Kamoya Kimeu, renowned fossil hunter in Africa, is dead

Robert Campbell/Leakey Family Archives.
Kamoya Kimeu in the early 1970s

Kamoya Kimeu, a Kenyan who worked with the renowned Leakey family of paleontologists, was considered one of the world’s most successful fossil hunters, digging up skeletons millions of years old that proved that Homo sapiens, the first modern humans, originated in Africa, rather than in Asia, as previously thought.

His work also helped scientists understand how ancient human ancestors developed and when they began walking upright, rather than on all fours, more than 4 million years ago.

Kamoya, as he was always known, died July 20 in a hospital in Nairobi, aged 83 or 84, his daughter Jennifer Kamoya announced to the Kenyan media. She said he believed he had been born in 1938 but had no birth certificate.

The National Museums of Kenya (NMK), where he served for years as curator for historic sites and which called him “undoubtedly the best fossil hunter the world has ever had,” said he had been admitted to the hospital in July and that he died of kidney failure.

Kamoya was part of a team, and often team leader, of what was known as the “Hominid Gang” set up in the late 1950s by Louis Leakey, the son of British missionaries in Kenya who began a family dynasty of fossil hunters. Under the auspices of Leakey and his fellow paleoanthropologist wife, Mary, Mr. Kamoya went on to train many Kenyans – regaling them, pipe in hand around a campfire, with stories of traveling by camel, being shot at by animal hunters and bandits or coming in eyeball contact with lions or crocodiles.

One reason he became important to the Leakey family was his fluency in tribal languages. He was able to deal diplomatically with village elders who were initially suspicious of a White man digging for bones on their homeland. His diplomacy and humility also kept him out of some of the disputes that emerged among international paleontologists over who discovered what, and when, and which discoveries were the most significant.

In 1984, he and his team uncovered fragments of a human skull, eventually the whole skull and – after four years of delicate digging with toothpicks and toothbrushes – the almost complete skeleton of a boy, believed to be age 12 or less, who died 1.6 million years ago in Kenya.

The fossil became known as “Turkana Boy,” because it was found near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, beginning with a matchbox-size piece of skull Kamoya spotted glinting among dirt on the dry bed of the Nariokotome River. It is now considered one of the most significant discoveries in paleontology and the quest to understand human origins. Alan Walker, an Englishman who was a paleoanthropologist at Penn State at the time, painstakingly helped piece together the skeleton after Kamoya uncovered the skull fragment.

One of Kamoya’s later digs, in 1994, revealed a 4.1-million-year-old human tibia bone which, along with ancient footprints discovered later, proved that human ancestors were already walking upright, as Homo erectus, at that time.

Kamoya Kimeu was born in a village in Makueni County in what was then British East Africa, now southern Kenya. His father, a goatherd, added to his income with railroad construction work. He went to a Christian missionary school, learning English and Swahili to add to his mother tongue, Kikamba, before helping the family income by tending their goats and working on a British-owned dairy farm.

Around 1960, he heard that Louis and Mary Leakey were looking for local field workers to help them dig for fossils. Initially, he was wary of dishonoring his ancestors. “Digging human bones was associated with witchcraft,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “It was a taboo in African custom. But I was just a young adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

Richard Leakey, who died in January and was the son of Louis and Mary, said Kamoya had an instinctive talent for finding fossils, whether elephants or humans. He told an interviewer in 2018: “There is something almost magical in the way Kamoya or one of his team can walk up a slope that is apparently littered with nothing more than pebbles and pick up a small fragment of black, fossilized bone, announcing that it is, say, part of the upper forelimb of an antelope. It is not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skill and knowledge.”

In 1985, after discovering Turkana Boy, Kamoya was invited to Washington, where President Ronald Reagan presented him with the John Oliver La Gorce Medal from the National Geographic Society, named after an American writer and explorer who spent much of his life working with the Society.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Mbiki; five children; a brother; three sisters; and four grandchildren.

Louise Leakey, granddaughter of Louis and Mary Leakey and herself a paleontologist still hunting and analyzing fossils in Kenya, told The Washington Post this week: “Kamoya was a gentle, soft-spoken person, a hard worker, always awake before anyone and last to bed. He was respected and liked by everyone he worked with, foreign scientists and the ‘Hominid Gang’ who worked under him.”

“He loved to sit at the end of the day and tell stories under the stars,” she added. “He once described my grandmother teaching them how to dig on an excavation. ‘Carefully, carefully,’ she said. ‘You are not digging up potatoes.’ “