Fri, Feb 09, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Kenya's `Turkana Boy' the heart of a stormy debate


Samuel Muteti, a research scientist at Kenya National Museum in Nairobi, holds a replica of the ''Turkana Boy'' on Feb. 1.


Deep in the dusty, unlit corridors of Kenya's national museum, locked away in a plain looking cabinet, is one of mankind's oldest secrets. "Turkana Boy," as he is known, is the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found.

But his first public display later this year is at the heart of a growing storm -- one pitting scientists against Kenya's powerful and popular evangelical Christian movement. The debate over evolution -- once largely confined to the US -- has arrived in a country known as the cradle of mankind.

"I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it," says Bishop Boniface Adoyo, head of the country's 35 evangelical denominations, which he claims has around 10 million followers. "These sorts of silly views are killing our faith," he said.

He's calling on his flock to boycott the exhibition and has demanded the museum relegate the fossil collection to a back room -- carrying some kind of warning that evolution is not a fact but merely one of a number of theories.

Against him is one of the planet's best-known fossil hunters, Richard Leakey, whose team unearthed the bones at Nariokotome in West Turkana, in the desolate, far northern reaches of Kenya, in 1984.

"Whether the bishop likes it or not, Turkana Boy is a distant relation of his," said Leakey, who founded the museum's prehistory department.

"The bishop is descended from the apes and these fossils tell how he evolved," he said.

Among the 160,000 fossils due to go on display is an imprint of a lizard left in sedimentary rock, dating back 200 million years, at a time when the Earth's continents were only beginning to separate.

Dinosaur fossils and a limb bone from an early human ancestor, dating back seven million years, will also be on show along with bones of short-necked giraffes and elephants whose tusks protrude from their lower, rather than upper jaw.

They provide the clearest record yet of evolution and the origins of man, say scientists.

But the highlight will be the 1.52m tall Turkana Boy, who died aged 12 and whose skeleton had been preserved in marshland before its discovery.

It will form the center stage of the exhibition to be launched in July following a massive US$10.5 million revamp of the National Museums of Kenya, financed by the EU. The EU says it has no concerns over the displays and that the museum was free to exhibit what it wished.

Adoyo's evangelical coalition is the only religious group voicing concerns about the exhibition.

Leakey fears the ideological spat may provoke an attack on the priceless collection, one largely found during the 1920s by his paleontologist parents, Louis and Mary Leakey.

The museum, which attracts around 100,000 visitors a year, is taking no chances.

Turkana Boy will be displayed in a private room, behind a glass screen with 24 hour CCTV. Security personnel will guard the entrance.

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