February 7, 2007
Fact meets faith in the cradle of mankind. Guess which needs a security detail:
Deep in the dusty, unlit corridors of Kenya’s national museum, locked away in a plain-looking cabinet, lies one of mankind’s oldest secrets. Turkana Boy, 1.6 million years old, is the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human found.
But his first public display this year is at the heart of a growing storm pitting scientists against Kenya’s powerful and popular evangelical Christian movement. The evolution debate has arrived in a country known as the cradle of mankind.
“I did not evolve from Turkana Boy or anything like it,” says Bishop Boniface Adoyo, head of the country’s 35 evangelical denominations, which he says have a total of ten million followers. “These sorts of silly views are killing our faith.”
He is calling on his flock to boycott the exhibition and has demanded the museum relegate the fossil collection to a back room—carrying a warning that evolution is merely a theory.
Against him is one of the planet’s best-known fossil hunters, Richard Leakey, whose team unearthed the bones at Nariokotome in West Turkana, in the desolate far northern reaches of Kenya, in 1984.
“Whether the bishop likes it or not, Turkana Boy is a distant relation of his,” said Mr Leakey, who founded the museum’s prehistory department. “The bishop is descended from the apes and these fossils tell how he evolved.”
Among the 160,000 fossils due to go on display is an imprint of a lizard left in sedimentary rock, dating back 200 million years.
Dinosaur fossils and a limb bone from an early human ancestor, dating back 7 million years, will also be on show, along with bones of short-necked giraffes and elephants whose tusks protrude from their lower, rather than upper jaw.
...But the highlight will be the 5ft 3in Turkana Boy, who died aged 12 and whose skeleton had been preserved in marshland. It will form the centre of the exhibition to be launched in July.
Mr Leakey fears the ideological spat may provoke an attack on the priceless collection and the museum is taking no chances. Turkana Boy will be displayed behind glass in a private room with limited access and security guards.
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