origins

KAMOYA Kimeu strides into a cramped room at the National Geographic Society headquarters with enough escorts to flatter a pasha. He seems ill at ease despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that this is only the start of three days of press interviews.

Indeed, at 8:30 a.m. Mr. Kimeu doesn't seem to want to talk much. The day before he was greeted by President Reagan in the Oval Office. Later, he fielded questions from a couple of dozen reporters at a press conference, was interviewed on national television, and was feted at a glitzy black-tie dinner in his honor.

In VIP-jaded Washington, that's not bad for someone who has spent most of his professional life in the deserts of his native Kenya, scraping about for tiny bits of bone from early human beings who died a few million years ago.

Hominid fossils -- remnants of bones from early humans -- are the signposts scientists use to trace the path of mankind's origins. Kimeu has been more successful at uncovering them than perhaps anyone else.

Still, few people beyond his colleagues in Kenya had ever heard of him until last week. Then Kimeu was honored by the National Geographic Society with a solid-gold medal presented by Mr. Reagan. Kimeu's life has been a whirlwind ever since.

``So many people to see,'' he mutters, the first and almost the last time he says anything in English during this interview. Kimeu speaks Kikamba, a tribal language, as well as the Queen's English. But for today he wants to use Swahili, and celebrated British anthropologist Richard Leakey, also fluent in Swahili, has squeezed his frame into an adjacent chair to translate.

Kimeu's relative anonymity can be attributed partly to his relationship with the translator. He works for Mr. Leakey, who is the son of Drs. Louis S. B. and Mary D. Leakey, both legendary anthropologists and the folks who first hired Kimeu for their digs in Tanzania in 1960.

Working in Richard Leakey's shadow, Kimeu is the unsung hero in several headline-grabbing fossil discoveries. Each find enabled scientists to fill gaping holes in their knowledge of the evolutionary tapestry nature has weaved over eons. ``Without Kamoya's assistance, none of my projects would have been so successful,'' says Leakey. ``He has a real gift, he's so persistent.''

While Kimeu had provided Leakey with the material to make several historic discoveries, Kimeu's biggest moment came in July 1984. He and two American paleontologists pitched camp beside a sunbaked river bed. The paleontologists did their laundry; Kimeu decided to go exploring.

He trekked over the riverbed, poking now and then at black lava pebbles scattered about a small hill. Then he made history. A small fragment of bone jutting from the ground near the camp kitchen caught his attention. It was only about the size of a matchbook, but Kimeu's trained eye immediately recognized it as a piece from the front of a human cranium, part of the skull.

Cranium flakes alone do not make a major discovery, and pieces of ancient bone in arid East Africa are nearly a dime a dozen. But the team, many of its members recruited and trained by Kimeu, plowed ahead with the tedious work that is the heart of any such expedition. The team sieved every bit of dirt, armed with dental picks and toothbrushes to pry apart whatever looked as if it might harbor a piece of bone. After carrying on this way for weeks, the team gathered 70 fragments of the skull -- enough to reassemble it like a broken vase.

By the time they had finished recovering more missing bones and teeth earlier this year, the Leakey team had reassembled an almost complete skeleton of a 12-year-old boy, dead for 1.6 million years. It turned out to be the best-preserved skeleton of an early human ever found, rivaled in condition only by human skeletons dating from some 1.5 million years later.

The find proved a veritable bonanza of information about the species Homo erectus, a type of human that bridged the transition between the first of mankind's ancestors to walk with two legs and modern humans.

``You couldn't really consider it revolutionary in the sense of something completely unexpected and new,'' Leakey says of the find. ``We had Homo erectus at 1.6 million years back, but this was just so much more complete than anything we'd seen . . . [so] it was possible to say a great deal more than had been said before.''

Mr. Kimeu did not grow up with a burning desire to be a paleontologist. In fact, it never occurred to him that people dug for fossils, let alone made a living at it.

He grew up a member of the Kamba tribe, the son of a goatherder in the hill village of Kilingu, about 50 miles west of Nairobi. The village, he says, is ``nice, with plenty of water, but undeveloped.'' His parents, brothers, and sisters still live there, though Kimeu, his wife, and their eight children have moved to Nairobi.

With only a basic primary education to his credit, Kimeu herded goats and worked on a British-owned dairy farm. The work was clean and the pay was decent. Kimeu was content. One day, Dr. Louis Leakey appeared, looking for field workers for his ground-breaking project at Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. The 21-year-old Kimeu balked at first, thinking the job was grave-digging. Kimeu learned quickly, however. Soon he had chalked up a number of discoveries and became a deputy to the Leakeys' son Richard. By 1977,

the goatherder's son had been appointed curator of prehistoric sites for the National Museums of Kenya.

``The thing to find now is a 5 million-year-old skeleton,'' Kimeu says. He also talks of his efforts as deputy director of Dr. Leakey's expedition to recruit and train new excavators -- not an easy task. ``You can't turn everyone into a successful fossil hunter, there are so many sacrifices,'' he says. ``If one is in the field and one feels off color, one just can't sit around the camp, one can't be soft about this job.''

Kimeu adds that he is looking forward to getting back to the field, where, he likes to say, the fossils beckon him in an imaginary language, Kikishwa.

But first he has some press interviews to attend to.

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