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isaiah nengo

Anthropology instructor Isaiah Nengo was inspired to study human evolution when, as a high school student, he heard a talk by famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. Leakey is the son of Louis Leakey, one of the first anthropologists to recognize Africa as the origin of humanity.

“We’re most closely related to the great apes and all those species are found in Africa,” said Nengo. “Louis Leakey went back to Africa and started looking.” 

The Leakeys discovered hominid fossils in the Olduvai Gorge and Lake Victoria Basin. Their findings convinced other scientists that humanity evolved in Africa. As a child growing up in Kenya, Nengo was only vaguely aware of these discoveries. Then he heard Richard Leakey.

“That’s when I got hooked,” said Nengo. “I became entirely fascinated. I thought, ‘this is exciting,’ but I didn’t think of it as a career [at first].”

Nengo enrolled in Nairobi University to study zoology and botany. When he graduated, he wrote to Leakey and was offered a volunteer position. Volunteering led to a fellowship and a sponsorship from the Smithsonian to study biological anthropology at Harvard.

“Anthropology in the past was used to classify people, but the discipline has done a lot to show the things that are common to us,” Nengo said. “Whatever information we get is not for a particular group or a particular place -- it is the human story.”

After earning a Ph.D., Nengo taught at Miami University of Ohio, UC Berkeley and Santa Clara University. He joined De Anza in 2006. In 2012, he was granted a Fulbright scholarship to spend an entire year in Kenya excavating and researching. “Once we find fossils, we bring them to a museum, clean them, study them and share the results with everybody else,” said Nengo. “With the Fulbright I had the sustained focus I had not been able to have before. It’s amazing how much time you can spend on a tooth.”

Nengo has taken students on trips to Songhor, a fossil-rich site in western Kenya and to Napudet, in the Lake Turkana Basin of Nothern Kenya. On the most recent trip, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Leakey Foundation, the group found a complete primate skull between four and eleven million years old at Napudet. It took six hours of careful digging each day for three days to fully extricate the skull.

“Skulls are extremely rare. People work for years without ever finding one,” said Nengo. “This was rewarding because I was directing the project.” 

isaiah nengoThe opportunity to discover rare fossils is only one reason Nengo takes students with him on digs. He is also interested in what the students can learn about themselves.

“One student, it never occurred to him that he would leave the country, it never occurred to him that he would go to Africa,” Nengo said. “I could see a change in how he viewed himself. There was a transformation.”

Next summer, Nengo hopes to take five to seven students with him to the northern district of Kenya to search for chimpanzee fossils. He’d also like to establish a field school for students to do actual research, find fossils and meet people in the areas where they excavate. To Nengo, taking students into the field is the best way for them put their learning into practice.

“They can see all these people focused on this work. They’re given a responsibility and it’s not homework -- it’s real,” said Nengo. “It allows [students] to see themselves as part of something bigger and more important.” 

 










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Last Updated: 12/19/14