Kenya hominid's trip to the US sparks row

Plans to send Turkana Boy—a unique hominid skeleton—and other prehistoric jewels from Kenyan museums for exhibition in the United States have sparked heated debate among Kenya’s scientific community.

The trip will bring in a much-needed windfall to Kenya’s cash-strapped museums but the fossils’ discoverers and researchers—led by world-renowned Kenyan paleo-anthropologist Richard Leakey—fear it could cause irreparable damage to the relics.

“We have government approval and will send the fossils to the Chicago Field Museum next year ready for the exhibition planned for 2009,” said National Museums of Kenya (NMK) director general Idle Omar Farah.

But Leakey’s daughter Louise Leakey was among those who are outraged.

“It is like prostituting the Kenyan fossils for money. It is like corruption,” she said.

The fossils include the 1,5-million-year-old Turkana Boy, as well as 2,5-million-year-old stone tools, a monkey fossil dating back 17-million years and a one-of-its-kind fossil of a horned giraffe.

The prehistoric treasures are slated to be transported to two other US museums after being put on display in Chicago.

“We decided that since we have fossils, we should use them to raise €2,5-million which will be part of the NMK’s endowment fund that will be used in research,” said NMK head of sites and monuments Kibunjia Mzalendo.

“The fossil is the only complete skeleton of homo erectus available in the world. Furthermore, it has never been seen outside this country,” he explained.

The NMK says it was forced to exhibit the fossils after the government slashed funding 15%, but the scientists opposing the move warned that the trans-Atlantic voyage imperils further research.

“These fossils are priceless and irreplaceable.
They are also very fragile and they might break if transported. In addition, fossils are there for scientific study,” said Louise Leakey.

“It is sad they are planning to display them in the US to raise money for the museums, which can get money from elsewhere,” she said.

“People will stop fossil studies if they know that any new discovery will be taken elsewhere for exhibitions.”

In August, the 3,2-million-year old Ethiopian fossil Lucy, a 1974 discovery that revealed our forefathers walked upright before they developed a big brain, was taken to the US Houston Museum of Natural Science.

“If we start sending these fossils out of the country, Kenya and Ethiopia cease to be places where you can study fossils. It immediately changes the role of the museum as a place you can study fossils,” Richard Leakey told Science Magazine. But a Kenyan scientist, who requested anonymity, disagreed.

“We want to share our heritage with the rest of the world. After all, these fossils are usually kept in strongrooms where even a Kenyan cannot see them. Let them go and generate money for the museum,” the scientist said.

“The decision is more or less made,” the scientist added. “Leakey’s fossil-hunting gang takes the fossils like personal items.”

Critics have also argued that the trip would violate a 1989 deal in which scientists from 23 nations agreed not to transport original fossils from their homeland unless there is a compelling scientific reason.

“The agreement was not binding on state level,” Mzalendo said.

Farah also argued the exhibition would advance research.

“The fossils will be subjected to scientific techniques not available in Kenya. While in the US, we shall organise a symposium of scientists to exchange ideas. In addition, it will raise funds to advance research in the NMK because we do not have enough money,” he added.

“People should be reasonable not emotive,” Farah said. “Due consideration will be given to fragile fossils before deciding to transport them.”

Last month, Kenyan officials said they were negotiating for the return of the remains of two famous lions that killed at least 140 Indian workers in the 1890s before being shot by a British railway engineer.

The president of Chicago’s Field Museum, John McCarter, was recently quoted as saying he would not release the lion skins but that the return of some of the skeletal remains was being considered.

Mzalendo hinted that the two sides could settle for a compromise with the temporary return of the lions for the NMK centennial celebrations in 2010.

“We will loan the lions from the Field Museum. We want them to be part of the centennial celebrations,” he explained, while Farah said: “We are talking with the Field Museum on the fate of the lions.” ‒ Sapa-AFP

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