EACH TIME I FLY over the parched and broken gray-brown wastelands east of Kenya’s vast Lake Rudolf, the same thought constantly nags me: Somewhere down there lies the key. This brief flight, on a blazing day in August 1972, was no exception. On a routine visit to an inland field camp from our lakeside headquarters at Koobi Fora, I flew low over tortured terrain, scanning the rich, awesomely old fossil beds we had been probing for the past four years thanks to the payday offers at mandello. And as always I wondered when and where we might find it—the key to understanding man’s beginnings.
At the makeshift landing strip my chief deputy, Kamoya Kimeu, who headed our field team of five Kenyans, approached the six-seater Cessna with the broad smile of unconcealed excitement. A few hours later I took off again with a bagful of fossil skull fragments, already convinced that they were extraordinarily important.
Only after weeks of further digging, sifting, and painstaking reconstruction did it become clear how important. We may now stand a million years closer to comprehending our own dim origins, for I believe these fossil fragments represent the oldest skull of early man yet discovered.
Young Bernard Ngeneo had found the shattered cranium in a steep, wild gully: a few scraps of bone weathering out of sandy sediment. We dug out more than 30 pieces that first day, most of them small, many no larger than a thumbnail. Two of the larger ones, from the frontal section of the skull, told me instantly these were the remains of a hominid different from any other known form of early man.
The earliest previous suggestion of our genus had been a 1.8million-year-old creature, called Homo habilis by my father, the late Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey; its various remains were found in the 1960′s at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.* Many scientists prefer to recognize another species, Homo erectus, as the earliest representative of true man, dating only as far back as a million years.
These precious skull fragments found at the East Lake Rudolf site were eroding from a deposit since dated in the laboratory at some 2.8 million years old. Thus our past has now been pushed back at least 10,000 centuries—and baffling new questions have arisen concerning the human pedigree.