Seagulls flitted above the woman’s head as she cleaned and salted the fish she had just caught. Lean and carved, she looked more like a sculpture than a fisherwoman. As she raised a sharp rock to tear open the belly of a tilapia, we made eye contact for a moment. Then she looked away, flipping offcuts to the side. The gulls dove to snatch up the guts.
Watch: All About Lake Turkana
The woman was a member of the El Molo people, a nomadic fishing community on the shores of Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya, that has labored this way for thousands of years. It is not outlandish to suggest that our earliest ancestors might have come from here. Located in northern Kenya, where Ethiopia’s Omo River flows into the country, it is arguably the world’s greatest field laboratory for the study of human origins. Fossil finds have shown that the region harbors some of the earliest remnants of humankind.
I had come here by helicopter with Dr. Louise Leakey, 44, who could not have a better paleontology pedigree. In 1959, her grandparents, Mary and Louis Leakey, found a well-preserved cranium of a 1.75 million-year-old hominin, Paranthropus boisei, at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, which changed the scientific consensus about where human beings come from—until then, it had been Eurasia. In 1967, Louise Leakey’s father, Richard, discovered skulls and bones in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia that are among the oldest examples of Homo sapiens, subsequently determined to be some 195,000 years old. Later, Richard Leakey began focusing on the Lake Turkana area, where he was joined by his paleoanthropologist wife, Meave. In 1984, Kamoya Kimeu, a member of Leakey’s team, discovered “Turkana Boy,” a nearly complete skeleton that is the one of the earliest known Homo erectus specimens. In 1995, Meave unearthed bones at several sites southwest of Lake Turkana that moved scientific understanding of the beginnings of bipedalism back by 500,000 years, to about 4.2 million years ago.
“I grew up on the shores of Turkana,” Louise told me. She recalled setting out with her parents each day to Koobi Fora base camp, where they would place her in a basin of water to keep cool and amuse herself while they worked. When they finished, the family would hunt for crocodile teeth together, and in the evenings they would use nets to fish with the men from the camp. “Occasionally,” she added, “we would wake in the morning to find a lion kill.”
When she grew up, she joined the family trade. In 1999, she and Meave uncovered a skull on the banks of Lake Turkana dating back between 3.2 and 3.5 million years. The Leakey team has proposed that the fossil is evidence of a previously unknown hominin species: Kenyanthropus platyops.
Now Louise Leakey is trying to raise awareness and funds to support further research by offering privately guided trips of the Lake Turkana area with tour operator the Safari Collection. Together they have created a five-night itinerary that takes travelers by helicopter and chartered plane around northern Kenya, incorporating stays at high-end safari lodges and two nights with Louise in simple accommodations at a research station on the shores of the lake. She will accompany a maximum of four guests to fossil sites, introduce them to scientists, and share the research archives with them. There are also helicopter tours of the lake and visits to nomadic fishing communities and local villages.
My own trip began in Nairobi. The helicopter pilot picked us up in Leakey’s backyard—a first for her as well as for me. We flew north, leaving the city’s slums and suburbs behind, passing over agricultural land before reaching the Aberdare Range, on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. There I saw groves of bamboo, giant lobelia, and bananas. Black-and-white colobus monkeys roosted at the tops of cedar and podo trees.
We overnighted at the luxurious Solio Lodge, which sits in a wildlife sanctuary and rhino breeding reserve. The next morning we flew over the vast Laikipia Plateau, an area of acacia bushland and open grass, spotting elephants, zebras, and a male lion flopped on one side.
Farther north, the Silali Caldera was so striking it made my heart beat faster. Almost perfectly round and three miles in diameter, it looked ancient and otherworldly. There was no one in sight until we landed on the rim to brew a cup of tea and take in the view. Suddenly, a group of children appeared, their hair dyed with red soil, beaded bracelets on their wrists, their faces etched with ritual scarification. Wary goats followed behind them. To my surprise, they were less interested in the flying machine than in their own reflections in the helicopter’s shiny nose. One girl jumped up and down, cupping her breasts and laughing uproariously at the image.
Leakey and I continued north. Below us, the land changed from green to brown to marbled red. Camels replaced cows in the corrals. We circled the rocky column of the Nataruk volcanic plug, a herald of the Painted Valley and windswept rock formations. We passed above the odd klipspringer, a small antelope indigenous to the region, and termite chimneys a dozen feet tall. There were swamps, in which we saw crocodiles swishing their tails to descend deeper into the water. We landed briefly in the baking-hot sand dunes of the Suguta Valley, then flew over Lake Logipi, a smaller body of water just south of Lake Turkana, where hundreds of flamingos suddenly took flight. In the distance, I could see the black lava flow of Teleki’s Volcano.
Then we rose over a ridge and I caught my first glimpse of Lake Turkana. Aside from its historical significance, Turkana is a breathtakingly beautiful sky-blue crescent in the midst of the desert landscape, with volcanic-cone islands, vivid mineral pools on its shores, and spits of land where nomadic fishermen make camp. The lake has been here for 4 million years, sometimes full to the brim, sometimes much diminished, serving as a constant source of life throughout human existence.
Leakey took me to several digs in process, although the researchers were in recess when we visited. One had uncovered circles of stone pillars dating back 7,000 years, which Leakey called “recent.” She instructed me on how to look for artifacts, and soon I was finding ancient cutting tools, petrified oyster shells, and even fossilized hippo bones among the stones and dried goat dung.
In the evenings, we prepared dinner together, swatted mosquitoes, drank gin and tonics, and talked deep into the night. Banter here is about whether Homo habilis existed, when our ancestors might have headed north to Europe, and how close Homo sapiens were to extinction when the global population is thought to have fallen as low as 10,000. But Leakey’s stories were also personal. She recalled her grandmother, who would sit “smoking big fat cigars and drinking whiskey.” She called her father, a man with two prosthetic legs and a donor liver and kidneys, “a force.” (Angelina Jolie is planning to direct a film about Richard Leakey’s life, with Brad Pitt playing the part of the paleontologist.)
The scientists working at the two research stations at either side of the lake have the support of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), which the Leakeys established in 2005. We visited the Turkwel facility in the southwest, where Leakey showed me the “crown jewels,” as she described the recently discovered hominin skull fragments and primitive tools stored there. We also met Sonia Harmand, a young French archaeologist who discovered man-made tools here in 2011. Harmand picked up one of the smaller rocks and feigned bringing it down hard on a bigger rock, explaining how an early ancestor would have cleaved off a sharp flake. The motion reminded me of the fisherwoman cutting open her catch. “Finding something like this is like a spiritual experience,” she said with a smile as she ran her hands over the sharp, man-made edge of one of the rocks. “You feel you are the first person to touch it after the hominin who made it.”
In addition to providing facilities for international scientists, TBI trains members of the local community in the art of finding fossils and preparing them for archiving. Each group Leakey brings here must make a $15,000 donation to TBI, which will help subsidize water wells, schools, and clinics. This area is home to some of Kenya’s most marginalized people, whose livelihood is further threatened by a developing oil and renewable energy industry around Lake Turkana and a hydroelectric power system under construction to the north in Ethiopia.
On the last morning, we said goodbye and I began my journey back to Nairobi. Back in the helicopter I flew south across the Ndoto Mountains, landing on the granite peak of Poi. Here, at more than 6,000 feet above sea level, I found pink pajama lilies with bobbing blossoms and towering slow-grow cycads that notch up only a centimeter or two each year; these specimens, I thought, must have been hundreds of years old. I arrived next at Sasaab, a lodge in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, where I had sundowners overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River. The trip ended at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, where giraffes mosey right up to your breakfast table, surely the loveliest place to stay in the capital.
But as delightful as these stays were, the highlight of the trip was immersing myself in the world of the Leakeys in the far north. I found Louise Leakey to be an easy travel companion and a patient teacher. In explaining arcane concepts, she would often pull out her iPad to show me maps and timelines and historical documents. She has also recently begun an experiment in citizen science, using drones to photograph the landscape and posting the images online for the public to take part in fossil finding. She has also set up an interactive website to showcase archived fossil discoveries. Next, she hopes to begin using augmented reality as an educational tool to give students a more direct understanding of paleontology.
A journey to Lake Turkana, I thought as I returned home, is a reminder to stay curious about the world, even its most remote patches. This is a place that shows us what a tiny blip we are on the timeline of the planet, and tells us to live zestfully, knowing that every species of the genus Homo to come before us has eventually died out.
To learn how you can go fossil hunting in Lake Turkana with Louise Leakey, visit thesafaricollection.com.