Follow us:
TBI is a research institution supporting scientific projects in the Turkana Basin, Kenya.

Time of human origins

The Turkana Basin has earned its place as the world’s most important repository of evidence of human origins largely through four decades of exploration by the Leakey family through the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP). Some 20,000 fossil specimens have been collected from the Turkana Basin, almost 16,000 from the Koobi Fora region alone. The hominid fossil collection, which currently comprises more than 430 specimens, establishes Kenya as a key contributor to human evolution studies. This huge and growing collection of fossils provides an opportunity to trace the evolution of numerous mammalian lineages back in time, including our own. Its unique importance provided the inspiration for the establishment of TBI as a means both to safeguard and extend this treasure chest of information.

Meave and Louise Leakey

Meave and Louise Leakey examine a mandible found washing out of a steep slope. Photo: Mike Hettwer.

Past and ongoing research has methodically surveyed thousands of kilometers of fossiliferous sediments in the Koobi Fora Formation to the east of the lake and the Nawata, Kanapoi and Nachukui Formations west of the lake. Collectively, these sediments span a time interval from over 7.0 Ma to less than 0.7 Ma. The KFRP, led by Meave and Louise Leakey, continues its exploration of sites in the Koobi Fora and Nachukui Formations. Teams led by Kyalo Manthi of the National Museums of Kenya and Carol Ward (University of Missouri) also continue to make new discoveries to the west of the lake at the 4.1 Ma site at Kanapoi, and further north at sites less than 1.3 Ma.

A parallel line of investigation into human origins is that of hominin behavior, including tool making and tool using, as interpreted from archeological remains. Important archeological sites are present to the west of Lake Turkana during the time interval >3-0.7 Ma. The West Turkana Archeological Project (WTAP), led by Sonia Harmand from TBI/Stony Brook University and CNRS, is currently deciphering the evolution of hominin technical behavior from this time frame, known as the Early Oldowan to Middle Acheulean. The team has recently discovered the oldest known Acheulean stone tools, a hugely significant find featured as the cover article for Nature magazine in 2011.

In total, the WTAP has identified more than 60 sites over the last two decades, and 35 have been excavated or tested. The WTAP plans to take full advantage of the TBI-Turkwel facility to support their research in future years.

In a separate field of inquiry, Thure Cerling, a long-term associate of the KFRP based at the University of Utah, focuses on the geological record of ecological change, including the isotope physiology and diets of modern mammals as well as the history of diets of different mammalian lineages. Using stable isotopes to understand the evolution of Earth’s ancient climate, atmosphere and ecosystems, Thure’s research has been critical in shedding light on possible climatic impetus for the evolution of early humans.