Kenya: Peasant with no formal schooling becomes paleontologist célèbre

Kenyan paleontologist Kamoya Kimeu's mom warned him that digging up bones could bring on curses. But now he has two primates named for him.

Kipchumba Some
Fossil finder Kamoya Kimeu has two primates named for him.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

When Kamoya Kimeu told his mother he had found a job as a fossil finder, he got a stern caution: He was inviting a curse upon himself and his family. But spurred on by a curiosity of what “digging up human bones” entailed, Mr. Kimeu took his chances. Reflecting on that teenage decision in 1959, Kimeu says with a chuckle that it might have been the “best” offense he ever committed.

“Digging human bones was associated with witchcraft,” he says. “It was a taboo in African custom. But I was just a young adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

That bold decision led to his becoming a celebrity of sorts in paleontology. It enabled him to travel to lands he’d only dreamed of and even earned him an invitation to the White House.

Kimeu is credited with the famous discovery of a Homo habilis skeleton in 1959, as well as that of an almost complete Homo erectus skeleton known as Turkana Boy in 1984. But he is celebrated much more abroad than at home. Kenya’s history books have credited all his findings to the Leakeys, the Kenyan aristocratic family of British descent for whom Kimeu was working. The Leakeys are renowned for their paleontological and wildlife conservation interests.

In 1985, US President Ronald Reagan invited Kimeu to the White House.

“Even today, the feeling is still quite indescribable,” Kimeu says. “[Reagan] told me he had delayed a meeting at the UN just to meet me. It was ... most humbling from such a powerful leader.”

Reagan awarded him a medal from the National Geographic Society. For the next two months, the society took him on an all-expenses-paid tour of the US, at the end of which he was given $10,000.

“Where would a peasant boy from rural Kenya without formal education, have had the chance for all that?” he asks.

In recognition of his work, Kimeu has two primates named after him: Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni and Cercopithecoides kimeui, a fitting tribute to one of Africa’s unsung heroes.

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