Located on an ancient lakebed in a remote region of northern Kenya, the Turkana Basin is a fossil-rich area where paleoanthropologists have made many important discoveries about human ancestors.
Since 2006, the Turkana Basin Institute—a partnership between the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the National Museums of Kenya, and the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya—has greatly assisted researchers traveling to the area. The institute provides scientists with two research facilities, on the east and west sides of Lake Turkana. These stations provide accommodations, laboratories, food, fossil-preparation facilities, and communications equipment.
Today, scientists representing disciplines from anthropology to zoology conduct a wide variety of projects using the facilities of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI).
Scott Bjelland, TBI's director of communications, says the Koobi Fora Research Project, which began back in 1968 (before TBI was established), is one of the institute's largest ongoing research efforts. Famed paleontologist Richard Leakey, now the chair of TBI's board of trustees, led the first expedition to Koobi Fora, an area along the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, in 1968. Since then, hundreds of hominid fossils have been discovered in the region.
"The Koobi Fora Research Project has been, along with the various scientists and researchers associated with the project over the years, responsible for much, but certainly not all, of the important fossil evidence for human evolution that has been recovered from the Turkana Basin," Bjelland says.
The Koobi Fora Research Project studies fossils that are millions of years old. Not all projects reach quite that far back in history.
The Later Prehistory of West Turkana Project, led by TBI research associate John Shea and Stony Brook's Elisabeth Hildebrand, is studying human behavioral changes that occurred in the Turkana Basin around 4,000 years ago.
"We are trying to find out what happened when these food producers—these pastoralists—bumped into the last of the African hunter-gatherers in that part of the world," Shea says. "Did they get along? Did they trade? Did they fight? What were the social processes?"
This summer, Shea's team will be based out of TBI's west Turkana camp, where they will excavate the area around Namoratunga, a collection of basalt pillars erected around 4,000 years ago.
If Shea's project is more modern than the Koobi Fora Research Project, the Island Africa Project is even more ancient.
"It's a consortium of American and African vertebrate paleontologists and geologists who are trying to understand these very significant evolutionary events of the Late Cretaceous and beginning of the Tertiary," Bjelland says.
These are just a few of the many research projects affiliated with the Turkana Basin Institute. Bjelland notes that other groups use the facilities to conduct botany, agriculture, aquaculture, linguistic, and cultural anthropology research.
"It's [also] an excellent place to study the effects of climate change," Bjelland says.
Transportation and Exploration
One of the biggest assets of the Turkana Basin Institute is how the organization makes it easier for scientists to get from Nairobi, Kenya's capital and largest city, to the remote Turkana Basin. TBI has small airstrips at each facility and a small service plane to transport people and supplies.
"It took us four days of hard driving to get from Nairobi and another day of packing [before TBI]," Shea says. "So basically a week to get from the ground in Nairobi to on the ground and operational in Turkana in the 1980s. An entire week! Last year, we could get from Nairobi to our base camp and be in the field in about six hours, including flight time."
The accommodations have improved, too. "Nowadays, when we go up there, we can stay in the facility," Shea says. "There are beds and cooks. We don't have to drag a cook with us up from Nairobi. There is a cooking staff at camp. If something breaks, they will fix it. If we need to store gear there, we can put them in lockers. We don’t have to haul everything back and forth to Nairobi. It has just made a world of difference. It’s much easier to do research up there."
The Sky is the Limit
Shea believes that TBI's focus will expand in the future.
"Right now, I think it's mainly perceived as a scientific base for paleontology and archaeology," he says. "What I think will happen is that its scientific mandate will grow. People will realize that there are studies that can be done of soil, studies that can be done of insects, studies that can be done of any number of subjects out there."
Bjelland says the Turkana Basin Institute is enthusiastic about this expanded scientific mandate.
"We want to encourage anyone who wants to do research in the region to get in contact with us, and we want to be able to facilitate it," he says. "The sky is really the limit as far as what we can do there now that we have research facilities in place."