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Kenya controversially 'lends' fossils to France

The items include stone flakes, hammer stones, a pick axe and hand axe.

Collection manager Justus Erung labels a fossil before storing at the paleontology department of the Nairobi National Museum, in Nairobi on May 23, 2019. - Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the Nairobi National Museum's lab every year. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP) (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images)

Kenya has sent 145 delicate fossils and ancient tools dating back millions of years to a museum in France.

The decision to allow the specimen to be flown out for display is said to have contravened a decades-long policy that has kept the museum items under lock-and-key.

The only time such precious items are allowed out is for scanning and scientific analysis under strict conditions, including timelines, as well as research in the event that the technologies needed to construct the artefacts are not available in the country.

They are always allowed out under very tight conditions such as timelines by the Sports, Culture and Heritage Ministry and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).


Photographing or touching the specimen with the bare hands is usually banned. Items displayed for public viewing in Kenya are usually replicas, to avoid exposing the original specimen.

But recently, despite protests from experts, Kenya had mailed the delicate items to the Reunion des musees nationaux-Grand Palais, a cultural organisation in France, which currently has them on a public exhibition.

Among them are stone tools obtained in Turkana and announced six years ago. Some were found to be 3.3 million years old upon conducting of scientific age testing, making them the oldest known human-made objects in the world.

It was unclear of what benefits Kenya would get from the deal, but what irked scientists was the fact that Kenya sent the original items to France, not the duplicates, a feat that has even roped in experts such as paleoanthropologist and former NMK boss Richard Leakey.


“The long-term dangers posed by the abrupt reversal of the long-standing policy not to permit the export of artefacts and fossils except for verified specialised scientific analyses,” wrote Dr Leakey in a letter addressed to the Sports, Culture and Heritage Ministry Cabinet secretary Amina Mohamed on May 12, 2021.

He noted that the very items taken to France were being studied by a team, incidentally also from France, led by Dr Sonia Harmand, the director of the West Turkana Archaeological Project and whose team had found some of the the specimens.

Dr Harmand’s team discovered the specimens at Lomekwi 3, which they started exploring from 2011. Some of the results of their exploration at the area were released in California, USA in 2015.

“Researchers say they have found the oldest tools made by human ancestors stone flakes dated to 3.3 million years ago.


That’s 700,000 years older than the oldest-known tools to date, suggesting that our ancestors were crafting tools several hundred thousand years before our genus Homo arrived on the scene,” the Science Journal reported of the findings in 2015.

The discoveries were made a prized possession. Such items are usually stored under tamper-proof conditions and are kept in vaults, just like gold bars, jewellery and money in banks, with the walls surrounding the vault thicker than one metre.

Some of the items taken to France include stone flakes, hammer stones, a pick axe, a hand axe and fossils of parts of various animals that include a hippopotamus, crocodile and an extinct member of the big cat family.

On July 31, 2020, Josephta Mukobe, the Principal Secretary for State Department for Culture and Heritage added that the items were lent and not exported permanently.


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