Akai Ekes and John Ekusi watch as Isaiah Nengo lifts the sandstone block with Alesi after six hours of excavation. © Isaiah Nengo
De Anza Instructor's Rare Fossil Research Provides Insights into Human Forerunners
A dramatic discovery in Kenya is shedding new light on the common ancestry of apes and humans, according to a new article in the scientific journal Nature that was co-authored by Dr. Isaiah Nengo, a De Anza College anthropology instructor and leader of the team that found the fossilized skull of a 13-million-year-old baby ape.
"It is amazing," Nengo said of the fossil, which he helped to unearth during an expedition in Northern Kenya. The fossil is believed to be the most complete example of an extinct ape skull that's ever been found. "The whole thing is there. It preserves part of the skull that has never been known before."
The discovery has provided anthropologists with new understanding about an extinct species that was an ancestor of both apes and humans. The ape, nicknamed Alesi, lived in Africa at least six million years before humans diverged onto their own evolutionary path. Nengo and members of an international scientific team were able to determine the skull's age because it was preserved by a volcanic eruption.
Nengo, who earned his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Harvard, is currently on leave from De Anza and serving as a research professor at the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University in New York. He began teaching at De Anza in 2006, while also conducting research and excavations in Kenya with support from the Leakey Foundation and other sponsors. In recent years, thanks to funding from the Foothill-De Anza Foundation, he has been able to take De Anza students on his summer expeditions. Students on this year's trip are blogging about their experiences.
"They’re given a responsibility and it’s not homework – it’s real,” Nengo has said about the students' participation in the expeditions. “It allows [students] to see themselves as part of something bigger and more important."
It's not every day that a De Anza instructor has an article published in a prestigious scientific journal. The research is drawing coverage from news outlets around the world, including National Geographic, the Bay Area's Mercury News, France's Le Monde and the British Daily Mail.
To hear Nengo tell the story, the 2014 discovery of the ape skull was a combination of happenstance and hard work.
The find was made in an area called Napudet, west of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. It came on "a day when we couldn't find a single thing," Nengo has said. "And so it was time to go back to the camp and everyone was kind of in a foul mood."
When team member John Ekusi, a veteran Kenyan fossil hunter, decided he wanted to have a smoke, his colleagues shooed him away from camp. Strolling a short distance away, Ekusi spotted something and called Nengo and others to see. Once they began brushing away dirt from the find, Nengo said, "we knew it was a primate skull."
For more information ...
- Learn about Isaiah Nengo in this Campus Memo profile.
- Read an abstract of the article about the findings in the journal Nature.
- Find more details about the discovery on the Leakey Foundation website.
- Share the experience of doing field work on a paleontological expedition, through these blog posts from De Anza students in Kenya this summer.