Shannon Pender

Lake Turkana: A Cradle of Human Life

Shannon Pender

If you’re like me, you dug in your backyard as a kid, hoping to find fossils and make some sort of groundbreaking discovery. Unless you were really lucky though, you probably didn’t find much more than rocks. If you lived in northern Kenya, your search could turn out differently—it’s home to Lake Turkana, where fossils have remained for millions of years.

Lake Turkana, Africa’s fourth largest lake, lies in the middle of a harsh desert climate. Called the “Jade Sea” for its beautiful color, the lake sits in a volcanic area that experiences activity from tectonic plates that move the Earth’s crust. This creates layers where archaeologists can clearly see different eras of fossils preserved in the lake and its surrounding basin.

There are 100 archaeological and paleontological sites surrounding Lake Turkana, meaning it’s an ideal place for fossils to give us insight into our species’ ancestors: what they looked like, how they walked, where they lived and more. The fossils here span four million years of human evolution. The lake hosts numerous groundbreaking discoveries about the hominids who lived over 4.2 million years ago.

Out of all the discoveries at Lake Turkana, one still shapes our understanding of human evolution—connecting the dots among our predecessors.

It was 1984 when Turkana Boy, the most complete early human fossil, was discovered. He was preserved in the sediments of the lake for 1.5 million years. Our ancient human ancestors were comprised of multiple species rather than the one homogenous species we are today; Turkana Boy was a member of the Homo erectus species, arguably the most important species to study.

H. erectus is thought of as the direct ancestor of humans: the first hominids to migrate out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. By studying Turkana Boy, archaeologists learned that H. erectus walked like us, centering their weight over their pelvis. They had arched feet, long strides and larger brains than other species such as Homo habilis.

Did You Know?

The prehistoric species Nuralagus rex is the largest rabbit ever discovered—a 26-pound animal with short ears and small eyes that is unable to hop. These features have never been seen before in rabbits. This giant rabbit had no predators on its native Minorca, a Spanish island, allowing it to live a leisurely life without any worries.

Photo Credit: AdamPG

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