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Xavier Magazine | April 25, 2017

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Historic Quest

Historic Quest
By France Griggs Sloat

The vast expanse of flat, dry land stretches eastward, its close-cropped grasses undulating in the heat of an endless African sky. It is empty but for an occasional cluster of flat-topped acacia trees. The elongated shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana lie about 10 miles ahead. But William Anyonge has eyes only for the clay-colored dirt here, beneath his boots, where the earth hides secrets older than the history of man.

The associate professor of biology knows from his own history that periodically the ground in this part of the world gives up its dead, freeing remnants of the ancient ancestors who prowled the land millions of years ago. And that has become his quest—a quest he hasn’t relinquished since he first dug into the dirt as a 24-year-old geology graduate fresh from the University of Utah.

Anyonge returned to his native Kenya in the spring of 1986 to work for his mentor, Richard Leakey, director of the National Museums of Kenya. Leakey, himself a rising star among scientists researching human evolution, sent Anyonge to accompany seasoned geologist Frank Brown on a three-week geological field trip. One day, as Anyonge was scrambling up a steep incline on the north side of a riverbed, he suddenly realized the rocks he was stumbling over weren’t rocks at all—he was climbing through teeth and bones.

“We stumbled onto this site looking for rocks and instead it was full of fossils,” he says. “All over the place were bits and pieces of

fossils. I saw one and said, ‘Wow, this one has teeth.’ It was a jawbone from an extinct animal, Miocene anthracothere, that was about 17.5 million years old. We spent some time picking them up and putting them back, broken femurs and stuff like that. It was an amazing small find with a lot of fossils.”

But most important, their discovery also yielded the remains of three hominoid species—Afropithecus, Turkanapithecus and Simiolus—placing Anyonge in the realm of scientists whose research is informing the world’s understanding of the origins of man.

Anyonge’s been back to the site, which now bears his name, twice to do professional excavations. He published a paper in 1991 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology highlighting the fact that two of the hominoid species of ancient apes had been found at only one other site before his.

But Anyonge is the first to say he would not have become a paleontologist or even be teaching at Xavier had it not been for Leakey.

Anyonge secured a job at the museum in high school, and his passion for paleontology caught Leakey’s eye. Leakey sent him to work

at the site where the fossilized remains of Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, were being painstakingly removed from the ground. It was Anyonge’s first taste of a real anthropological dig.

Leakey was so impressed with Anyonge that he found the funding he needed for college, hired him after graduation and helped him finance his PhD at UCLA.

Anyonge was back in Kenya this spring, invited by Leakey to teach college students at the Turkana Basin Institute, which offers a semester studying paleoanthropology in partnership with Stony Brook University of New York. Anyonge taught a two-week session on vertebrate paleontology. He relished taking students into the field and hopes to be teaching Xavier students at Turkana next year.

But what he really wants to do is organize another expedition to the gravelly riverbed at his old site, which has sat undisturbed since he left. He’s looking once again to his mentor, applying to the Leakey Foundation as well as the National Geographic Society, for funding to support the trip.

“I want to go back and collect more fossils, do more serious excavating and more exploration,” Anyonge says. “It’s an interesting pocket of sediments, and if we don’t go back for awhile, they may disappear.”

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