For years, the cradle of mankind has been associated with the Rift Valley but this is likely to change after the recent discovery of early man’s tools in Nyeri and Laikipia counties.
After more than 20 years following hunches and connecting dots, archaeologists at the National Museums of Kenya have begun a study on the possible presence of early man in Mt Kenya and Aberdares regions.
The archaeologists have pitched camp in Ngobit, Laikipia County, site of a possible butchery for the hominids.
The study is led by Dr Francis Kirera, an anatomy professor at Mercer University in the United States, and Dr Ngalla Jillani, an anthropologist at NMK.
They are supported by two geologists — Prof Eliud Mathu of South Eastern Kenya University and Prof Christopher Nyamai of the University of Nairobi.
At the heart of the research is local archaeologist, Richard Kinyua, who in June found stone objects believed to be early man's tools in Kieni, Nyeri County.
What makes the research interesting is that it opens a new frontier in the study of evolution as it has never been conducted in the highlands.
“This is an important site that has not been explored. We have been made to think that the Rift Valley is the cradle of mankind. Now we are convinced it may not be so,” Dr Jillani told the Nation.
Even though findings by Mr Kinyua in Gatarakwa prompted the study, the search for the evidence of early man’s activities in the region has been going on for years.
“We came here for the first time in 1999. Mr Kinyua had given us the tooth of an ancient pig," Dr Jillani said.
"After reconstructing it and sampling, we found that it was similar to the tooth of a pig collected in Turkana. It was about four million years old. We then saw the need for an in-depth study of the area.”
However, with few results and with the then young scientists’ need to pursue studies, the team put the research on hold.
Mr Kinyua, however, maintained his search and early this year, he found what appeared to be stone tools.
The tools have a striking similarity with those used by Homo erectus.
Similar stone tools have been found in the world-famous Olorgesailie site on the road to Lake Magadi, and which date close to 1.2 million years.
At Ngobit site, the archaeologists have collected almost 30 samples.
They will be subjected to more studies and tests to identify their age and how they ended up there.
Dr Kirera said the highlands could have been used for refuge by the ancient man escaping harsh conditions in the Rift Valley.
“We are working on a hypothesis called the island effect. When we make these findings, we start thinking of the effects of the climate. It is possible that when the climate in the Rift Valley became harsh, animals could have taken refuge elsewhere,” Dr Kirera said.
According to Dr Jillani, scientists ignored the highlands for years due to the cold conditions.
“The adoption of clothing did not come until way later as evolution progressed so it seemed unlikely that early man lived in these parts. It now appears things could have been different,” the anthropologist said.
The Nation visited one of the sites where the scientists have set up camp on Monday and witnessed them unearthing tools similar to those found earlier this year.
Dozens of fossils were also found at the site.
One of the key discoveries made in Ngobit are bones belonging to herbivores, possibly ancient antelopes, alongside flakes and discoids which were used by early man to slaughter animals.
Geologists say the area is an ancient water body. This could mean it was a watering point for animals.
“Looking at the rock formation, it is evident that this was a water body which might have later been covered up through volcanic activity. In the process, the fossils were preserved,” Prof Mathu said.
With the findings, the scientists believe the place was a butchery.
“The proximity of the tools to the bones tell a story. Whoever lived here was using the tools to kill the animals. Going by the number of tools we have found, the activity was centralised,” he said.