Monday, November 28, 2011

Building Bridges Between Evolution and Religion

Science writer Lawrence Nzuve looks at a conference which was so successful Darwin would have been proud were he alive today!

The 2nd Human Evolution Workshop for Kenyan Educators, 2011 was recently organised at the Louise Leakey Auditorium bringing together heads of schools and educators and participants included those who were not present when the first workshop was held in 2007.

A report prepared by the Prehistory Club of Kenya President and National Museums of Kenya Senior Research Scientist Dr. Fredrick Manthi painted a grim picture of the knowledge about prehistory which currently permeates in the country and specially in Kenya's learning institutions.

Prehistory Club President Dr. Manthi addresses the participants (Photos courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

Noting that Kenya is endowed with a rich prehistoric record (particularly fossil remains) that has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolutionary history of human and non-human species, Dr. Manthi reiterated that in spite of this rich record, a large number of Kenyans lack accurate scientific information about our prehistoric past, and how different biological species have evolved over time. Although History within which prehistory and evolution are taught in Kenyan high schools is an examinable subject, this subject has been made optional in the Kenyan education system. Statistical evidence has shown that very few students have interest in History, and thus there has been a decline in enrollment. Although the situation may be attributed to numerous factors including the perceptions that most Kenyans hold towards the concept of evolution, lack of knowledge about the importance of prehistory and evolution to understanding our past and also predicting the future, can be blamed for the small number of Kenyans pursuing careers in this discipline.

Held between the 31st July - 2nd August 2011, the 2nd Wenner-Gren Foundation sponsored workshop, whose theme was ‘Building bridges between evolution and religion’, aimed at helping teachers deal with perceptions about evolution, which would ultimately enable them to effectively teach the topic. Considering that it is not logistically possible to bring together teachers from all over the country, the workshop targeted high school teachers and educators from institutions that were not represented in the 1st workshop which was also sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and took place in 2007.
NMK Director-General Dr. Idle Farah opening the Workshop (Photos courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

During the tour, emphasis was made on the need for the teachers to organize educational visits for their students to the Cradle of Humankind Gallery, as this would help the students appreciate the concept of evolution. The second day marked the official opening of the workshop, during which Dr. Idle O. Farah, the Director General of NMK and senior scientists at the NMK spoke about the importance of the Wenner-Gren-sponsored series of workshops on prehistory and evolution. During the opening session, the need for Kenyan scholars and educators to join hands in educating the youth about the country’s rich prehistoric heritage was also underscored by all speakers.

“Why don’t we hear on our TVs students saying they want to become Palaeontologists or Archaeologists, why do we always hear them saying they want to become neuro-surgeons”, posed Dr. Farah.

Speakers who included Dr. Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution (SI), whose title was: “What does it mean to be human: the Smithsonian Institution experience in public education on human origins”. During this presentation, Dr. Potts highlighted, among other things, some of the public education programs he is involved in at the SI, and the impact that these programs have had to the general public. It was evident from Dr. Potts’ talk that there is a growing curiosity among a large number of Americans towards prehistory and human evolution, a phenomenon that is also evident in Kenya.

Other lectures were by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba of the University of Nairobi, which was titled: “Evolution and religion: the tertiary education perspective”, which was followed by a presentation from Dr. Naomi Levin (John Hopkins University), whose title was: “Stable isotope studies and human evolution”. While Prof. Wandibba’s talk centered on the different ways of addressing issues raised by university students on prehistory and evolution, Dr. Levin’s lecture highlighted how the food we eat gets absorbed into our bodies and how we can document dietary preferences of different faunal species from the enamel of their teeth, and how these diets would have influenced the evolutionary trajectories of these species. This presentation was followed by a talk from Mrs. Purity Kimaita, a teacher at Ngara Girls Secondary School in Nairobi, which was titled: “Reconciling religion and evolution”. Mrs. Kimaita is a renown speaker among Kenyan high school teachers and is famous for her persuasive presentations on how it is possible to bridge the gap between the evolutionary explanation for the origin of life versus the creation one. Dr. David Kyule of the University of Nairobi, gave a talk: “Teachers’ experiences in teaching evolution”. It is important to point out that all the presentations attempted to persuade the teachers against the popular perceptions that the evolutionary explanation for origin of life and humanity conflicts their religious beliefs. In order to engage the teachers with the curriculum developers (the KIE), the last presentation of the day which was given by Mrs. Virginia Njerenga of KIE, dwelt on how a new curriculum which is currently under development was going to accommodate the teaching of prehistory and evolution, and how this is tailored within Kenya’s Vision 2030.
Participants follow proceedings at the 2nd Human evolution workshop 2011 (photo courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

The third day of the workshop began with more presentations on prehistory. These included a keynote speech by Prof. Stan Ambrose, which was titled: “The African origin of cooperation”. Prof. Ambrose used archaeological records from a number of Late Stone Age sites in Kenya to demonstrate how social networks were established, and how this helped in maintaining cooperation between different human populations across the landscape. Dr. Fredrick Manthi's presentation was titled: “Intrigues of the past”. Dr. Manthi used this presentation to demonstrate to the teachers Kenya’s diverse fossil record, which includes large mammalian fauna such as the gomphotheres which had four tusks. He underscored the importance of these faunal remains to understanding the evolutionary history of different extinct and extant faunal taxa. Prof. Bonnie Jacobs from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas presentation was titled: “Plant fossils as evidence of evolution”, and highlighted different characteristics in plant fossils that are a testimony of evolutionary processes. In his presentation titled: “Public programs at the NMK: teachers and evolution”, Mr. Daniel Mitei of NMK underscored the important role the NMK’s Public Programs Department plays in educating teachers and students alike about different research activities and public programs undertaken at the NMK. He acknowledged the important role the Prehistory Club was playing in educating the Kenyan public about prehistory and evolution. In order to further reinforce all the issues discussed in the presentations, the educators were treated to a behind the scenes tours of the Palaeontological and archaeological collections at the NMK. During the tours, it was evident that the educators were mesmerized by particularly the rich fossil record from Kenyan sites, which includes specimens of both extinct and extant genera. This in a big way helped to underscore the importance of prehistory research and how this helps in understanding the evolutionary history of different faunal species.

The closing ceremony which was officiated by the NMK’s Director for Research and Collections. During this ceremony, all schools represented in the workshop were awarded a package containing a cast of the ‘Turkana boy’ (Homo erectus) skull courtesy of the Uraha Foundation in Germany and the NMK, the ‘Human Story Book’ courtesy of the National Geographic Society, and a DVD containing stories on prehistory and human evolution courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Participants pose for a group photo outside the Louise Leakey Auditorium: It was the most successful workshop so far (Photos courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

The workshop availed to the teachers an opportunity to meet and chat with professional prehistorians and evolutionary biologists who study and teach evolution. The workshop discussed different ways through which educators may bridge the gap between evolution and religion, thus making the teaching of prehistory and human evolution interesting to both the educators and the students. It is also noteworthy that the President of the Prehistory Club of Kenya is in contact with KIE and plans are underway for a consultative meeting between them and the NMK and other stake-holders in the Kenyan education sector. Many of the teachers who attended the workshop have already launched satellite Prehistory Clubs in their schools, and the Prehistory Club office in Nairobi will work closely with the schools in order to advance awareness about prehistory and evolution.

The Prehistory Club would like to thank the Wenner-Gren Foundation for their Financial support and the NMK for logistical support as well as other stakeholders who ensured that the workshop was a success and especially the Prehistory-club coodinator Grace Kyalo whose input went a long way in making the 2nd Human evolution workshop for Kenyan Educators such a success.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

University Don gives talk in aid of Prehistory Club

By Lawrence Nzuve

Pennsylvania University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and a world renown researcher in primates Prof. Nina Jablonski was the guest speaker at the Kenya Museum Society's dinner talk that was held in the Louis Leakey auditorium in the Nairobi National Museum on the 23rd November 2011. The talk organised by the KMS was to help in fundraising for the Prehistory Club of Kenya.

(R-L) KMS' Patricia, Prof. Jablonski and Dr. Manthi just before the talk

Giving a well attended talk that attracted prehistory enthusiasts from all over the city and without, Nina reiterated that Skin color is not a unique attribute that can be used to define races. Jablonski wondered why teachers were constantly looking around for teaching materials on evolution while the skin in actual fact was a moving laboratory that everyone possessed

"Racial discrimination on the basis of Skin color is a biological nonsense", offered Prof. Jablonski.

Prof. Jablonski addresses prehistory enthusiasts

She added that the obsession with skin color was as a result of humans being very visual and hence missing the whole point and that under the skin all humanity was the same.

All in all, it was an evening to remember and at the end of it all, she offered 500 US dollars to be matched by KMS members and members of the public Dollar for Dollar in aid of the Club.

Also attending was the Prehistory Club chair Dr. Fredrick Manthi and students from Peponi school as well as KMS members and other Nairobi socialites.

Participants keenly follow the talk: they included Peponi students

Monday, June 13, 2011


Teachers Workshop
31st July- 2nd August, 2011
Louis Leakey Auditorium

Evolution is the unifying concept of biology and has many practical applications in society, particularly in the area of human health. However, evolution can also be challenging to teach effectively. The Prehistory Club of Kenya is organizing a prehistory teachers' workshop sponsored by the Wenner Gren Foundation, U.S.A. which will help participants deal with student preconceptions, and demonstrate how to make evolution relevant for students. The workshop will avail to the teachers an opportunity to meet and chat with professional evolutionary biologists who both study and teach evolution. The workshop will discuss the challenges and opportunities encountered in a public conversation about human evolution, and will discuss what materials and resources are available to successfully convey the topic in both informal and formal learning environments; and finally, use humans as an example in teaching core evolutionary concepts.

Monday, March 15, 2010

KU students tour Earth Sciences Department

Lawrence Nzuve

It does seem that the story of our lives; origins better put, continue to awe and interest many people. This fact can never be over emphasized. The Earth sciences Department played host to a class of evolutionary biology students from the University of Kenyatta led by Prof. Mitei. The enthusiastic students were not disappointed as they were taken through the laboratory by Dr. Alfreda Ibui who is a Research Scientist in the paleontology section of the department and Victor Iminjili; a graduate student from the University of Georgia. Dr. Ibui took time to go through the different taxa stored on shelves and on the floor of this magnificent laboratory ranging from huge tortoise and turtle fossil carapace to the extinct skeletons of elephants and Rhinos.

Dr. Alfreda Ibui of the Earth Sciences Department with a one-on-one with Kenyatta University students. Prof Mitei (in the foreground) looks on (photos courtesy of Lawrence Nzuve)

Being two groups of students for convenience, Victor Iminjili a doctoral student from the University of Georgia took a second group round the laboratory and he too went through the paces. Students were really impressed as was evident from the way they asked questions and took note, Prof. Mitei also advised the students on the spot about the various openings that are available to them and also challenged them to take up this noble study. Having given them a brief history of early Research by both Louis and Mary, Prof. Mitei threw the challenge to the students to follow in the foot steps of the localized research work where trained Kenyan scientists are now making great discoveries

This is it! Victor stresses a point to Kenyatta University students (photos courtesy of Lawrence Nzuve)

If the concentration of the students was anything to go by, then this trip was indeed a success. It is hoped that this will spur their interest and also help them in answering most lingering questions on our origins and those of other animals who clearly have changed over time.

The faces that tell it all: these Kenyatta University students are dwarfed by an Elephant cranium at the paleontology Laboratory (photos courtesy of Lawrence Nzuve)

We would like to thank the head of Earth Sciences department, paleontology section and the archeology sections of the Earth Sciences department as well as Victor and Dr. Ibui who facilitated this beneficial trip to the laboratories, as well as Prof. Mitei who availed the students for this important tour

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!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Museums' Open Day - 27/28th November 2009

Francis Ndiritu M.

The Earth Sciences Department of the NMK once again has emerged top by scientific and research ratings during the just concluded Museums' Open Day to the public. The occasion was organized on 27th and 28th November 2009 and graced by the Director General National Museums of Kenya among other dignitaries. The Museum Open Day (s) is a day or days set aside every year where by the public is invited to have a glimpse of the roles and functions of the museum in national building. During these two days, all the Departments show cased their prowess of which the Earth Sciences tied with the Center for Biodiversity as winners in the scientific potential rating. Of prehistory Concern was a very well rehearsed display organized by the Paleontology, Archaeology, Geology and Palynology sections of the NMK.

photos 1 and 2 represents some of the interactive parts provided by the Earth Sciences Dept. during the open Day. Grinding stone was and is a crucial tool if food processing and an important artifact in prehistory. In the second photo the public was given an opportunity to have a photo and compare themselves with their ancestors (Pic courtesy of Earth Sciences Dept, NMK)

The Departments tent was basically a crowd puller, from the well documented and simplified chronology of human origins story represented by skull replicas of different hominids preserved at the NMK. The paleontology Section show cased a fabulous presentation of hominid skulls that best explains the origins and evolution of mankind from the earliest known fossil to the modern man. This was to pin the anatomical changes that has occurred in man over time. This was compared with the simultaneous changes in food selection that man has used. The changes in feeding is a likely factor which shaped the evolution of humankind. Man started with law and unprocessed food and with time mastered the art of processing food.

The left photo shows the human origins table whereas the right one show the changes in diet and food processing that man has used with time (Pic courtesy of Earth Sciences Dept, NMK)

The Geology Section show cased some of the mineral resources the country has, their uses, locality and the future of geology as a discipline. The public got the opportunity to identify themselves with minerals that came from their localities. Meanwhile, the Palynology Section was warning the public on the effects of global warming using Mt. Kilimanjaro models to prove how the snow has been varnishing over time.

Dr. Idle Farah, Director of the NMK with other dignitaries visit
the Geology and Palynology Sections during the Museums' Open Day
(Pic courtesy of Earth Sciences Dept, NMK)

The Archaeology Section also killed it with a fascinating fine collection of prehistory artifacts. To bring a real taste of what these artifacts meant to the users, the section compared these artifacts with their modern counterparts tools. These included grinding tools, cutting, pressing, cooking, lighters, storing etc.

Miss Christine explains to the chief guests some important
points at the at the Archaeology table during the Museums' Open Day (Pic courtesy of Earth Sciences Dept, NMK)

The information desks was also present where by the Department had produced brochures, newsletters, T-shirts, books, mugs etc for giving out and selling to the public.

The information desk where books, newsletters, brochures, t-shirts, mugs, plates and other materials were placed for the public to pick and buy (Pic courtesy of Earth Sciences Dept, NMK)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Origins and prehistory: remembering heroes from the past

Lawrence Nzuve

Prehistory as the study of the past; events and objects that shaped our history as we know it today is in no doubt a fascinating topic in today's life. The human person has an overwhelming desire to know how it was in those first moments when life came into being. The prehistory Club of Kenya has over the years taken an enviable role in this noble yet very important quest. Not just that though. The National Museums of Kenya under whose auspices the Club operates recently feted one of its retired employees with a rare recognition. Except that it was not just an ordinary recognition nor was it another ordinary retiree.

(Sitted from lt) Mr. Kamoya Kimeu, Dr. Miaron, Hon. Ntimama and Mrs Maina from Nairobi School and NMK DG, Dr. Farah ( rt standing) pose for a photo with Nairobi school students and another one of their teachers(pic courtesy of NMK)

Kamoya Kimeu is known the world over for his fossil discovery prowess and in particular for his famous discovery of the Turkana Boy. The most visible of the hominid gang members as this exclusive group is called, Kimeu is a past recipient of a presidential medallion; Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) conferred on him in recognition of his contribution to the quest for the origins of humankind.

Kamoya poses with Prehistory Club of Kenya officials (from left) Mr. Francis Ndiritu, Mrs. Grace Kyalo and Dr. Fredrick Manthi, the Chair. Next to Dr. Manthi is Mr. Robert who works for NMK(pic courtesy of Nzuve)

To this end the Prehistory Club organised students of Nairobi school who recited a poem entitled 'mwana wa Kiturkana' in his honor and also the NMK had a beautiful cake prepared to as part of the wider celebrations to mark the opening of the Second NMK Science Conference which was graced by National Heritage Minister Hon. William Ole Ntimama and his PS. Prof. Jacob ole Miaron among a cabal of important guests including the Director General of the NMK Dr. Idle Farah and the Director of Research and Collections Dr. Helida Oyieke. This was to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Turkana Boy and also to officially hand over the medal that was awarded to Mr. Kamoya Kimeu by former US President Ronald Reagan at the White House. A special cake was prepared for this occasion too and the girls who recited the poem, did not disappoint. All in all, it was a good opportunity to not only underscore the place that Kenya holds in the preservation and contribution to science, but also to remember the faces behind the success.

Students of Nairobi School reciting a poem at the Conference opening; these bright students have a prehistory Club in the school which is helping spread the story of our past( pic courtesy of NMK)

The Prehistory Club of Kenya salutes this gallant son of Kenya whose individual and collective contribution has since rewritten the history of Humankind and put Kenya on the global map in as far as research in this important field is concerned. We sincerely thank the National Museums of Kenya for facilitating this important day.