Famed “Turkana Boy” Discoverer Kamoya Kimeu Dies

The paleoanthropologist was widely celebrated for his unmatched ability to find and identify fossils.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Aug 19, 2022

Renowned paleontologist Kamoya Kimeu died on July 23 after a brief illness. He was credited with many noteworthy hominid discoveries, including a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton dubbed Turkana Boy, and was most well-known for his paleontological work with the Leakey family, who brought the field of paleoanthropology to a new level through their work in East Africa. Though Kimeu’s exact age was unknown, he was believed to be roughly 82 years old. 

Two men and a woman posing with a program
Kamoya Kimeu (center) with colleagues Isaiah Nengo (left) and Patricia Princehouse (right) posing with the program listing Kimeu as a recipient of an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve University. The award was given in July 2021.
Case Western Reserve University

Kimeu, the son of a goat farmer, grew up in southeast Kenya. He received a primary school education before abandoning his studies once he was old enough to help with his father’s work. A polyglot, he learned several languages, including English, that would eventually serve him well when working with scientists from around the world.

Kimeu’s trajectory shifted when famous paleontologist Louis Leakey sought out Kenyan locals to help search for fossils in 1960. Eschewing superstitions about touching human remains, Kimeu was drawn to the adventure associated with the job. He seemed to have a knack for finding bones, so Leakey and his wife Mary took the time to teach him how to identify different species based on the bony landmarks of the fossils. He turned out to be a quick study and an invaluable field technician.

By 1968, Kimeu was working closely alongside Louis and Mary’s son, Richard Leakey, around Lake Turkana in Kenya, The New York Times reports, and began taking on a leadership role during expeditions. He became well-known for his uncanny ability to identify different species based on small amounts of bone. Some early finds include the jaw of Paranthropus boisei, a then-unknown hominin, and a 195,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull—the oldest known fossil of our species. 

Kimeu’s most celebrated discovery came in 1984, while he was walking along a riverbank. He spied a small skull fragment he identified as Homo erectus. The crew spent months painstakingly excavating the area, eventually assembling a nearly complete skeleton of a prepubescent male, who died when roughly 7 to 12 years old. Turkana Boy, as the remains have come to be called, lived roughly 1.6 million years ago and is still one of the most comprehensive early human specimens ever found. 

In addition to his fieldwork, Kimeu was a dedicated mentor, paying forward the hands-on education he received from the Leakeys. In 1977, he received national attention when he became the curator of Inland Prehistoric Sites for Kenya’s national museums.  

Though he mostly retired in 1993, according to a statement from the Turkana Basin Institute, he continued to oversee expeditions until 2000. In 1994, he discovered a tibia of Australopithecus anamensis, one of the earliest known hominids with obligate bipedalism. 

See “Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey Dies at Age 77

In July 2021, Kimeu received an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve University for his contributions to paleoanthropology. His longtime friends Richard Leakey and Isaiah Nengo, director of Research and Science at the Turkana Basin Institute, attended the celebration in Nairobi.

“The knowledge and dedicated effort of some indigenous African field technicians like Kamoya in palaeontology and primatology have been critical in many major scientific breakthroughs made in these disciplines,” Nengo told The East African in reference to the award. 

Kimeu received the National Geographic Society’s La Gorce medal in 1985, presented by President Ronald Reagan. He has two primate species named after him: Cercopithecoides kimeui, a type of colobine monkey that lived roughly 2.5 million years ago, and Kamoyapithecus hamiltoni, which existed 26 million years ago. (The fossilized teeth that the discovery is based on are believed to be the oldest primate teeth ever discovered.)

He is survived by his wife, six children, and five grandchildren.