Balter, Michael. "Paleontological Rift in the Rift Valley," Science 292 (13 April 2001)m pp.
TUGEN HILLS AND NAIROBI, KENYA - Martin Pickford stands in the middle of a long, dry
gully lined with tamarind and acacia trees. A light breeze ushers a handful of cottony clouds
across the blue African sky toward Lake Baringo, some 20 kilometers to the east. Pickford points
with a sunburned arm to a spot on the gully's bank. "‘that is where we found the humerus," he
says proudly. "And just over here, one of the femurs and an upper canine tooth, and further down
there, parts of the mandible and the molars." Last October a team led by Pickford, a geologist at
the College de France in Paris, and Brigitte Senut, a paleontologist at France's National Museum
of Natural History, found 13 fossil fragments of what they believe is the earliest known ancestor
of modern humans. Although scientists are still debating whether the fossils belong to the human
family (Science, 23 February, p. 1460), their undisputed age of about 6 million years - roughly
the time when genetic evidence suggests that the human line split from that of the chimpanzees -
means that these remains could help researchers untangle the increasingly twisted roots of the
human evolutionary tree. And just last month, during a 2-week season here at the foot of Kenya's
rugged Tugen Hills, Pickford and Senut found several more fossils - including the middle portion
of a lower jaw - that they believe also belong to this claimed early hominid, which they have
named Orrorin tugenensis.
Such a dramatic find would normally be cause for rejoicing among human origins researchers.
Instead, Orrorin's discovery has set off a bitter internecine battle. Pickford and Senut's very right
to excavate here has been challenged by some other scientists, most notably anthropologist
Andrew Hill of Yale University, who claims that the pair is encroaching on turf his team has
been studying since the 1980s. Hill and other researchers argue that Pickford and Senut have
flouted long-established rules governing paleontology research in Kenya. Pickford and Senut
deny these charges, countering that they have acted legally and follower all required procedures.
They maintain that a campaign against them has been orchestrated primarily by paleontologist
Richard Leakey, a claim Leakey vehemently denies.
Turf battles among paleoanthropologists are nothing new. For decades, scientists working up and
down the great Rift Valley of Africa and Asia - where many of the world's most important
hominid fossils have been found - have fought over the right to unearth these precious keys to
humanity's evolutionary past. The fossil wars have left wounds that have taken years to heal
(Science, 14 January 1983, p. 147; 11 December 1987, p. 1502 and 14 April 1995, p. 196) . But
the fight over the Tugen Hills seems to run deeper than most of these other disputes, and it has
implications for the way paleontology will be managed and conducted in a country that holds
vital importance for the field.
Pickford and Senut see the battle as a struggle over the power of the National Museums of Kenya
(NMK) and the Leakey family, which pioneered paleontology in Kenya and has long dominated
the NMK. The NMK has traditionally held virtual veto power over permit applications, and it is
the official repository for fossils unearthed in the country. Pickford and Senut's work is being
supported by a rival museum system - called the Community Museums of Kenya (CMK) -
established in the hate 1990s with the help of native Kenyans , who argue that their heritage has
been monopolized for too many years by too few researchers. They are getting important support
from government officials, apparently including Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, a member of
the Tugen tribe who was originally born the Baringo area.
There are four principal actors in the drama now being played out in Kenya: Martin Pickford, 57,
who was born in the United Kingdom but moved to Kenya when he was 3 years old; Richard
Leakey, 56, born in Kenya to the famous fossil-hunting pair Louis and Mary Leakey Hill, 54. a
British subject now living in the United States; and Eustace Gitonga, 50, a Kenyan who once
headed the NMK's exhibits department and who is now director of the CMK.
The paths of some of the players first crossed many years ago. Pickford and Leakey; for example,
attended high school together in Nairobi, and Pickford says the two were "great buddies" during
those days, visiting each other's homes and spending weekends and holidays together. Leakey
agrees that he and Pickford were once good friends. Pickford and Hill were anything but buddies.
The two were graduate students together during the 1970s at the University of London under the
legendary geologist William Bishop, who died in 1977. "Andrew [Hill] despised Martin
[Pickford], and vice versa," says a colleague who knows them both well. "He [Pickford] wasn't
the sort of person I wanted to be chummy with;" Hill says.
Although they disliked each other, Hill and Pickford followed similar trajectories. Both took an
interest in the Baringo area: In 1970, Hill and other colleagues found some australopithecine
remains near the lake, and in 1974 Pickford discovered a molar in 6-million-year-old sediments
that he now believes may belong to Orrorin. And after they received their doctorates in 1975,
both ended up working at the NMK, Hill as a research fellow and later administrator with an
institute linked to the museum, and Pickford as head of the museum's antiquities and monuments
department. By that time, Leakey had become director of the NMK, a post he held from 1968 to
Both Hill and Pickford left Nairobi by the early 1980s. But they coincidentally encountered each
other at the museum again on 2 July 1985. Pickford was passing through Nairobi, together with
Senut, on his way to a research site in Uganda, and Hill was doing research of his own in the
museum. What happened on that day is a matter of intense dispute, but it set the stage for the
subsequent turf wars.
On 3 July, Leakey wrote to Pickford charging him with attempting to steal documents from the
museum's archives and banning him from the NMK's research facilities. The documents in
question were some of Bishop's notebooks, which his widow had donated to the museum
Pickford insists he was only borrowing the notebooks to photocopy them and had signed them
out in the archives' logbook - a version of events that is supported by Senut. He is convinced that
Hill had something to do with the accusation against him, because, he says, Hill was keeping an
eye on him while he searched through the archives. Leakey says Pickford's borrowing of the
notebooks was "exceedingly irregular" and that there was "circumstantial evidence" that he
intended to steal them.
Over the next 9 years, Pickford wrote repeatedly to Leakey, the museum's board of directors, and
finally the government ministry in charge of the museum, protesting his innocence and trying to
clear his name. But he remained banned from the museum. Because the NMK's endorsement of a
scientist's application to the government for a research permit was traditionally required to do
paleontology work in Kenya, his banishment from the museum amounted to a blanket ban on
doing research in the country.
Declaration of war
In 1995, Pickford teamed up with Gitonga to declare public war on Leakey. Gitonga, an artist
who constructed many of the museum's exhibits, had his own beef with the NMK's former
director. He says Leakey forced him to leave the NMK in 1987 after accusations - which Gitonga
denies - that he had mishandled funds allotted to erect a large sculpture of a dinosaur in front of
the museum. Pickford and Gitonga launched a broadside against their common enemy in the
form of a book entitled Richard E. Leakey: Master of Deceit. It recounts not only their own
battles with Leakey but also those of other researchers, both Kenyans and foreigners, whose
correspondence with Leakey they, had managed to acquire. The book paints a highly unflattering
portrait of Leakey accusing him of various schemes and manipulations designed to increase his
power and personal wealth at the expense of the museum and other scientists.
To many researchers, as Pickford himself puts it, the book was evidence "that I had finally gone
off my rocker" Pickford adds that he is "not proud" of the book but insists that he had "no
alternative" but to publicly attack Leakey. "For 10 years I had tried to get my scientific rights
reinstated, but all my efforts [had] failed," he says.
Pickford and Gitonga's public attack on Leakey was just the first step in their campaign to end
what they saw as the NMK's monopoly on paleontology research in Kenya. Since 1983, when
Kenya's current antiquities laws were passed, NMK officials have interpreted these laws to mean
that the museum had to approve all paleontology research permits before they could be issued by
a government ministry and that any fossils discovered were the property of the government.
"‘These fossils are very rare;" says the NMK's current director, archaeologist George Abungu.
"There must be a government institution responsible for them."
But Pickford and Gitonga reject this interpretation. Gitonga, who is well connected in Kenyan
politics, began quietly working with a group of anti-Leakey politicians and government officials
to establish the CMK as a rival institution. "The primary issue was recapturing the national
heritage of Kenya, which had been exploited in a lopsided manner by a small group of people,"
The CMK, whose headquarters occupy a suite of offices in downtown Nairobi, was established
in 1997. According to Gitonga, its annual operating budget is about $65,000, raised primarily
from its own board of directors as well as other private donors. Its eight member board of
directors includes Gitonga, Senut, and College de France prehistorian Yves Coppens, as well as a
ranking official in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and a local representative
from the Baringo area.
Gitonga and other CMK board member say that they have received considerable sup port from
President Moi. The organization has also found an important ally in Andrea Kiptoon, a former
research minister and the current parliamentary deputy from the Baringo North district, which
includes the site where Orrnrin was discovered. Kiptoon district also covers the town of
Kipsaramon where in 1993 Hill and his co-workers found the remains of a 15-million-year-old
fossil ape called Equatorius (Science, 27 August 1999, pp. 1335 and 1382) and where the CMK
is building a regional museum - the first of 23 such museums it is planning to construct. In June
1998, Kiptoon invited Pickford to begin working again in the Baringo area. Shortly afterward,
the CMK began applying for research permits for Pickford and his co-workers - and that is when
the battle began in earnest.
The turf war erupts
On 30 October 1998, the head of the department responsible for issuing research permits, which
at that time was housed to the office of the President, approved Pickiford"s application to
conduct paleontology research in three Kenyan provinces, including the Baringo area. And on 30
November, the same official signed the permit itself, a blue card with Pickford"s photo attached.
But when NMK officials, including Abungu, heard about the permit, they challenged its legality
and demanded that it be rescinded.
Pickford's file at the research department - the department has since been transferred to the
Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology - includes a carbon copy of a letter dated 2
November 1998 revoking the permit, pending approval by the NMK. Pickford has long
contended that this letter is a forgery, citing among other things the fact that it is dated 28 days
before the permit was issued and that he did not receive a copy until a year later (see sidebar).
This letter has been at the center of allegations by Abungu, Hill. Leakey, and others that
Pickford's activities in Kenya have been illegal.
Events came to a head just over a year ago. On 17 March 2000, Pickford was arrested by an
officer of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) -Kenya's FBI - while collecting fossils in the
Lake Turkana area, where the Leakey family has discovered numerous hominid remains over the
past decades (Science, 23 March, p. 2289). The arrest came 3 days after Leakey, who was then
head of the Kenya civil service, wrote to Abungu alerting him that Pickford was at Turkana and
urging him to contact CID to "intercept" him. Abungu says he complied with this request,
including sending NMK personnel to help the CID officer find Pickford. But Kenya's public
prosecutor declined to pursue the case, and Pickford and the CMK are now suing Leakey and the
NMK for damages.
The current head of the research permit department, Addy Kaaria, insists that Pickford's permit is
riot valid because it has been revoked. Kaaria is supported in this assertion by the education
ministry's permanent secretary, Japheit Kiptoon (brother of Andrew), who told Science that
Kaaria "knows the files" and that his word on who does and does not have a permit is "official."
But Kaaria also says that Senut - along with two other scientists who work with the team, from
Japan and Spain - does have a valid permit to conduct research in the Baringo area. But so, too,
Pickford and Senut have repeatedly claimed that Hill has not worked in the area since the 1993
discovery of Equatorius, and Andrew Kiptoon told Science that before inviting the pair to work
in Baringo he checked with local people who also said Hill had not been around for years. But
Hill's field notebooks and the testimony of other members of his team - as well as researchers
who have visited the team in the field indicate that he has conducted lengthy field studies in the
vicinity during most of the past 8 years.
In February 1999, Leakey sent a fax to College de France's Coppens, who sponsors Pickford and
Senut's work in Kenya, asking him to "use [his] influence" to stop Pickford from "moving onto
another colleague's site." But Coppens told Science that although he "regrets" the conflict
between the two teams, he has "full confidence" that Pickford and Senut are conducting their
research in an "honest manner."
Yet the presence or two teams working in the same area is alarming to many researchers. "It is
bad for the science," comments John Yellen, the U.S. National Science Foundation's archaeology
program director. "The fossils lose an enormous amount of their value unless put in the proper
stratigraphic and chronological context." Yellen adds that this context can be obscured if "one
group screws up what the other group is doing." Richard Potts, director of the human origins
program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., agrees. He argues that modern
paleontological methods - which attempt to place fossil finds "into large-scale time and space
relationships," including analysis of ancient environments and climates - "require access to large
expanses of terrain without conflicting or competing activities by different research groups."
Potts, who has worked in Kenya for many years himself, adds that the ultimate solution may be
for the NMK and CMK to work out "a well-coordinated strategy" to pursue common research
goals. Indeed, some researchers believe that the CMK is here to stay, as either a rival or a partner
to the NMK's traditional authority over paleontological research. "The bottom line is that we
have to go along with what the Kenyan government says, whether we like it or not," says Yellen.
Even Abungu agrees that the NMK's monopoly should be ended. "Pickford and Gitonga may be
going about this the wrong way, but what they are saying is right," he says. Indeed, Abttngu told
Science, he is now working on a proposed revision of Kenyan law that would allow universities,
as well as nongovernmental organizations like the CMK, to sponsor scientists for research
permits - a right the CMK insists it already has. But the proposed law would still require fossils
to be housed in the NMK's collections, a provision Gitonga and other CMK officials say they
will fight. (The remains of Orrorin are currently kept in a bank vault in Nairobi, although CMK
leaders say they plan to build a museum in the city that would in include a safe storage area for
CMK's challenge to the NMK also challenges the Leakey family's influence over paleontology
in Kenya. The Leakeys have always been powerful forces in the NMK. (Although Richard is no
longer in charge, his wife, Meave, is now head of the museum's paleontology division.) "Perhaps
it is a historical accident, but control of the museum has long been in the hands of a family
dynasty" Abungu acknowledges. "We have to open up the playing field."
But in Hill's view, something very different is at stake in his dispute with Pickford, Senut, and
the CMK: "They are not undermining a Leakey hegemony; they are undermining really good
Kenyan laws on antiquities and monuments."
Sidebar: "The Case of the ‘Forged' Letter
NAIROBI - On 17 March 2000, geologist Martin Pickford of the College de France in Paris was
arrested near Kenya's Lake Turkana on a charge of fossil hunting without a permit. According to
Pickford, the arresting officer, from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) - the nation's FBI
- presented him with a letter, dated 2 November 1998, stating that his research permit had been
revoked. This letter is at the center of a bitter dispute over excavation rights in the Tugen Hills,
where Pickford and his co-workers are accused of encroaching on a site long under study by a
rival research team (see main text).
Pickford has long maintained that the letter is a forgery. His opponents, however, have cited it as
proof that his recent work in Kenya is illegal. "If the letter is a forgery, Pickford's permit is
valid,' says George Abungu, director of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). "If the letter is
real, his permit is not valid." Ultimately, the Kenyan courts may have to decide which it is.
Three key documents in this tangled saga all bear the, signature of Josephat Ekirapa, then head of
the government department that issues research permits, which at that time was housed in the
Office of the President: A letter, dated 30 October , 1998, notifying Pickford his permit
application`had been approved; the 2 November letter revoking the permit and the permit itself, a
blue card with Pickford's photo on it, issued 28 days later, on 30 November. Pickford claims he
did not receive the revocation notice until more than a year later, when it was handed to him in
the NMK parking lot by a researcher now studying in the United States.
That researcher was Stephen Gitau, now an anthropology graduate student at Southern Illinois
University in Carbondale, Illinois. Gitau, who was doing research at the NMK at the time, says
he launched his own investigation into rumors that Pickford was encroaching on the sites of other
scientists. His motivation, he says, was his concern for Kenya's "national heritage" and the
possibility that "laws were being broken." He says he went to see Ekirapa twice, first to check on
the validity of Pickford's permit, then to get a copy of the letter revoking the permit.
Gitau says Ekirapa had his secretary type up a duplicate copy of the letter, and he claims that
Ekirapa added some additional lines to it, providing more detailed reasons why the original
permit had been revoked in late November 1999. Gitau handed the letter to Pickford, who was
passing through Nairobi.
Pickford says he took one took at the letter and was convinced it was a forgery. In his diary that
evening, he noted such irregularities as the letter's date -almost a month before Ekirapa signed
his permit - and the fact that it was not typed on government stationery, but rather on a photocopy
of old government stationery containing a typographical error.
Gitau insists that the letter is genuine and was given to him by Ekirapa personally. Ekirapa also
insists that the letter is genuine and that he signed it. But he says he does not remember Gitau or
Gitau's visit to his office, and he denies adding extra lines to the letter. The file on Pickford's
application, now housed in the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, contains a
carbon copy of the 2 November letter that does not contain the lines at issue.
Ekirapa says he revoked Pickford's permit because an official in the Ministry of Rural
Development had misrepresented Pickford as an employee of the ministry in urging Ekirapa to
grant him a permit. The official - whose name was misspelled in the letter Gitau gave Pickford -
is Elisha Chesiyna, chair of the board of the Cnmmunity Museums of Kenya (CMK), a
nongovernmental organization that had sponsored Pickford's permit application. Chesiyna, who
is now director of the land reclamation department in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural
Development, denies that he misrepresented Pickford's affiliation with the GMK without
referring to the ministry. Asked why he signed Pickford's research permit 28 days after he had
supposedly revoked it, Ekirapa says the "most likely" scenario is that he revoked the permit after
signing it and predated the revocation notice.
Ekirapa insists that Pickford has "no excuses"for continuing to do research in Kenya after he
received the letter. "If he thought the letter was a forgery, he should have come to see me about
it," he says. Pickford says that when he received the letter, he was about the leave Nairobi and
turned it over to CMK director Eustace Gitonga for further action. Kenya's public prosecutor has
declined to pursue a case against Pickford. Gitanga says the letter will be used as evidence in a
lawsuit Pickford and the CMK have filed for false arrest.