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The First Human jacket

Photos from The First Human

Kanapoi, Kenya
The Tugen Hills, Kenya
The Djurab Desert, Chad
The Middle Awash, Ethiopia

The Places: Kanapoi, Kenya

Photo and text credits © Ann Gibbons

“ 'It was not promising,' Leakey recalled, as he flew over Kanapoi with Meave a few years later. Although they were accustomed to working in hostile places, Kanapoi was not particularly compelling. Only traces remained of a vast lake that had once drowned the valley, now buried in sand and glazed with cobblestones and pebbles that made it difficult to spot small bones and teeth on the ground. A few lava-capped volcanoes rose out of the desert like black islands in a sea of brown sandstone. The only shade in the bleached lakebed came from an occasional spindly acacia that seemed to reach to the sky for water or a thatched boma erected by local tribesmen. Even the zebras and antelopes that were so abundant on the eastern shore of Turkana had abandoned this place. Clouds of dust whirled across the valley floor.” (page 121, Chapter Eight, The Lady of the Lake)

“The next morning, as the soft dawn light tinged the rock-strewn hills a rosy hue, Meave drove out to the desolate gully where the Hominid Gang had been searching for fossils among the rubble of lava pebbles that glazed a gentle slope. Tall and fit, with long legs and a fast stride, Meave is known for setting the pace as younger team members scramble behind her over the hills. Her stamina is well known to the Hominid Gang—she eats little, braces herself with a cup of black tea in the morning, and often heads out alone for long walks over the arid terrain. She is a grandmother now, yet she retains a girlish enthusiasm for the fossils, exclaiming over an extinct Nile crocodile’s “pretty face” as she extracts it from stone with a dental pick or calling out excitedly for other team members to come see a new hominid tooth. To observe her in the field is to see a woman who seems to draw strength from the desert around her—and who visibly relaxes, as if she is shedding the burdens that sometimes plague her in Nairobi, where being scrutinized as a member of the famous Leakey clan cannot be easy, especially for someone who prefers privacy. Where others wilt and fade, Meave is clearly in her element at Turkana.” (page 123, Chapter Eight, The Lady of the Lake)

Meave Leakey examines new teeth of the early human ancestor Australopithecus anamensis, which National Musuems of Kenya associates Robert Moru and Justus Edung found amid the rubble at Kanapoi on this morning in October 2003.

Leakey returned to Kanapoi in October 2003 with Kenyan graduate student Fredrick Kyalo Manthi and his team to collect fossils and to help reconstruct the ancient environment in which early human ancestors lived.

The author at Kanapoi
Sifting fossils from dirt is tedious, difficult work. See if you can spot the tiny rodent fossil near the tip of this finger.

Kanapoi in July 1965
Meave Leakey and Fredrick Kyalo Manthi with the team that returned to Kanapoi in October 2003.
“But when Patterson, Sill, and other team members set eyes on the large valley of Kanapoi on July 7, 1965, they were not searching for hominids. They were seeking ancient mammals. They could not believe their luck when they came over a ridge and spied Kanapoi, which was on no maps. They saw so many fragmentary fossils of ancient animals strewn across the hills and gullies of Kanapoi that Sill wrote in his journal that the team felt as if they had found the ruins of an ancient Greek temple. ‘Our new find is unbelievable,’ he wrote. ‘There is bone everywhere. This is how the American west must have been before fossil hunters had picked over everything.’ (p. 49, Chapter Two, Continental Divide)

"When Patterson first explored west Turkana, it was a particularly wild and inaccessible part of Kenya. The Turkana people, whose population numbered about 150,000 at the time, had been the last tribe to be brought under the control of the British army when Kenya was still a colony of Great Britain. In 1964, when Patterson's team first headed to Turkana, Kenyans had just won freedom from Great Britain—an independence movement known as Uhuru, which included the bloody Mau Mau rebellion to oust Europeans from Kenya—and the young nation was still in turmoil, with different tribes jockeying for power. Patterson was warned that the Turkana men were primitive, fierce warriors. But Patterson's real obstacles didn't turn out to be the Turkana warriors, who proved friendly and whose spears look quaint next to today's weapon of choice, the AK-47." (p. 51, Chapter Two, Continental Divide)

A Turkana woman, 2003 Turkana warriors near Kanapoi, 1965

"Patterson also realized that the fossils in the ancient valley were older than those found by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge. The ancient age of the valley gave the team an added incentive to scour this valley for every kind of fossil, even keeping an eye open for the human kind. ‘Hooray, we found out by comparison of some of our fossils with Leakey’s stuff that our site is just earlier than Leakey’s oldest stuff,’ Sill wrote in his journal on July 21. ‘If we can only find a hominid, our little valley will be one of the most important places in the world (at least to paleontologists).’” (p. 49, Chapter Two, Continental Divide)

Bryan Patterson found the first fossil of an early hominid at Kanapoi in the West Turkana desert in 1965.

Bryan Patterson and his team members at a sand river oasis near Kanapoi.

Photo credits for Patterson photos: William Sill

The Places: The Tugen Hills, Kenya

All photo and text credits © Ann Gibbons

“The Tugen Hills are a rare spot in the Great Rift Valley where a giant block of land, called a tilt block, was pushed up to expose layers and layers of ancient sediments. The exposed layers are a time machine for researchers, opening a window into the past from 16 million years ago to modern times—a time span never seen in one place before in the fossil record of Africa.” (page 104, Chapter Seven, Banishment)

“ ‘You have to be prepared to sweat, to build tracks, to walk everywhere. You have to be part explorer, part road crew, part camp boss.’ Pickford knows the geology intimately in the sites where he works, and he has a proven track record for finding fossils in the field, often with his longtime partner, French paleontologist Brigitte Senut of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Together, they look like an unassuming middle-aged couple: Pickford’s beard is turning gray, he wears his glasses on a chain, and his khaki pants are invariably wrinkled; Senut has cut her salt-and-pepper hair short, uses little makeup, and wears sensible shoes, even in Paris. But there is nothing stodgy about either of them—they clearly live for their work and thrive on adventure and pushing the limits.” (page 107, Chapter 7, Banishment)

Brigitte Senut and Martin Pickford point out the spot (at left) where their team found the first fossil of Orrorin tugenensis in the Tugen Hills in October, 2000. Senut at the fossil site Sagatia (center).

Kiptalam Cheboi discovered the first fossil of Orrorin tugenensis in 2000.

Local Tugen women in their banda.
The Kipsaraman Museum built by the Community Museums of Kenya high atop a ridge in the Tugen Hills
Pickford and Senut’s camp at Rondinin in the Tugen Hills.

The Places: The Djurab Desert, Chad

Photos of Michel Brunet, his team and fossils in Chad:

The Places: The Middle Awash, Ethiopia

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Ann Gibbons--Author of The First Human

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