Leakey 'conned' fossil hunter Kamoya of his discoveries

 Conservationist Richard Leakey congratulates Kamoya Kimeu, a Kenyan palaeontologist after he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Case Western Reserve University in the US for his contribution to human ancestry, at an event in Nairobi, on May 30, 2021. [David Njaaga, Standard]

In basic history lessons, Ludwig Krapf is credited with “discovering” Mt Kenya when indigenous herders had regaled in its majesty for millennia. However, Krapf was only the first European to report seeing Mt Kenya way back in 1849.  

Fast forward a hundred years later when Kamoya Kimeu excelled in fossil hunting, first under Louis Leaky and later under his son Richard, who was National Museums of Kenya boss for many years.

Described in Richard Leakey: Master of Deceit by Eustace Gitonga and Dr Martin Pickford as a “short, broad man with a large prominent head which sits on his shoulders because his neck is very short”, Kamoya was essentially the leader of Leakey’s “hominid gang.”

In the book, Gitonga and Pickford say Kamoya’s gang combed the expanses of the fossil-rich country over the years and collected “just about every important fossil hominid to come out of Kenya.”

The discovery of these fossils had been credited to Leakey, even when he was away at the time of the finds. “In reality, it was Kamoya and his team who actually made most of the discoveries,” they wrote, attributing it to Leakey’s manipulation which created a “warped image”.

But that was not enough, Kamoya and his gang had nothing to themselves. Despite being the head of the team, Kamoya’s pay was way too low and he got lost in beer, roast goat and beef. “The entrance to Kamoya’s house resembled a lion’s den. Bleached bones littered the entire front, being the remains of innumerable meet roasts. Apart from the rented museum house, Kamoya did not have much to his name,” they say in their book.

Back at home in Kilungu, Makueni, Kamoya owned a grass-thatched mud hut, and his sick father lay bedridden. His children lacked school fees, they claim.

Kamoya and his team kept at it, their work raking in millions of shillings for the museum. “Apart from his potbelly, nothing had changed during these years,” they add.

To compensate for all the "little embarrassment" Kamoya accorded him, Leakey organised a publicity blitz that included a fundraising dinner for Kamoya in Washington DC where President Ronald Reagan presented him with a gold medal for his fossil work.

They claim although the dinner raised 160,000 dollars, Kamoya was given 10,000 dollars. Leakey took the prize money, put Kamoya on a plane to Nairobi with a few dollars, while he remained behind. When he came back to Nairobi, Leakey handed Kamoya an ageing diesel pickup truck. The vehicle would later be stolen leaving Kamoya staring at the pile of bones in front of his house, counting his losses. Kamoya died of kidney failure in July this year, six months after Leakey’s death.