Kamoya Kimeu, the ‘legend’ of fossil hunting in East Africa, has died

Kamoya Kimeu, the son of a goatherd whose supernatural ability to discover and identify fossilized shinbones, skull fragments and other ancient human remains in the arid, rocky badlands of East Africa earned him acclaim as the world’s greatest fossil hunter, died July 20 in Nairobi, Kenya . He did not know his exact age, but estimated it at 84.

Don Kamoya, a grandson, said the cause of death in a hospital was pneumonia and kidney failure.

It takes most paleontologists years to discover hominid fossils, and the lucky ones might find 10 in their career. Mr. Kamoya, as he was known, who had only six years of primary education in Kenya, claimed at least 50 in his half-century in the field.

Among them were several groundbreaking specimens, such as a 130,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull he found in 1968 in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. The discovery pushed back paleontologists’ estimate of the origin of humans by about 70,000 years.

“Kamoya is a legend,” Carol Ward, an anatomy professor at the University of Missouri who has worked extensively in East Africa, said 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 much sought after by leading researchers from Europe and North America, although he was most closely associated with the Leakey family, the Anglo-Kenyan dynasty that helped revolutionize the understanding of human evolution from the late 1950s.

The Leakeys trained him, and he in turn trained dozens of Kenyan fossil hunters, so that today many of the country’s top prospectors can trace their professional lineage to him.

Lighthearted and wryly witty, Mr. Kamoya approached his work methodically, walking slowly, head bowed, eyes scanning each item. At night, pipe in hand, he might regale his roommates with tales of outrunning crocodiles or outwitting armed rebels in the bush.

Mr. Kamoya was in his late teens when, in 1960, he heard that Louis Leakey, the family patriarch, was looking for workers for an upcoming dig. He immediately signed, even though his tribe, the Kamba, believe that touching human remains will invoke the wrath of their ancestors.

“The excavation of human bones has been linked to witchcraft,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2009. “It was taboo in African custom. But I was just a young, adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

The Leakeys, and particularly Mary Leakey, Louis’ wife, soon recognized Mr. Kamoya’s talent not only for finding but also for identifying fossils; They began giving him classes in paleontology, evolutionary theory, and excavation techniques.

“At the end of each day, in search of fossil bones, I sat down with Louis Leakey and he taught me how to identify which bones belonged to which animal and how to tell if they were hominids and people acted that led to us,” Mr. Kamoya told New African Magazine in 2000. “I said, ‘How do you find them?’ He said: “It’s just luck. We can find them.” Then I tried very hard. I was very excited. Then I started to find her.”

In the mid-1960s he worked primarily with Louis and Mary’s son Richard on Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya. Almost immediately he became Richard’s most trusted adviser, often leaving him in charge for long periods when working in Nairobi.

“He spent many, many hours sitting under trees and making sure the people in the community understood what was going on,” said Louise Leakey, Richard’s daughter and herself a well-known paleontologist, in a telephone interview. “He was known and loved by the international scholars down to the chief and local elders locally.” (Richard Leakey died in January at the age of 77.)

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

One day, Mr. Kamoya was walking by the waterless Nariokotome River. Among the small stones and clods of earth, he spotted what appeared to be a matchstick-sized fragment of a skull — Homo erectus, he assumed, an extinct species of hominid.

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who came to check. Soon the entire team was involved in a month-long excavation that eventually uncovered a nearly complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus.

Estimated to be 1.6 million years old, the specimen has been given the accession number KNM-WT-15000 but is better known as the Turkana Boy. Its completeness made it one of the most important discoveries in the history of paleontology, and it made Mr. Kamoya a celebrity in the scientific community.

In 1985 he won the National Geographic Society’s John Oliver La Groce Medal, one of the organization’s highest honors. President Ronald Reagan presented it to him during a visit to the White House. In 2021 he received an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve University.

“For some of our visitors who are inexperienced in fossil hunting, there is something almost magical about the way Kamoya or one of his associates can walk up a slope that appears to be strewn only with pebbles and pick up a small black chunk , fossilized bone, and proclaimed that it was, for example, part of the upper front leg of an antelope,” Richard Leakey told an interviewer with his family’s foundation in 2019. “It’s not magic, it’s an invaluable accumulation of skills and knowledge.”

Kamoya Kimeu was born in rural Makueni County in southern Kenya. His mother, Philomena Mwelu, could only pinpoint his birthday sometime in 1938; At the time, his father Kimeu Mbalu was working on a railway construction project.

Along with his grandson, he is survived by his wife, Mary Kamoya Mbiki; his sons Stephen Kimeu, Boniface Kimeu, John Kilonzo and Nicholas Makau; his daughters Jacinta Syokau and Jennifer Mwelu; his brother Kavevo Kimeu; his sisters Teresia Munee, Beatrice Mutoko and Francisca Nduku; and four other grandchildren.

Mr. Kamoya attended a Christian missionary school but left when he was old enough to follow his father and the family goats into the fields. He did, however, learn English and Swahili, as well as his native language, Kikamba, a linguistic facility that proved useful in translating for visiting scholars. In fact, one reason he chose to work for the Leakeys was that Louis spoke to him fluently in Kikuyu, a language close to Kikamba, during Mr. Kamoya’s job interview.

In 1977 the National Museums of Kenya appointed Mr. Kamoya curator of the country’s historical sites, a position that placed him among Kenya’s finest scholars. Two extinct primate species are named after him, Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni and Cercopithecoides kimeui.

His latest finds in 1994 included a 4.1-million-year-old Australopithecus anamensis tibia bone, the structure of which indicated that these early human ancestors were already walking upright.

Mr. Kamoya slowed down soon after, though he continued advising on expeditions and making field trips into the 2000s – in hopes of perhaps making another find.

“A lot of people don’t like this work because it’s hard to understand,” he told the New York Times in 1995. “It’s very hard work. It’s very hot to walk and sit with animals like mosquitoes, snakes, lions. I like to look.”

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