Geographically, the Lower Omo River Valley and the Lake Turkana Basin are one area. The reason for which UNESCO lists it as two World Heritage Sites has nothing to do with human evolution. It is due to those virtual lines drawn on the maps in the capitals of countries: Borders. To the East of the northern tip of Lake Turkana, the border between Ethiopia and Kenya is defined. But to the West, it is not clear where the South-West of Ethiopia, the North of Kenya and the South of South Sudan meet. The area is called ‘Ilemi Triangle’, and, between the capitals of Nairobi, and Juba, it is disputed. But this is very remote territory and the authorities of all three countries have kept a hands-off attitude to the issue. Since 1950, no efforts of delimitation of the area have been made. More recently, the civil war in Sudan and since its independence in 2011, the internal conflicts and wars of South Sudan will have contributed to this. In the absence of negotiation, the three countries uphold a century-old colonial treaty between Ethiopia and British East Africa, which is today also applied to the border between Kenya and South Sudan: ‘The tribes occupying either side of the line shall have a right to use grazing grounds on the other side and have free access to the wells.’ In effect, for the local pastoralists of today, the borders in these lands matter as little as they did for their ancient ancestors.
Ethnically, the Lower Omo Valley, the Lake Turkana Basin and the Kenyan Rift into Tanzania represent the eastern end of the homeland of Africa’s Nilotes. 500 kilometers to the West of Ethiopia’s Omorate on the Omo River, lies Juba, on the Nile. Juba, the capital of South Sudan, is home to the Bari tribe, a sub-group of the Karo people. The Karo are the neighbors of the Mursi we sat with on cow hides, on the eastern side of the Omo River. Nilotic tribes extend north from Juba, well into Sudan, and south into the North of Uganda. The Turkana and their neighboring tribes west of Lake Turkana and the Kenyan Rift, are also Nilotic.
Back to our quest for the Cradle of Mankind and still heading south: According to the list of UNESCO, the Lake Turkana National Parks of Kenya are the next possible Cradle of Mankind. To get there from the Lower Omo Valley, we learn that for tourists, borders matter. Omorate, some 30 kilometers north of the border to Kenya, is the last town and administrative outpost of Ethiopia. It boasts the only bridge across the Omo River. With some luck and negotiation skills, we find some diesel for our Land Cruiser, and we pass the Ethiopian customs. This is administratively complicated and time consuming. I wonder how and whether at all the forms I am filling will ever reach the central administration and tourism statistics of Addis Ababa. – Who cares? Let’s go!
On the eastern side of Lake Turkana is Sibiloi National Park. It is in the center of the Koobi Fora region, only fifty kilometers south-east of Omorate. This is Kenya’s advertised ‘Cradle of Mankind’. The fossil finds of Koobi Fora have contributed more to the understanding of human evolution than any other archaeological site in Africa. It begins at the official border town of Ileret, where they found a hundred of the earliest footprints of Homo erectus. And in its museum, there is ‘Skull 1470’, an almost complete skull of a Homo habilis, and countless fossil remains of pre-humans of all ages, through to Homo sapiens. If this were to be the Cradle of Mankind, I would not restrict it to Koobi Fora, but rather have it be the whole area of the Lake Turkana Basin. And the lake alone is more than 250 kilometers long and forty kilometers wide. Africa is big. Today, the lake is surrounded by semi-arid land and desert. But a million or so years ago, life around the lake was rich and rampant. A petrified forest and fossils attest of an abundant fauna and flora. Take the remains of a gigantic crocodile, a ten-meter ancestor of today’s Nile crocodile. That’s more than two sedan automobiles, bumper to bumper.
Choosing the western side of the lake for our onward trip, we have to cross the Omo River. In 2013 when we passed there, the steelwork bridge of Omorate had slipped of its western concrete bridgehead and stuck out of the river like the straw out of a summer drink. Not to worry, a few hundred meters down the river, an improvised ferry takes us across. We drive along confusing tracks in the dried-out Omo River Delta, a treeless plain of alluvial soil, sand, some shrubs. And lots of dust. On a hillock, we stop at the last military outpost of Ethiopia. They check our passports, and we continue into the no-man’s-land of the Ilemi Triangle, somewhere between South Sudan and Kenya. Then, the tracks increasingly converge, we must have entered Kenya, and improvised road signs direct us to a Kenyan Police Post. We are some forty kilometers south-west of Omorate. We enter the office with our passports and find that they could ‘check us in’ but that this was not a valid entry in terms of immigration and customs. We would have to have their confirmation of entry confirmed in Lokichokio, the official Kenyan border post for South Sudan, west of the Ilemi Triangle. Or in Nairobi. At the Police Post we also meet a Brazilian archaeologist who invites us to visit her at the ‘Turkana Basin Institute’, on Turkwel River, further south. We promise to do so, when we pass there in a few days, and exchange numbers on our smartphones.
We are now on the solid ground of the Lake Turkana shoreline – on a road that on most maps, does not exist. Roads in Ethiopia are excellent. And we knew that, arriving in Kenya, this would change. Roads in Kenya are dismal, be it in Turkana or Nairobi. Be ready for the worst surprises. Always depending on the weather because in Kenya, there is no such thing as an all-weather road. When it rains, all roads in Kenya flood. In Nairobi, you may have to wait for hours for the water to run off. Up-country like here in Turkana, it can be days. If it’s not the rain and you are not driving a Toyota Land Cruiser, you may also get stuck because your car breaks down. So, prepare with enough drinking water and food in the car, patience, cool-headedness, and a sense of adventure. Whenever possible, travel with two cars and only good friends. – On this trip we are lucky and cruise with ease through the vast and open, dusty land. And as always, in the middle of nowhere and seemingly alone, we stop for a photo or to stretch our legs, and immediately, out of this nowhere, one or two or a whole group of Turkana children join us, ask for water and watch whatever we do, giggling.
This is remote territory. In 1947, Jomo Kenyatta was elected President of the ‘Kenya African Union’, the party through which he pressed for independence from British colonial rule. Five years later, he was arrested for being among the ‘Kapenguria Six’ and behind the anti-colonial ‘Mau Mau Rebellion’. Some historians say it’s true, others say his arrest was political. All the same, he was convicted and imprisoned in Lokitaung. Lokitaung is 30 kilometers south of the Ilemi Triangle and 20 kilometers into the hills to the West of the lake. Almost 800 kilometers away from Nairobi. We had to go and see that place. The road up there is not in a riverbed, it is one. And Lokitaung itself is no place. No need for confinement, here, there is nowhere to go. Kenyatta was completely off the grid and, in those days without the smartphone, incommunicado. – On his release in 1959, he was a validated freedom fighter and became Prime Minister. He oversaw the transition of Kenya from a colony to, in 1963, an independent country. And of course, Jomo Kenyatta became its first President.
Further on along the track we pass occasional Turkana grass huts on the shore of the lake, Turkana herdsmen with Kalashnikovs and children herding goats, then a herd of donkeys. We spend a night at a mission and donate to their effort of teaching the Turkana kitchen farming, planting vegetables in their settlements. In Kalokol our track becomes something like a road. There are some solid buildings, Kalokol wants to be a town. It used to be known for its fish factory – long derelict. But it still has a Police Post, a Health Centre, a guest house, and a station of another mission. The road continues westward to Lodwar, the capital of Turkana, on Kenya’s A1 highway. North, the A1 leads to South Sudan and 650 kilometers to the South, to Kenya’s border with Tanzania. But we stay on the track along the lake and continue to Eliye Springs. There, a Swiss friend has set up a resort, the perfect place to take a break off the road. We visit the famous Central Island and eat fish, fresh from the lake. Rule of thumb: Where the people are Nilotic, the fish is Nile Perche. For a few days, we chill in the heat of Turkana.
Out of Eliye Springs, we also go to visit the Brazilian archaeologist, on the other side of the Turkwel River. The next bridge to cross the river would be near Lodwar, so we drive directly south along the track, until we hit the river, we park our Cruiser, and wade across. The Turkana Basin Institute, where she is based, sits beautifully, like a tourist destination, on a cliff above the river. But it’s a research center, and our archaeologist means business. After refreshments, she gives us a tour and, our shoes still soaked, we follow her. Laboratories, instruments, maps with find sites, three-dimensional photographic recordings of bones. At the end, she shows us her latest discovery: The complete skull of a child. She kept it in a safe, like precious porcelain, packed in wood shavings, in a wooden box. With gleam in her eyes, she explains to us how rare a find this was, how an important piece of the puzzle of human evolution it could be, and how her scientific publication on it was going to boost our knowledge about our human ancestors – and, admittedly, her career.
One of the already published archaeologic finds of the western side of Lake Turkan are the remains of ‘Turkana Boy’. With 40 percent of all his bones discovered, Turkana Boy – together with Lucy – is the most complete pre-modern human skeleton we know of. Having lived 1.6 million years ago and his traits would make Turkana Boy Homo erectus, but some researchers regard him as a separate species of archaic human, somewhere between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. They call him Homo ergaster, the ‘working man’. – Fast forward: In Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Scientific Revolution had launched the Protestant Reformation that broke the authority of the Catholic Church. The Age of Enlightenment had begun. In the process, the protestants who have since kept the lead in shaping our modern times, came up with the protestant work ethic. It professes that hard work will lead to your salvation and election to eternal life. This had to fail. First, how could they ever expect humans who had just embraced reason to believe in something like this? And more importantly, they had ignored a lesson of human evolution: The ‘working man’ didn’t make it out of the Stone Age. Like Homo erectus, he went extinct.
And also on the western side of the lake, remains of a group of modern humans with traumatic injuries to the heads and hands, ribs, and knees were found. The find bares evidence of hunter-gatherers having fought out a conflict, only 10,000 years ago. We can only guess, over what they were fighting. Today, we would know: Since the sixties, the temperature in Turkana has risen from 20° Centigrade to 30°, and unprecedented droughts and dwindling water resources have ravaged the territory. Over the thirty years that I have traveled there, I have seen with my own eyes how the savanna has become more and more arid, and of late, downright desert. Climate change is affecting Africa of the tropics quicker and more severely than any other region of the world. The descendants of the hunter-gatherers have become half-nomadic, half-sedentary pastoralists and the survival of their livestock and their own livelihoods are threatened. Reports of armed conflict between the Turkana and the neighboring tribe of the Dasanech and inter-clan fighting among the Turkana people are increasing. Their struggle for survival – with good old Kalashnikovs – is pitching them against each other over access to grazing land and water. On all sides of all borders.