Millions of years ago, our ancestors left their calling cards to unravel a world that once was
Published: Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 9 December 2017
We’re in the depths of the Great Rift Valley driving to Olorgesailie prehistoric site 70 kilometers south of Nairobi, the city. The landscape changes from the green of Ngong Hills to the dry scrub of the valley’s floor edged by its walls and mountains where our ancestors lived millions of years ago.
One reason to flee for the day from the city is that it’s November. “November is the peak month for the migrants from the northern hemisphere to the southern,” states Jennifer Oduori, a protégée of the eminent naturalist Fleur Ng’weno.
Oduori is talking about birds and before dashing to Olorgesailie’s warm embrace Ng’weno is presented with a portrait by William Wamaru in appreciation for mentoring generations of Kenyans into the world of natural history. When she speaks everyone listens.
Olorgesailie is therefore the natural choice on the regular Sunday pot luck – again started by Ng’weno more than four decades ago from the Nairobi Museum car park – to see the migrants flying in, taking advantage of the rising thermals to glide across the skies. It’s a sky-path for birds of many feathers.
The first stop is by the bridge past Mount Esakut. It has the sunbirds like Beautiful, Scarlet chested and more flitting around the flower-filled shrubs along the dry riverbed. The Maasai boys herding their cattle watch with interest at the people holding binoculars while they herd their cattle further up the road to greener pastures.
Colours of the land change – from red earth to bleached white where the ancient lake once was. Termite mounds like castles of clay still hold fort in a rapidly changing landscape of farms, fences and buildings.
And then mountain of the ancients towers the plains. It’s Olorgesailie – and like Esakut – an extinct volcano that spewed molten rock from within their core more than three million years ago – evidence we see littered on the ground – the lava rocks.
“Dryland birds are amazingly colourful,” continues Oduori. We’re watching a pair of Red-rumped swallow perched on a thorn tree – and it’s a treat to see them so close because they rarely fly low.
The Eastern grey hornbill perches on a tree but the Von der Decken’s hop around on the ground for seeds and grubs. But the sun over Olorgesailie barely shows through the cloud-cover. It’s rare for Olorgesailie to be cloudy and hence the migrants can’t take advantage of the rising thermals.
In 1919 the famous rift explorer, John Walter Gregory came upon this fascinating site where early humans had left so much behind – handaxes – but it wasn’t until the 1940s when the famous Leakey duo – Louis and Mary – began excavation work here.
Birding along the very tracks that our ancestor, Homo erectus began one of the earliest known factories to chisel a stone tool to skin and slice their hunts like the now extinct species of elephant and hippo that lie in the prehistoric site, we’re regaled by the Somali golden-breasted bunting on the ground.
With a final stop at the in-situ museum that tells the story of Olorgesailie, we settle for lunch with the Red and Yellow barbet in all its colours by our table – in the company of the not-so-glamorous Social weavers – but nevertheless amazing builders of communal nests like whole apartment blocks.
An interesting discussion over lunch then emerges – do we need such places or do we ‘develop’ them for real estate?
“Real estate is a one-off gain,” says Samira Khan. “But Olorgesailie is a site that contributes hugely to humanity and to science for generations to come.
“There is more to be gained as a society.”
Peter Wairasho agrees, adding, “It’s the only way natural eco-systems can survive. But it’s worrying to see so many motorbikes ferrying sacks of charcoal to Nairobi. We’re seeing a fragile ecosystem being destroyed in our lifetime.”
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And a rare haul of picks, flakes and hand axes recovered from ancient sediments in Lake Turkana are the oldest remains of advanced stone tools yet discovered – dated at 1.76m years old. Until now, the earliest stone tools of this kind were estimated to be 1.4m years old and came from a haul in Konso, Ethiopia.