The bone collectors

 (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Dr Emma Mbua examines Turkana Boy’s jawbone at the National Museums of Kenya

In the vault of Nairobi’s National Museum lies one of the world’s most important fossil collections. Mike Pflanz hears why it is so precious, and why financial struggles might delay fresh finds.

MUSEUM HILL, April 19, 2011 (Daily Dispatches) – The steel cabinet looks little different from the other 22 here in this chilly, climate-controlled strong-room.

On its door, sticky tabs printed on an old hand-held labeller cryptically say W. Turkana Hominids, 85S, Eliye Springs, Nariokotome. Inside, seven compact wooden cases with black metal clasps lie on shelves, all marked KNM-WT 15000.

Dr Emma Mbua reaches straight for the second one down, “85S/B Cranium and Mandible”, pulls it out and gently sets it on a foam-covered table in the middle of the room.

Inside, as she opens the lid, lies the skull of the most complete skeleton of an early human ever found, the 1.5 million-year-old specimen commonly known as Turkana Boy.

“I cannot count the number of times I have shown people this, but it still thrills me to see him,” says Mbua, head of earth sciences here at the National Museums of Kenya’s headquarters just outside Nairobi’s city center.

Unearthed from a lakeshore in Kenya’s far north in 1984, this collection of 108 bones, including the near-total skull, combine to form the startlingly human-like skeleton of a 5ft 3in juvenile male.

He was roughly 12 years old when he died, possibly of a thigh wound, possibly of an infected tooth, by that lake sometime midway through the our long evolution from apes to humans.

Turkana Boy is the star attraction here, but he’s not alone. This strongroom, the laboratories above it, and the public galleries out front, together house arguably the world’s greatest repository early human and sub-human fossils in the world.

There are also long-extinct animals, samples of Kenya’s 1,000-plus bird species, models of towering giraffes and lumbering elephants, and detailed exhibitions of the country’s peoples, its culture and its art.

But it’s the bones that draw visitors and international researchers alike.

A human skeleton displayed at the Nairobi National Musuem (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

One of the exhibits in the public gallery at the Nairobi National Museum

The majority of major finds worldwide which have helped scientists to begin to piece together the evolutionary tree have been found in Kenya, Ethiopia to its north, and Tanzania to its south. The majority of those finds have been along the great geological scar up the country’s center that is the Rift Valley.

It’s Mbua’s job, and that of her colleagues here at the museum, to keep on ferreting out fresh fossils from the rich earth of the Rift Valley, often called the Cradle of Mankind.

Born to poor, small-plot farmers east of Nairobi, both of them strong Christians, Mbua moved to Nairobi to go to school when she was 14.

Four years later, having just missed the grade to qualify for university applications, she found a job as a curatorial assistant here at the Nairobi National Museum.

Trained up from the ‘shop-floor’, via degrees in Britain and a PhD in Germany, she is now a widely-respected paleontologist and the National Museums of Kenya’s Senior Research Scientist. She is responsible for vetting all applications from anyone wanting to sift through Kenya’s soil for new finds.

At the same time, she’s working hard on her own specialism – early human morphology, or, in her words, the changes our ancestors’ bodies underwent “to allow them to take over the world”.

What excites her more even than the specimens already cataloged and stored here at the headquarters, are those still buried unseen.

“We in Kenya are so richly endowed with so many sites, our fossils are just there waiting for us to find them,” she says with a grin.

By a river running through a farm close to a commuter town an hour’s drive from her office, she’s recently found something very exciting. Hundreds of fossils, many exposed or just under the surface, of extinct hippos, rhinoceroses, pigs, of “all animals you can think of”.

As often as funding allows, she and her team are there, painstakingly moving earth, collecting samples, quietly praying for evidence of what paleontologists call “coveted” early man.

They thought they’d found him – or her – last year, says Tom Mukhuyu, collections assistant at the museum and one of Mbua’s respected site excavators.

Tom Mukhuyu, collections assistant at the National Museums of Kenya, making notes on fossils recently discovered in a dig supervised by Dr. Mbua. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Tom Mukhuyu, collections assistant, catalogs samples from a new excavation site near Nairobi

“We dug up a mammal molar, it looked very similar to a hominid’s, it was an amazing feeling, we were very excited and even had a small celebration,” he said, smiling.

“Then we cleaned it off properly, examined the root, and found to our dismay that it was from an otter. Not a hominid at all. We were very sad.”

But if the team do find proof of man high up there on the on the eastern shoulder of the Rift Valley, it will be big news, extending the range of early humans up from the lowlands at the valley floor.

“The major problem,” says Mbua, “is funding.”

“There’s no money for pre-history study from the government here. The grants we can apply for, and we spend our lives applying for grants, are not easy for us to win. They are awarded by foreign institutions and few are there to empower African researchers.”

With more money, she says, she could be at that river bank an hour from Nairobi year-round. Now she can barely afford a team for one month at a time.

Like many such institutions around the world, the National Museums of Kenya is also struggling financially. There is hope that a new $15 million endowment fund, set up last year to attract cash from international donors, development groups, bequests and art sales, could inject much needed money.

Increased sponsorship with private firms, including Kenya’s largest cellphone network, have boosted the bank balances, and the flagship Nairobi National Museum was recently completely refurbished with European Union support.

But there are still more hurdles to clear aside from funding.

The Hominids dispaly room at the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Visitors watch display videos in the Origin of Man exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum

Chief among them is a continuing distaste among many Kenyans for their government to give money to support a science which religious leaders claim is heresy.

“Evolution is still a taboo here,” says Mbua, who is herself a Christian who reads the Bible, especially John 4:23-24, the verses which say God is a spirit and his worshippers “will worship him in spirit”.

“I tell students who ask me that I believe the spirit was always there, but the body has developed over time. Just like it does in our own lives, from babies to old people. There will always be counter-arguments, but that for me answers the questions I need answered.”

However, it does not satisfy Kenya’s religious leaders. During the Museum’s recent refurbishment, they pressed forcefully for the ‘Origins of Man’ room to be mothballed altogether. Science won that round, and the exhibit remains.

Near closing time at the Museum recently, three safari guides from the Masai Mara were touring the rooms together, cramming final facts ahead of their their professional guiding exam in a couple of days.

“I had read all about these things in books, but I had never seen them,” said one, David Nampaso. “It’s very, very interesting to see everything here together.

“I will definitely bring my tourists, it’s a cultural heritage of Kenya they should all see. Even Kenyans, we must come too. I think people misunderstand these things, but they are something unique to us and we should learn to celebrate them.”


Related: Brendan’s full-size slideshow of the Nairobi National Museum

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

3 Responses to “The bone collectors”

  1. Andrew Rippeon says:

    It’s wonderful to read about Dr. Mbua and her work–her paleontological work, but also her role as something like an ambassador for history. Keeping the museum’s exhibits on early humans open seems crucial, and her nuanced blend of faith and science seems a promising form of cultural compromise. It would be interesting to see the fossil site itself–would images of the excavation be useful in helping advance Dr. Mbua’s fundraising needs?

  2. nickraistrick says:

    I agree with Andrew – good work to her, good article and pics too: does anyone reading this have good links to the scientific donor community, perhaps at an international level? It’s always a shame when experts get distracted from the thing they are good at in order to raise funds for it. Particularly as there are specialists in dealing with the institutional donor/grant funding process.

  3. admin says:

    If anybody would like to connect directly to Dr Mbua, please email me on and I’ll link you to her directly.

    Thanks! Mike