Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Whereabouts of fossil treasure sparks row

By NATION Correspondent

A row has erupted over the fossils of one of the earliest human ancestors discovered in Baringo District in Kenya's Rift Valley province.

The Orrorin Tugenesis, also known as Millennium Man, had been kept in a community museum in Kipsaraman Village since 2000, but was removed recently when the museum closed.

Mr Eustace Kitonga, the Community Museums of Kenya director, said the fossils are stored in a secret bank vault in Nairobi, and that only he has the safe deposit box number. But on Tuesday, the National Museums of Kenya said it does not know where the fossils were.

Hired out

Dr Mzalendo Kibunja, NMK’s director of museums, sites and monuments, said unscrupulous businessmen could secretly be pocketing millions of shillings from the fossils by hiring it out to learning institutions.

“Being the only discovered fossil at the site, the Orrorin Tugenesis is very expensive. There must be a lot of money exchanging hands here,” he added.

Mr Kibunja said it was wrong for Mr Kitonga to keep custody of a national heritage as if it was private property.

French researcher Martin Pickford, who was behind the research at Kipsaraman, said he was shocked to hear that the fossils had been transferred to a bank in Nairobi.

He said the agreement between the French and the CMK was that, when completed, the building and its contents would be handed over to the CMK to run and maintain. “CMK should return the fossils. What was the need of constructing the museum?” Mr Pickford asked in an e-mail to the Nation.

Kipsaraman residents are now demanding the return of the treasure following the closure of the museum.

Led by Councillor Vincent Kipkata, the residents said they had not benefited in any way since the fossils were discovered. They also said workers at the local museum had not been paid salaries amounting to almost Sh1 million.

“We call on the Community Museums of Kenya to return the fossils,” he said. “They are our natural resources and we need to have them back”.

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