Since 1901

Tracing the origin of man Part 2

An artist's impression of the early man. ( Courtesy)

I consider the signboard pointing to Sibiloi National Park the literal point of no return on the journey to the ‘cradle of mankind’. Endless rock littered into eternity and an unforgiving sun glaring down as early as dawn dare only the primed to proceed.

As if to mock us, we suffered the first of a series of ten punctures that would turn our expedition to the cradle of mankind what I really yearned for-real adventure. Should you be averse to adventure, I highly recommend that your vehicle, just like you, wear off-road shoes before attempting Sibiloi. That or you make use of one two airstrips in the park.

One of the vehicles in our convoy failed this test and ensured our expedition was laden with the odd lemon. Thankfully Sibiloi, a mostly arid semi desert situated on the eastern shores of the lake with prevailing commiphora woodland, is the perfect environment for lemonade.

Covering an area of 1570 km2, it was declared a National Park in 1973. This was undertaken primarily to ensure the long-term protection of the many important fossil sites in the area but also to conserve the rare fauna and flora endemic to area. This wildlife includes rare dry country large mammals such as Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk and oryx.

We were going straight for the jugular, booked at a research camp, located on the Koobi Fora Spit. In hindsight, the journey to camp should have taken three hours on the rough road with no incidents. The signage erected some distance from the Moite outpost read 118 kilometres to Koobi Fora and 60 kilometres to the Karsa Gate. With our puncture troubles, however, considerable delay in our itinerary was inevitable.

I have to commend Kenya Wildlife Service staff we encountered at the Karsa gate for outstanding courtesy that salvaged the trip. We not only felt safe in their company but they also gave our bleeding tires relief. It was also comforting learning that Alia Bay Guest House that KWS runs at their headquarters some 15 kilometres away is also one of the finest accommodation options on this stretch.

All patched up, we would eventually arrive at the National Museums of Kenya run camp albeit shrouded by moonlight. The team, nonetheless, had ample cheer to spare for dinner and a makeshift cocktail party. This basic accommodation option, booked from Nairobi, has four dormitories that primarily serves researchers.

Basic entails sleeping bandas, outhouses, and a central mess. What the centre lacks in luxury, however, it makes up for with its most fabulous location. I cannot help but reminisce at the star display the skies offered as I dug my feet (against advice of our hosts for fear of scorpion bites) in the warm sand stretching to the shores of the jade sea. With hardly any vegetation, the Desert Rose outside my refurbished-stable was a welcome sight.

Important to note is that while this shrub (that barely grows past three metres high) flowers the most attractive pink fire ornaments, it oozes a toxic sap that my Akamba ancestors used to coat arrow-tips for hunting.

Our hominid heritage tour was loaded with luck we were sharing roof with anthropologist Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History who with the help of his team had in the week discovered fresh footprints believed to belong to Homo erectus species.

Understandably, after a night’s rest, we couldn’t help but rush to the site before the precious set was carefully covered up again for preservation. It was interesting, for a layman like me, learning how prints are dated. Turns out it that early man presumably walked on wet ground before a nearby volcano erupted subsequently preserving the prints in layers of ash that can today be dated based upon stratigraphy, palaeomagnetism, and the evidence of fossil flora and fauna in the sediments.

According to research, most of the evidence for the evolution of man during the early Pleistocene was confined to Southern Africa prior to 1960. In a semi-century, however, the Turkana basin has firmly entrenched itself as a key contributor to human evolution with Koobi Fora alone yielding more than 10,000 fossils.

Our next site visit was the Dongorian Site sitting some three kilometres from Lake Turkana. Fossilised shells litter the beach site-evidence that the lake once extended that far-as well as ancient pottery and firecracker rocks which, according to Prof Jack W. K. Harris of Rutgers University who has been working in the Turkana Basin for most of his life, were used by early man to light fire.

Shreds of beautiful black obsidian rock glass shelled from the Central Island (every volcano has a unique signature) explosion are an easy spot as are fossilised remains of domestic of livestock dating back 3, 000 years. 

An excavated skull and backbone of an extinct species of crocodile whose long slender snout and sharp pointed teeth indicate it lived on a diet of fish. (Photo: Thorn Mulli)

Away from human fossils, we also afforded just enough time to visit the sites hosting the now extinct long-snouted fish-eating crocodile fossil remains believed to be at least two million years old as well as that of a giant tortoise the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The Petrified Forest for me-proof that the area once had dense forest cover-was the most alluring. Petrified wood is literally wood turned into stone bearing and is a three-dimensional representation of the original organic material.

In addition to the park visit, interaction with the ethnic communities who call the basin home guarantees an unforgettable experience. Two encounters stood out for me. The first was attending a Dassanach engagement ceremony at Illeret village that together with Selicho village make for the northernmost villages bordering Ethiopia.

The second was an interaction with Gabbra herdsmen on the fringes of Sibiloi on our return journey. Having run out of supplies and hungry, we stopped and bought a goat that our hosts speedily turned into palatable chevon. 

Even as we tried, two nights in Sibiloi were simply not enough to exhaust ‘cradle of mankind’ treasures. A return journey to experience more fossil sites, the South and Central Islands, and Kenya’s only ‘true’ desert- The Chalbi waits.

Follow this link for Part 1 of this series.