In 2015, Stony Brook University archaeologists Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis discovered a site in northern Kenya that contained the earliest known examples of human technology. The site on the western shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, named Lomekwi 3, contained stone tool artefacts dating back 3.3 million years, meaning our ancestors made tools some 700,000 more sooner than we thought.
A recent half-million dollar grant from the French government will help Harmand and his team at the Turkana Basin Institute continue the legacy of this important work, this time by improving access to paleoscience training and career opportunities for young women and marginalized populations in Kenya. , while raising awareness among the Kenyan public of the value of its prehistoric archaeological heritage.
Harmand, lecturer in anthropology at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is the director of the project “Consolidating the future by mastering the deep past” (ConFMap), funded by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs via the Solidarity Fund for Innovative Projects (FSPI). It is a collaboration between the French Embassy in Kenya, the National Museums of Kenya, the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) and the recently founded Turkana University College in the underserved North West of Kenya.
The grant funds a new master’s program in human evolutionary biology at Turkana University College, as well as five full scholarships for Kenyan women who enroll in the program. It is also funding the creation of an exhibit at the National Museum in Nairobi that showcases the archaeological work carried out at the 3.3 million year old prehistoric site that Harmand and his team discovered, as well as its importance to archeology and the sciences of human origin in general.
“We already have two students from Kenya who entered PhD programs here at Stony Brook this year,” Harmand said. “It’s a start, but we hope that the master’s program we are funding will attract more and more interest and that more Kenyan scholars will follow it. It could give them a great opportunity to transition into PhDs anywhere else in the world, preferably here at Stony Brook, because we’re here for them.
Harmand said she and her team of 45 researchers and excavators from Kenya, the United States, the United Kingdom and France spend about two months together every summer working on the excavation of their groundbreaking sites in West Turkana. . They study the deep past of our origins, the first technology of human evolution. The remains and fossils that Sonia and her team unearth are mostly sharp stone tools and animal bones.
Harmand has worked in Kenya for nearly 25 years. “I started my doctorate there with a professor in France,” she said. “Then I got my first job as a researcher in France in 2009, and I became the director of the West Turkana Archaeological Project in 2012.” The Turkana Basin Institute was founded in 2005 by the late Richard Leakey, with the intention of establishing a year-round research facility in the Turkana Basin region of Kenya. Harmand was personally invited by Leakey to join the faculty of the Turkana Basin Institute at SBU in late 2012.
More than anything, Harmand encourages anyone with a hint of an interest in archeology or paleoscience to start by reaching out and having a conversation with someone in the field. “Opportunities will come from the contacts they make with archaeologists working in the field,” she said.