Turkana:Koobi Fora

Koobi Fora

Koobi Fora (pronounced /ˈkuːbi ˈfɔrə/) refers primarily to a region around Koobi Fora Ridge, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people. According to the National Museums of Kenya, the name comes from the Gabbra language:

“In the language of the Gabbra people who live near the site, the term Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh….”[1]

The ridge itself is an outcrop of mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments. It is composed of claystones, siltstones, and sandstones that preserve numerous fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominin species. Presently, the ridge is being eroded into a badlands terrain by a series of ephemeral rivers that drain into the northeast portion of modern Lake Turkana. In 1968 Richard Leakey established the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sandspit projecting into the lake near the ridge, which he called the Koobi Fora Spit.

A subsequent survey and numerous excavations at multiple sites established the region as a source of hominin fossils shedding light on the evolution of man over the previous 4.2 million years. Far exceeding the number of humanoid fossils are the non-humanoid fossils giving a detailed look at the fauna and flora as far back as the Miocene.

Consequently the government of Kenya in 1973 reserved the region as Sibiloi National Park, establishing a headquarters for the National Museums of Kenya on Koobi Fora Spit. The reserve is well-maintained and is well-guarded by friendly but armed park police. Protection of sites and especially of wildlife are of prime concern. Exploration and excavation continue under the auspices of the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP), which collaborates with a number of interested universities and individuals across the world.[2]

Formerly the term, Koobi Fora, has been used to mean one or two initial sites, or the sand spit. Today it can mean any or all points in Sibiloi National Park. The term East Turkana also has come into use with the larger meaning.[3]

Archaeological sites and artifacts

Archaeological sites

The simple hierarchy of scientific places for Koobi Fora is the following: Koobi Fora is the region; the region is divided into fossil collecting areas (e.g., Area 102, 103, 140, etc.); within fossil collection areas there are archaeological sites (e.g., FxJj 1, FxJj 10, etc.) and hominid paleontological localities, which are usually named after the National Museum of Kenya accession number assigned to the important bones found. For example, in Area 131 hominid skull KNM-ER 1470 was found. The fossils found here, including all the non-human ones, are assigned to the 1470 locality.

Locating and referencing the hundreds of sites in the Koobi Fora region has been an ongoing process. The entire reservation was divided into somewhat over 100 numbered areas. When there were only a relatively few sites it sufficed to locate them with pinpricks on aerial photos and reference them by stating the area. The archaeologists, such as Glynn Isaac, developed a coordinate system. A site acquired a tag consisting of a 4-letter coordinate identifier, such as FxJj, which refers to a small section at the intersection of x and j within a larger section at the intersection of F and J, followed by the number of the site: FxJj 82 refers to the 82nd site within FxJj.[4] In the year 2000 the KFRP went over to a GPS system and has been trying to correlate the pinpricks to its data.[5]

Fossils are labeled with a KNM (Kenya National Museums) accession number, assigned on no other basis than the order in which it was assigned. The number may be preceded in scholarly literature by KNM, KNM ET or KNM ER, where ET and ER stand for East Turkana and East Rudolf, respectively, or just plain ER. Some notable areas are as follows.

  • Area 105

The first archaeological site, i.e., FxJj 1, was found in Area 105. It is nicknamed the KBS site for Kay Behrensmeyer Site, after the researcher who first found stone tools there. This site is also the place where the first tuff was found, i.e., the KBS Tuff.

  • Area 131

It is known as the location of skull 1470, discovered by Bernard Ngeneo in 1972, reconstructed by Meave Leakey, later reconstructed and named Homo habilis by Richard Leakey, as possibly the first of the genus Homo, and finally Homo rudolfensis. Richard Leakey found it 45 m below the 1.89 my KBS tuff; thus, it is older than that date, but is conventionally dated to it.[6]

Hominid fossils

Searching for and finding fossils in such a large area is another difficult problem. One solution has been to organize all persons present into a group to sweep a designated area. Richard Leakey devised a method that produced better results: he organized and trained a search team of Kenyans, which became known as “the hominid gang”, under the leadership of Kamoya Kimeu. They have discovered the majority of the fossil Hominins, which currently amount to over 200.

Koobi Fora is perhaps best known for its specimens of the genus Homo, but those of the genus Australopithecus also have been found. The following species are represented:[7]

Species Name Dates
(KF only)
Representative Fossils Notes
Australopithecus anamensis 4.2-3.9 mya 30731, -44, -45, -50, 35228, -31, -32, -33, -35, -36, -38 Found at Allia Bay.[8] Earliest evidence of bipedal gait.[9]
Australopithecus boisei 2.1-1.1 mya. 406, 729, 13750, 23000, 732.
Homo habilis 1.9-1.6 mya 1813, 1501, 1502, 1805, 1808.[10] Called “habilines” or “hablines”. Others have been reclassified from this species to Homo rudolfensis. Habilis is considered the earliest or among the earliest of Homo.
Homo rudolfensis 1.9-1.6 mya[11] 1470, 1912, 1590, 3732, 1801, 1802, 1472. Rudolfensis may split again to place some fossils, such as 1470, with Kenyanthropus platyops. Rudolfensis also shares the name “habline.”
Homo ergaster 1.8-1.4 mya 992, 730, 731, 819, 820, 3733, 3883. Considered a sort of pre-erectus if not early Homo erectus, from which it was split. Some refer to ergaster as the African erectus.[12]

Australopithecus and Homo seem to have coexisted in the region for about one million years. One possible explanation is different food sources.[13] It is believed that Australopithecus became extinct and Homo went on to generate later species.

Stone tools

Large quantities of stone tools have been found at Koobi Fora both on the surface and in caches, which have dates of their own, but are seldom in association with hominins. No other candidates for their manufacture have been found, however. The tools are Olduwan and Acheulean. The Koobi Fora community has devised the following teminology[14] to describe three local industries:

Industry Name Dates Representative Sites Notes
KBS Olduwan 1.89-1.65 mya (KBS Member) FxJj1, FxJj3, FxJj10. Comparable to Bed I Olduwan at Olduvai. Low ratio of flake scrapers to choppers.
Karari, named after the Karari/Abergaya Ridge. 1.65-1.39 mya (Okote Member) FxJj16, FxJj18GL, FxJj20M Comparable to Bed II Olduwan at Olduvai. High ratio of scrapers to choppers.
Early Acheulean

The initial archaeology, experimental archaeology, and scientific analysis of the tools were performed by J. W. K. Harris, Nicholas Toth and Glynn Isaac. Harris and Braun report their line of investigation:[15]

“Hominid technology represents a conduit between the hominid and access to resources such as meat and marrow.”

According to the analysis, the conduit became more efficient between KBS and Karari Olduwan; that is, hominins obtained more of a return for a given output of energy and could do more. The chief technological development was the edge. The KBS utilized “.977 cm of edge per gram of mass”, but the Karari utilized “2.4 cm of edge”, etc., an advantage obtained through a “core reduction strategy”; that is, more and thinner flakes per mass of cores. This “flake production model” made possible a better “flake utility model.” More and better flakes meant better utilization of carcasses and therefore a need for fewer carcasses, less hunting, etc. Moreover, the increased number of flakes available made ranging farther from the source of the stone possible and endowed more staying power to the hunt.


Koobi Fora encompasses a small depocenter, underlain by Pliocene basalts and filled with nearly 600 meters of Pliocene-Pleistocene sediments, dating from about four-million to one-million years ago. These sediments are attributed to the Koobi Fora Formation, which consists of eight members that are delimited by water-lain tuffs (volcanic ash).[16]

Most early human fossils and archaeological remains derive from the upper portion of the Burgi Member, the KBS Member, and the Okote Member. The members reflect changing environments in the Turkana Basin, from lake and delta ones during Burgi Member times to rivers and floodplains in Okote Member times.

The stratigraphy of the Koobi Fora Formation is one of the best studied and calibrated in East Africa, with publication of some extensive listings at various times.[17] Controversial dating of the KBS Tuff during the 1970s helped to spearhead the development of modern potassium/argon and argon/argon geological dating methods. In addition, the unique fusion between geochronology and mammal evolutionary studies has made the Koobi Fora Formation a standard for interpreting biochronology, environmental change, and ecology for all of Pliocene-Pleistocene Africa.


  1. ^ Koobi Fora: Historical Background, National Museums of Kenya, retrieved 30 April 2010
  2. ^ For more information, refer to the KFRP Journal site currently being maintained by Louise Leakey. One notable collaboration is the Koobi Fora Field School conducted yearly by Rutgers University, which combines education and research.
  3. ^ A nice map can be found at the Wesleyan site.
  4. ^ The papers of Glynn Isaacs show his extensive reliance on this system, which is still in use today.
  5. ^ Jablonski, Nina (2004), “Putting Technology to Work at Koobi Fora (Special report)”, KFRP Field Season Dispatches: Special report (Koobi Fora Research Project), retrieved 30 April 2010
  6. ^ Establishing the date and the species has been a long and often painful process. Accordingly Leakey and Lewin (People of the Lake, Chapter 2) refer to 1470 as “… the famous – some say infamous – skull ….”
  7. ^ Much of the literature on the subject since 1991 refers to some pseudo-taxa created by Wood: Homo sp. indet. is “Homo, species indeterminate”; Homo gen. et spec. indet. is “Homo, genus and species indeterminate”; Homo aff. H. erectus is “Homo with affinities to Homo erectus”; H. erectus sensu stricto is “Homo erectus in the strict sense.” The subject has moved on since Wood; for example, “Hominids” are now “Hominins.” For a review of the book in some detail, see the Book Reviews section of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology S9:499-504 (1992).
  8. ^ Map at Allia Bay.
  9. ^ See New four-million-year-old hominid species from Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya, Meave Leakey et al. in Nature, 376, 565 – 571 (17 August 2002). Summary and bibliography at no cost.
  10. ^ A list of fossils, discoverers, descriptions, drawings or photographs, and KNM numbers, along with some dates, can be found at Steven Heslip’s page on the Michigan State University website. A good description of habilis with photographs can be found at Bruce MacEvoy’s ‘Handprint’ website and another of numbered habilis and other fossils at Smithsonian National Museum website.
  11. ^ As 1470 was below the KBS tuff, some have pushed the date back to 2.3, 2.4 or even 2.5 my.
  12. ^ Homo ergaster is Wood’s “Homo aff. H. erectus.”
  13. ^ People of the Lake Chapter 5.
  14. ^ The tools and classifications are well described in a number of pages at KOOBI FORA ARCHAEOLOGY, which is being maintained at the Maricopa Community Colleges site.
  15. ^ Technological Developments in the Oldowan of Koobi Fora: Innovative Techniques of Artifact Analysis, David R. Braun, Jack W.K. Harris, in TREBALLS D’ARQUEOLOGIA, 9, Centre d’Estudis del Patrimoni Arqueològic de la Prehistòria, Autonomous University of Barcelona. The summary below is based on it and the quoted phrases come from it.
  16. ^ The system is as follows. One “member” is all the layers between two tuffs, or layers of volcanic ash. The member is named from the bottom tuff, considered to begin it. The tuffs are dated. Obviously, a fossil or artifact is dated by the member in which it was found. A complete presentation of the members and their names with dates and a diagram can be found at STRATIGRAPHY OF KOOBI FORA and therefore that information is not repeated here.
  17. ^ Feibel, Craig S; Brown, Francis H; McDougall, Ian (1989), “Stratigraphic Context of Fossil Hominids from the Omo Group deposits: Northern Turkana Basin, Kenya and Ethiopia”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78 (4): 595–622, DOI:10.1002/ajpa.1330780412

Posted on June 13, 2012, in Categorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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