Kamoya Saw What Others Missed, Not by Magic, but by “An Invaluable Accumulation of Skill and Knowledge”

(p. A24) Kamoya Kimeu, the son of a goat herder whose preternatural gift for spotting and identifying petrified tibias, skull fragments and other ancient human remains among the arid, rocky badlands of East Africa won him acclaim as the world’s greatest fossil hunter, died on July 20 [2022] in Nairobi, Kenya.

. . .

“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 a young adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

The Leakeys, and especially Mary Leakey, Louis’s wife, soon recognized Mr. Kamoya’s aptitude, not just at finding fossils but identifying them; they began to offer him lessons in paleontology, evolutionary theory and excavating 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 tell if they were hominid, and people that led to us,” Mr. Kamoya told 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 keen. Then I started to find them.”

. . .

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

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

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who came to look. Soon the whole team was involved in a monthslong excavation that ultimately revealed a near-complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus.

. . .

“To some of our visitors who are inexperienced in fossil-hunting, there is something almost magical in the way Kamoya or one of his team can walk up a slope that is apparently littered with nothing more than pebbles and pick up a small fragment of black, fossilized bone, announcing that it is, say, part of the upper forelimb of an antelope,” Richard Leakey told an interviewer with his family’s foundation in 2019. “It is not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skill and knowledge.”

. . .

“Many people do not like this work because it is hard to understand,” he told The New York Times in 1995. “It is very hard work. It is very hot, walking and sitting with animals like mosquitoes, snakes, lions. I like looking.”

For the full obituary see:

Clay Risen. “Kamoya Kimeu Dies; Uncovered Treasures That Framed Evolution.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, Aug. 24, 2022): A24.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 1, 2022, and has the title “Kamoya Kimeu, Fossil-Hunting ‘Legend’ in East Africa, Is Dead.”)

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