Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Earth Sciences Department shines at 2nd Scientific conference

Lawrence Nzuve

It was the 2nd Scientific Conference held from the 23rd November to 25th November 2009 and this year it was brought home.It was hosted at the Louis Leakey Auditorium and there was everything a conference of this magnitude could offer. The theme of the conference was 'Research for Humanity and Vision 2030' and was opened by the minster for National Heritage and Culture Hon. William Ole Ntimama and patronized by heavy weights in conservation circles in Kenya including distinguished gentlemen as Prof Joseph Alcamo (Chief Scientist UNEP) and Prof. Ratemo Michieka both of whom presented a key note paper. Also present was the PS ministry of National Heritage and Culture Dr. Jacob Ole Miaron and the host Dr. Idle Farah NMK Director General. Various Speeches were given by various participating personalities.

(Background)A section of participants at the 2nd Scientific Conference held at The NMK. This year, the event was brought home.(pic courtesy of NMK)

It was however the presentations of three speakers which instantly caught the eye of the participants probably because in their own ways they go in tandem with the core business of the Prehistory Club of Kenya. In her eloquent presentation to the 2nd Scientific Conference, Archeologist Dr. Purity Kiura presented a powerful paper on 'Human Dietary studies and Isotope Values of Fish from Tropical Lakes in East Africa' co authored with Julia Lee Thorp of University of Bradford UK. In her captivating presentation Dr. Kiura explained how isotope analysis of bones can inform us about the diets of people in the past by indicating the quantities of certain resources like fish, certain cereals, animal flesh etc by first understanding the natural distribution of isotopes in food webs. It emerged that the most useful distributions are carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Her study compared the nitrogen and carbon isotopes of a large number of fish specimens from Lake Turkana and Victoria with a view of establishing whether the pattern held elsewhere or was peculiar to Lake Turkana

Dr. Kiura of the Archeology section of the Earth Sciences during her presentation (pic courtesy of NMK)

The other paper was presented by Dr. Fredrick Manthi who is also the Chair of the Prehistory Club of Kenya on 'Small mammals' tooth enamel: a means to understanding palaeoenvironments'. A key area of investigation has always been the environmental contexts in which early hominins lived and how these environments may have shaped the evolutionary history of the hominins. Dr. Manthi went on to explain that numerous methods of reconstructing past environments have been used, the most recent one being isotopic analysis of mammalian tooth enamel in order to interpret dietary signatures and subsequently the environmental conditions in which the animal/s lived. Originally this method involved grinding of the a portion of the tooth and then collecting the resultant powder for analysis. This method required a large amount of sample material. With the use of a new technique known as GC/IRMS (gas chromatography/isotope ratio mass spectrometry). With this, it is possible to obtain carbon and oxygen carbon data with minimal damage to the teeth, especially important for small mammals. Explaining this study, Dr. Manthi pointed out that it is significant that small mammals such as rodents and insectivores have a number of unique characteristics that make them amenable to ecological change. In conclusion, Dr. Manthi offered that isotopic analysis of rodent incisors, which are continuously growing, hold promise for yielding information useful for understanding past environmental conditions.

Dr. Manthi of the paleontology section and Chair of the Prehistory Club of Kenya on the podium (pic courtesy of NMK)

To cap the day that was, was Dr. Francis Kirera who chose to delve in the most interesting of all topics with his breathtaking presentation titled, 'Celebrating Darwin Bi-Centennial: A dilemma or wonderland'. Dr. Kirera offered that Charles Robert Darwin is credited for proposing the theory of natural selection as the mechanism behind organismal evolution; a theory that revolutionized the way we understand nature and how it shapes life forms. He added, 'the key to his theory and the reason his idea resonates both with fans and foes, it placed man in the midst of nature, meaning that humans are integral and intimate part of natural world'. Unlike equal thinkers like Newton, Einstein or Galileo, Darwin's idea is ubiquitously known, easily quoted across-the -board, and has equally influenced many people. The first reason is because his theory is easily understood yet one that is contested and debated. The second one is the dogma of 'fixated society' which many still hold dear. In his 1871 book"the Decent of man", Darwin posited that Africa was the Cradle of humanity. Indisputably, his prediction was right and today research and evidence from early human fossils and molecular studies support this. The NMK has been the home of all these research findings and house a most impressive collection of fossils which are key to this study. In conclusion Dr. Kirera observed, " the study of human evolution is becoming even more relevant today to us as we face the unknown and often uncertain future".

Moving the crowds; Paleontology Section's Dr. Kirera powers his presentation. It was arguably the most thought provoking talk of the whole conference(pic courtesy of NMK)

Once again we take this early opportunity to thank the National Museums of Kenya through the able stewardship of the Director General Dr. Idle Farah, and all the invited distinguished guests who presented at the conference by way of key note addresses and papers as well as power point presentations and posters. Our special thanks go to the Director of Research and Collections Dr. Helida Oyieke and the organizing committee Chair Dr. Lange and members; too numerous to mention and all those who by their mere attendance made the conference worth its salt!