Kamuya Kimio, the legend of fossil hunting in East Africa, died

Kamuya Kimio, the son of a goat herder who had died on July 20 in the year 20 July 20 Died on July 20 with a supernatural talent for discovering and identifying fossilized tips bones, skull fragments and other Ancient human remains among the arid and rocky badlands of East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya. He didn’t know his exact age, but thought he was around 84.

Grandson Don Kamuya said the cause of death in hospital was pneumonia and kidney failure.

Most paleontologists spend years between discovering hominid fossils, and the lucky ones may find 10 years into a career. Mr. Kamuya, as he was called, who had only six years of primary education in Kenya, claimed at least 50 in half a century in the field.

Among them were several pioneering specimens, such as the 130,000-year-old skull of Homo sapiens, which was found in 1968 in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. This discovery led to a decline in paleontologists’ estimate of the emergence of humans by about 70,000 years.

“Kamuya is a legend,” said Carol Ward, a professor of anatomy at the University of Missouri who has worked extensively in East Africa, in a phone interview. “He 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 among leading researchers from Europe and North America, despite his close association with the Leakey family, the Anglo-Kenyan dynasty that helped revolutionize the understanding of human evolution beginning in the late 1950s.

Trained by Leakey, he in turn trained dozens of Kenyan fossil finders, so that many of the country’s best prospectors today can trace their professional lineage back to him.

Mr. Kamuya was simple and clever in approaching his work in a methodical manner, walking slowly, his head bowed, his eyes examining everything. In the evening, with a pipe in hand, he might entertain his fellow campers with stories of the crocodiles’ defeat or their superiority over the gun-wielding rebels in the bush.

Mr. Kamuya was in his late teens when he heard, in 1960, that Louis Leakey, the head of the household, was looking for workers for future prospecting. He fell on the spot, even though his tribe, the Kampa, believed that touching human remains infuriated his ancestors.

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

The Leakey family, and especially Mary Leakey, Louis’s wife, soon realized Mr. Kamuya’s competence, not only in finding the fossils but in identifying them; They began to offer 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 to tell which bones belonged to which animal and how to know if they were human ancestors, and the people who led us.” Kamuya told New African Magazine in 2000. “I asked, ‘How do you find them?'” It’s just luck. We can find them. Then I tried hard. I was very anxious. Then I started to find them.’

By the mid-1960s, he was working mostly with Louis and Mary’s son Richard, around Lake Turkana, in northwestern Kenya. Almost immediately, he became Richard’s most trusted advisor, enough that Richard often left him in charge for extended periods of time when he was working in Nairobi.

“He would spend many hours sitting under the trees, making sure that people in the community understood what was going on,” Louise Leakey, Richard’s daughter and famous paleontologist, said in a phone interview. “He was known and loved by international scholars, right down to the local leader and elders on Earth.” (Richard Leakey died in January 77.)

Kamuya’s most important discovery came in 1984, on an expedition around Lake Turkana in Kenya with Richard Leakey and Alan Walker, an anthropologist from Pennsylvania.

One day, Mr. Kamuya went out for a walk along the empty Nariokotomi River. Among the small stones and lumps of dirt, he discovered what looked like a piece of skull the size of a book of matches – Homo erectus, he thought, an extinct species of humans.

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who had come to look. Soon, the entire team engaged in a months-long excavation that eventually revealed a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus juvenile.

The specimen, which has been determined to be 1.6 million years old, was given accession number KNM-WT-15000, but is best known as Turkana Boy. Its completion 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 John Oliver La Groce Medal from the National Geographic Society, among the organization’s highest awards. Presented to him by President Ronald Reagan 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 in the way a Kamuya or a member of his team can go up a cliff that appears to be filled with gravel and pick up a tiny bit of lions, a petrified bone, declaring that it is, say, part of The antelope’s upper forelimb, Richard Leakey told an interviewer with his family’s foundation in 2019. “It’s not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skills and knowledge.”

Kamuya Kimio was born in rural Makeni county in southern Kenya. His closest mother, Philomena Moilo, had his birthday set sometime in 1938; At that time, his father Kimo Mbalo was working away on a railway construction project.

With his grandson, his wife Mary Kamuya Mbeki is survived; his sons Stephen Kimio, Boniface Kimio, John Kilonzo and Nicholas Macau; two daughters, Jacinta Ciucao and Jennifer Moilo; his brother, Kavifu Kimio; his sisters Theresia Moni, Beatrice Motoko and Francesca Ndoko; and four other grandchildren.

Mr. Kamuya attended a Christian missionary school, but left after he was old enough to follow his father and the family’s goats into the field. However, he learned to speak English and Swahili as well as his native Kikamba, a language facility that has proven useful when translating for visiting scholars. In fact, one of the reasons behind his decision to work with the Leakeys was that Lewis, during Mr. Kamoya’s job interview, spoke to him fluently in Kikuyu, a language close to Kikamba.

In 1977 the National Museums of Kenya appointed Mr. Kamuya as Curator of Historic Sites in the country, a position that made him one of Kenya’s top scholars. Two extinct species of primates are named after him, Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni and Cercopithecoides kimeui.

Among his most recent discoveries was one in 1994: a 4.1-million-year-old tibia bone from Australopithecus anamensis, whose structure showed early human ancestors did indeed walk straight.

Mr. Kamuya slowed down shortly thereafter, though he continued to advise expeditions and made trips to the field in the 2000s—hoping, perhaps, to find another discovery.

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

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