“But you must never, never go near the hut,” the fathers would warn, “because the leopard likes to pounce on children who come too close.”
The children would listen wide-eyed.
Night after night the fathers would tell the children stories—stories meant to keep them obedient by threatening that if they misbehaved, they would be eaten by the wild animals—mostly lions—that once roamed the lush countryside near the village.
The stories worked, too. The children obeyed.
But for one child in the Kenyan village, the stories had another unintended result. They sparked in him a yearning to discover more about these frightening animals, especially those that had vanished when his people, the Luhya, settled in the region. The child was William Anyonge, who grew up to be one of the department of biology’s newest professors.
Today, Anyonge (pronounced An-yon-gay) spends his time in class exposing Xavier students to another group of wild animals—the saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and other ancient massive predators that died out at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch in the last Ice Age. He spends his free time researching their lost world.
Each summer, Anyonge goes to a site along Wilshire Boulevard at the edge of Hollywood where, amidst the glitz and glamour, sits the grime of the La Brea tar pits. Here, the fossilized, coffee-colored, oil-soaked bones of these ancient animals float to the surface, clumped in rich deposits of natural asphalt. Anyonge immerses himself in the bones, weighing, measuring and X-raying the fossils in an attempt to learn how these animals lived and died, what they ate and what caused their extinction.
“Paleontologists are detectives,” he says in his clipped African accent. “All they have to work with are teeth and bones. They know anatomy and how muscles fit on bones and they want to tell its story.”
Knowing the stories of these animals’ natural extinctions can help humans today keep from contributing to future extinctions, he says.
“It’s important to know how not to accelerate extinctions that already exist,” he says. “It’s important to understand nature. When you do, you understand yourself.”
Anyonge was a scrawny boy of 7 when his father, Nathan Jumba Anyonge, returned from the United States after completing his master’s degree and moved the family from the farmlands of Western Kenya east into the busy city of Nairobi. It was a dramatic change.
Anyonge had spent his early childhood tending the cows on his family’s farm—herding them across the green fields in his bare feet, driving them to the river to drink, milking them twice a day. While the stories of scary wild animals played out in his head, he grew up amidst domesticated chickens and goats, lush gardens of cabbage and corn, tea and coffee, and an abundance of fruit trees like mango, guava and bananas.
His world was a safe, green oasis in the shadow of the Great Rift Valley, where the earliest known human fossils were found. Unaware he lived next to the cradle of humanity, he enjoyed a contented life on the farm with his seven siblings, a life rich in the bounty from the earth. It wasn’t until later he realized how rich his family had been.
He said goodbye to farm life as a result of the move, though, and was fitted with his first pair of shoes before entering a British school in the city. He missed the farm but took to the study of science, chemistry, math and, especially, biology. After graduating he took a part-time job at the Nairobi Museum as a lab assistant to help save for medical school. There he began reading about the real animals of his childhood bedtime stories and learned they weren’t so scary after all. He also enjoyed his first fossil-collecting expedition in the Nairobi Game Park.
His career path took a final turn away from medicine, however, when he met Richard Leakey, son of Louis Leakey, the British paleoanthropologist whose ancient human fossil discoveries in Africa set the stage for modern anthropological science. It was 1981, Anyonge was 20 years old and Leakey, who’d carried on his parents’ legacy of fossil research, was director of the National Museum of Kenya and head of a foundation that supported the education of young scientists.
“Leakey is fantastic,” Anyonge says. “He’s bigger than many prominent presidents in the world. He told me once, ‘When you try to do something in life, don’t look to be the best in your little area. You’ve got to compete with everyone in the world, so you’re good no matter where you are.’ ”
Impressed by the young man, Leakey agreed to fund Anyonge’s education at the University of Utah. Anyonge graduated in 1985 with a degree in geology and has since worked twice at the National Museum of Kenya, participated in field expeditions with Leakey to the Great Rift Valley, earned his Ph.D. in biology at the University of California at Los Angeles and spent five years there as a research scholar and lecturer in biology.
His interest in extinct carnivores was honed during his years at UCLA, buoyed by his work in Kenya and is now backed by a grant to Xavier from the William H. Albers Foundation. Each summer, he settles into the laboratory of the Page Museum at the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits and treats himself to the smorgasbord of fossils from the pits.
The skulls, teeth and bones pulled from the tar are cleaned, catalogued and stored for his research, excellently preserved by the asphalt. A natural remnant of evaporating crude oil, the thick, sticky asphalt seeps to the surface through fissures in the earth’s crust.
The pits spelled doom for thousands of mammals that lived in the Los Angeles Basin from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. They are like quicksand, only sticky, and the predators—the cats, wolves, coyotes, pumas, jaguars and bears—that chased their prey into the pits likely went in after them. And died with them.
Anyonge theorizes the animals became extinct, along with the mammoth, mastodon and short-faced bear, during a time when humans were emerging onto the continent and hunting large species for food. As those species’ numbers dwindled, the predatory cats and wolves lost a reliable food source.
Learning what happened then, he says, can help us protect areas with a high diversity of animal species, such as Africa, where he roamed as a barefoot child.
“We fear our children may never see these animals in the wild,” he says. “Imagine a world with no elephants.”