In the most ancient wastes in their modern facilities, for over sixty years the Leakey’s et al have been the (arguably) lead in human origins research. Richard Leakey, a faculty member of Stony Brook University along with his colleagues established the Turkana Basin Institute and began its Origins Field School for undergraduate students in 2011.
Of course, only a group of wayward undergrads the field school does not make. That’s what I sought–as one of the waywardest of the undergrads at the field school. I sought to know the archeological origins of humans that surrounded that facility.
Eleven of us set out from John F. Kennedy Airport, then we met two more voyagers in Nairobi, Kenya; Linda Martin, director of the field school and geologist; and Abel Ang, Singaporean well-read to-be disillusioned post-undergraduate student. It was late, the air smelt a little less like America and the unfamiliarity of it all brought an anxious edge to the surroundings–though not a dreaded edge, just a sense of caution that was yet subdued by the ambition of visiting this new land. That following morning we flew out to Laikipia, a savannah region. Here was the Mpala research facility led by Dr. Dino Martin–the “Dudu Man of East Africa,” an entomologist of some prestige. After the longest nine days of the trip, during the ecology module–a period deliberately made to allow us mzungus (Swahili for “foreigner” which directly translates to “white person”) adjust to the culture and climate of Kenya. Afterwards, we would fly North to Turkana.
“Turkana is too hot,” Rafael, one of the guards of the Mpala river camp would say on a relatively warm Laikipia day, “the weather here is perfect,” he added. It was a crisp morning, about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Myself, Rafael and two homeboys sat around a fire in a depressed stone hearth-pit during a “fitness circle”–a healthy way to handle the chill of the crispy Laikipia mornings.
But soon it was too hot for fitness circles. At the Ileret campus on Eastern Lake Turkana, we made our truest home of these eleven weeks. If you’re me, at least, I rise at 6 a.m. and drag my feet downhill to the mess hall. Here it’s still dark, and twilight isn’t coming for another twenty minutes. I pack a torch and a malarone (an antimalarial). With a crispy mouth and frail stomach, I hesitantly prepare tea and take the dawn’s first water.
The morning time is chill and I haven’t showered yet. Water in this hour is perceived as abrasive in a pleasant temperature (whereas the air temperature is actually abrasive–the water, pleasant). Ideally, one washes after peeling off their sticky field-wear that they’ve caked with sweat over a long day. It’s best done in high noon, as you could always walk out from shelter and catch some slow-but-blasting heat to bolster the allure of standing below temperate water showers. After breakfast I poop. That is, without fail.
At least for the first five weeks… you’re dehydrated. In Turkana, it’s high nineties to low hundreds on the regular. And the lack of a GMO diet gets to you in a way. But we humans are hardy and adjust as we have been for 2.8 million years (only referring to the genus Homo as to avoid debate). You adjust and you perceive while you adjust. The field school exposes you to a wide and diverse array of people and I’m not referring to only my peers.
Dr. Jason Lewis, research assistant professor with TBI and SBU as well as one of the directors of the Origins Field School describes to me the origins of the Origins Field School–how TBI came to be a facility for students and researchers to work in this fossil and artifact-rich region.
“The first major expedition in Turkana during the classic era of paleontology was led by Richard Leakey on the east side [of Lake Turkana] in a place called Koobi Fora,” which is about a four hours lorry drive South from the breezy veranda at the Ileret campus where we sat.
Though, not overly familiar with the east side of Turkana as Dr. Lewis primarily works from the West side at Turkana, he has noticed no friction between the outlying community and the facility. He suggests that this could be due to the long-term existence of Koobi Fora.
Whereas the west side had no preexisting history of such an institute, its early conception was met with much probing and resistance from the local Turkana. The Turkana people face many economic and environmental challenges. Passing from the TBI airstrip to the Turkwel campus, there is a tight cluster of settlements and highly consumed vegetation. Pastoralism is key to the local economy, and in this thick population density, overgrazing is a consistent problem. In the past five years, the discovery of petroleum deposits in the area provided short-lived jobs and an ultimate distrust towards any foreign presence. “TBI came wrapped up in what they were perceiving as an influx of foreign operations that were aimed at removing some kind of resource,” Dr. Lewis said of the locals, which was challenging for TBI but it also “indicates awareness of issues of foreigners taking their resources.”
TBI further accommodates the region it is situated in by contributing to infrastructure among other social works. With communities right outside their gates, TBI provides access to clean water, they put hundreds of children through school, and offer stable career opportunities. Dr. Lewis points out that this is very clearly a result of pressure from the community. “Not in a violent way, but in a very strong dialogue.”
Paleoanthropology is attractive to mzungus. It’s a bold field to enter, but Turkana is among the richest land to pursue this sort of work. All you have to do is get there. Undergraduates of the field school who are ambitious enough may enter these ranks.
Pamela Akuku, a Kenyan native and junior researcher of the Archaeology Department at the National Museums of Kenya attends the field school on scholarship and the insistence of her superiors at the museum. Pamela graduated from the University of Nairobi with a BA in paleoanthropology. She was one of a class of twenty-four for anthropology majors, and the only one who studied paleoanthropology. She indicates that economic security is the reason why her graduating class was so small despite Kenya’s rich fossil and artifact sites. Pamela points out on the shortage of Kenyans working in this field that, “it’s harder for Kenyan students to get into this field without help from the museum. It seems most foreigners are the ones doing this work, so Kenyans see it as, you know, ‘crazy mzungos do your thing.’”
Field Manager, Nyete Cyprian, or to those who have the pleasure of knowing him personally; Daktari Nyete, attests to the lack of Kenyans in this field. Nyete, who dropped out of the University of Nairobi after a year while studying for a degree in archaeology, has worked with the Leakey family for about 15 years. Nyete points out that very few are interested in working in the fields of paleoanthropology and archaeology as it isn’t economically stable, “the government doesn’t support researchers to work on these sites.” He also adds that the necessity to work in the harsh climate of the Turkana desert deters Kenyans. “It’s not hard, but challenging,” he describes the work. At the end of our interview, Nyete expresses his interest in returning to school–where pursuing a degree in archaeology may not be so difficult when considering his talent in the field.
The work done at the Turkana Basin Institute isn’t solely that of paleoanthropology. It is that of the wellbeing for many people, it is a daring effort to live off the grid using modest means of energy production. It is a place at risk. Dr. Lewis discusses the issue of the dam being built on the Omo river, which feeds into the basin from Ethiopia. This dam is likely to cause an environmental catastrophe, as the Omo is the primary source of water entering this region. Interesting times are upon the basin–the same interesting times around the world. At the very least, it is an interesting and productive way to spend eleven weeks.