Catrina Stewart heads up to the Cradle of Mankind, source of some of the richest human fossil finds in the world, and finds even this remote land is not immune to development and change.
Harsh, inhospitable, strewn with black rock, Lake Turkana land in Kenya’s far north is unlike anywhere else in the country. Yet hundreds of thousands of years ago, it might have been a lush wetlands, where early hominins, the upright-walking ancestors of modern humans, roamed, living side by side with hippopotami, elephant and other wildlife.
Some of the most sensational finds of early mankind have been uncovered in the area around Lake Turkana, including the skeleton of 1.6-million-year-old Turkana Boy, giving rise to the name, Cradle of Mankind, the place where – for us, at least – it may have all begun.
And yet the area around Lake Turkana is the most sparsely populated place in all of Kenya. Stuck up on the Ethiopian border – a largely empty spot on the map if compared to the tangle of roads of the country’s heartlands – it is really nothing like the rest of the country. There is none of the lush savanna of the south, the teeming game of the national parks, the rapid urbanisation. Approaching from the east, the verdant peaks of the Matthews Range collide with the ochres of the desert-like scrub south of the lake, providing little warning of the black, volcanic rubble and the blistering boulders to come.
Turkana has always had a magnetic pull for me – it encapsulates the essence of off-grid adventure. But with that fascination comes trepidation – what would we do if we broke down, who would we call, how would we call? After all, this is a place with scant phone reception, and little in the way of passing traffic.
That hasn’t stopped a steady flow of off-road enthusiasts from making this trip, and a new road connecting the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project to the rest of the country has made it more accessible than ever.
As we wend our way towards Loiyangalani, I am surprised by the size of the town. I had expected something bigger, more development perhaps. As we drive past the hayrick-shaped huts on our way in, we glimpse a traditional way of life that is rare these days to see.
Change has nevertheless elbowed its way in. At a small lakeside community of the El Molo tribe, Kenya’s tiniest tribe, we are introduced to Esau, the village hero, who has killed more than a hundred hippos, we’re told. That way of life is disappearing: the hippos have all gone, and stricter hunting and antipoaching laws have more or less outlawed the practice of harpooning crocodiles.
Overfishing means that the tiny tribe, and other communities dependent on the lake, have struggled to eke out a living. Fishermen now have to make the perilous journey to the other side of the lake – perilous because the wind whips up in a moment – to bring fresh and salted fish back to sell.
As we crest a small hill behind the village, Dandora, our guide, stretches his arms out towards a large depression on the other side of the slope. Ten or twenty years ago, he says, that was all under water. But gradually, the lake is receding. The threat comes from Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam on the Omo River, source of 90 percent of Lake Turkana’s water, which conservationists warn could turn the lake into a dustbowl.
“We depend on this lake,” says Dandora. “When the lake moves, we move. If it suffers, then we all suffer.”
North of Loiyangalani is the desert museum, not so much a relic of the past, but a living reminder of the present. When we finally run the caretaker, Andrew, to ground, he explains, “You and another guy are the only visitors we’ve had this month. Some months, we have nobody at all.”
We wander through the exhibition. Although small, it’s done well. Andrew shows me wrist blades, vicious-looking armlets that are unsheathed for fighting. They resemble relics of other tribes that were used in a bygone era, but these are very much a living specimen. Another spine-chilling weapon still used, I’m told, is the finger knife, a curling shard of metal that can do untold damage to one’s face if attacked.
I imagine early explorers chancing on Lake Turkana, and finding everything much the same. The first white men to set eyes on the lake were led by Count Samuel Teleki in the 19th century, and they named it Lake Rudolf in honour of the Austrian Crown Prince. Others followed, including Vivian Fuchs in the 1930s, who sent two of his men to explore South Island, ordering them to send up regular smoke signals to let everyone know they were all right. One day, the smoke signals stopped, and despite efforts to find the two men, they had simply disappeared, perhaps killed by a crocodile, or somehow drowned on the lake.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Turkana’s wider importance to the world was discovered.
Richard Leakey, palaeontologist and conservationist, was co-leading an expedition across the Omo River in Ethiopia when his helicopter landed to the northeast of Lake Turkana. He stumbled across a rich find of fossilised remains that would help put East Africa on the map as the place where it all began for modern-day mankind.
Leakey quickly set up his own base at Koobi Fora in what is now Sibiloi national park, Kenya’s most remote protected reserve. Fewer than 200 visitors make it here a year, although that figure probably surged in 2013 when dozens of adventurers drove this way to catch the solar eclipse. So gruelling is the road from Loiyangalani to Sibiloi – a whole day of driving over treacherous, tyre-slashing rock – that some of the eclipse-seekers never made it.
Since Leakey’s parents, Louis and Mary, discovered a 1.8-million-year-old skull in a Tanzanian gorge in 1959 that provided the strongest evidence yet that mankind originated in Africa, three generations of the Leakey family have made sensational discovery after discovery. Leakey uncovered the earliest-known remains of Homo sapiens, a 195,000-year-old ancestor of our own species, in southwestern Ethiopia.
Not that the claim to our earliest ancestor has gone unchallenged. Earlier this year, researchers dated a part of a skull found in Morocco – said to be Homo sapiens – to 300,000 years ago.
I suggest to Leakey’s daughter, Louise, that it’s remarkable how little we still know about the origin of our own species. “It’s phenomenal we know as much as we do,” she counters.
Finding a human fossil, still less a human skull, is a “chance event,” says Louise, whose own foray into this work only happened because her father lost his legs in an air crash, and her mother broke off her field work to go and look after him in London, pressing Louise to take her place.
While even those with an untrained eye might chance upon a fossil, and recognise it as one, stumbling up fossilised human remains is another ball game entirely. “When things come up to the surface … you may be walking along and see something, and often it’s just pieces,” says Louise. “It’s really remarkable that things get found in the first place.”
The extraordinary finds by the Leakeys and others is a reminder of the transient nature of existence. I wonder if and when we, too, are doomed to extinction like all the species of Homo that came before us. In this cradle of mankind, signs of trouble are brewing, whether it’s the threat to the lake from the dam, overfishing, or the disappearance of grazing and wildlife that once nourished this land