Paleontologist and National Geographic Explorer Isaiah Nengo, associate Director of the Turkana Basin Institute and Director for Research and Science at the Turkana Basin Institute passed away on 23 January at the age of 60.
He was passionately dedicated to the study of Miocene hominids in Turkana, Kenya and his fieldwork led to the discovery of many fossil apes, most recently including that of the 13 million-year-old infant ape skull nicknamed Alesi from Turkana, Kenya.
Dr. Isaiah Nengo was born in Nairobi, Kenya. He held a BSc in Zoology and Botany from the University of Nairobi and a PhD in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University. He was Fulbright Scholar at the National Museums of Kenya and the University of Nairobi in 2012/13. Dr. Nengo was also a winner of numerous awards and honors and was Fellow of the Institute for the Science of Origins.
As a gifted high school student, he developed a keen interest in biology and when famed wildlife biologist and paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey visited the school, young Isaiah’s imagination was fired and he decided to devote his life to the science of human origins.
On graduating from college with a degree in Zoology and Botany, his tenacity bore out with Dr. Leakey and soon, he was out in the field discovering crucial fossils. His brilliance as a scientist soon became apparent and he was offered admission to Harvard University’s Ph.D. program. At Harvard he studied with top paleoanthropologist David Plibeam, and became a protege of Stephen Jay Gould. Dr. Nengo’s dissertation on ape limb bones challenged established notions of ape evolution and established his reputation as an innovative thinker.
In 2015 he led a group to a place called Napudet in Turkana which is a notoriously difficult area to find fossils. His vision led him to the consideration and deliberation that the sediments there were of the perfect age to find ancestral apes. His persistence paid off as a member of his group, John Ekusi, spotted a small, round rock protruding from the ground. It looked like an elephant’s kneecap but on excavation, they discovered that it was an entire primate skull, beautifully preserved and still embedded in the original rock that had formed around it 13 million years ago! This was the famous Alesi fossil destined for the pages of the world’s foremost scientific journal Nature!
No other fossil primate skull in the history of the field is so complete and the quality is extraordinary – unerupted teeth in perfect condition scanned by electrons in the synchrotron provide far better data than any specimens exposed to the elements in burial or normal wear and tear in life. The inner ear is mapped in stunning detail.
Although soft-spoken, Dr. Nengo was a visionary leader, a high achiever, a brilliant scientist and a great friend to those who had the privilege of working with him. He will be greatly missed.
Tributes to Dr. Isaiah Odhiambo Nengo can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org