Kenya's 'Turkana Boy' at Center of Debate

The first public display of a nearly complete human skeleton — expected later this year — will pit scientists against Kenya's evangelical movement. The evolution/creationism battle has arrived in a country known as the cradle of mankind.

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A museum that holds some of the oldest relics know to humankind is under renovation. The National Museum of Kenya plans to reopen later this year. The jewel of the show is the Turkana Boy, the oldest known full skeleton of a prehistoric human. But its presence has ignited a public debate over evolution versus creationism in a country known as the cradle of mankind.

Some Christian evangelicals do not see Turkana Boy as a national treasure. They say the notion of human evolution is a slap on the face of God.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: There is a certain similarity between the vault of the National Museum in Nairobi and the prop room of a theatrical production of Hamlet. There are plenty of skulls to pick and choose from, each with a story to tell.

(Soundbite of locker opening)

THOMPKINS: In this locker is the star of the show. He's called Turkana Boy, and he is a hominid who is believed to have lived 1.6 million years ago. The skeleton is in pieces now, kept cool with fans and carefully packed away in wooden cases that look like luggage that people used to carry across the ocean. Coincidentally, as a homo erectus, Turkana Boy's species was the first that is believed to have left Africa and populated the rest of the world. Here's museum researcher Victor Imingilli(ph).

Mr. VICTOR IMINGILLI (Museum Researcher, National Museum of Kenya): The homo erectus are part of our ancestral lineage. Now on this particular individual, this one was a small boy, who was going by the human ages around 10, 12 years. But again, the studies show that the growth pattern was more like a chimp. So according to that, it now brings to the age to around 8, 7 years old.

THOMPKINS: His remains were discovered in Northern Kenya in 1984 by a team led by the scientist Richard Leakey. Down in the vault, Turkana Boy is in good company. There are about a dozen lockers there with the bones of a variety of prehistoric creatures that are even older that he is. Some have skulls as small as tangerines. Others are a little larger, maybe the size of a Wiffle ball. Some have cheekbones that a movie actress would kill for.

Mr. IMINGILLI: Most of them died of - under, or remained with now homo erectus - homo erectus leading to the cave homo sapiens and then homo sapiens sapiens. Homo sapien is the only surviving of the genus homo.

THOMPKINS: But in Kenya, which is overwhelmingly Christian, most people tend to prefer the Bible's account of creation. In recent months, evangelical Christians have been publicly criticizing any explanation of human origins that differs from the Bible's. They say that God's glory on earth could not be under the dominion of a species that comes from chimpanzees. In Africa they know chimps, and many evangelicals say they are not related.

Bishop BONIFACE ADOYO (Chairman, Evangelical Alliance of Kenya): The Bible says man was the final creature to be created in God's image, and God breathed into man the breath of life, the spirit. He didn't breathe into those animals the spirit. And that tells me I did not evolve from those creatures. Because I have the image of God, and that image of God begins in His creation of man.

Bishop Boniface Adoyo heads Christ is the Answer Ministries here. He also heads the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, a national association of churches. Sitting in his book-lined office in Nairobi recently, the bishop, a former marketer for Xerox, said he even wants evolutionary studies out of Kenya's schools.

Bishop ADOYO: What we are telling our congregations, which number about 10 million, there's no need to visit the museum. If your children are going to be taught evolution, evolution is anti-God. It's a faith that contradicts God's word. So, if you want to remain in the truth of God, don't buy evolution's theories.

THOMPKINS: Oliver Kisaka questions whether Africa is the cradle of humanity.

Mr. OLIVER KISAKA (Deputy General Secretary, Kenya's National Council Of Churches): Who knows? What if there are all the bones in Japan that haven't been found?

THOMPKINS: Kisaka is the deputy general secretary of Kenya's National Council of Churches. According to the Bible's calendar, he says, humankind is only about 6,000 years old. Kisaka says that Kenyan Christians subscribe to a close, if not literal, reading of the Bible. He calls himself an evangelical Quaker.

Mr. KISAKA: When you think about evangelical Christianity, don't see it as a reaction against knowledge. Look at it as a communication of the gospel.

Mr. CB Peter (Theologian, Saint Paul's Seminary) When I read the Bible, I don't find any problem in believing that Adam and Eve were there. It's only I don't know how, and maybe I will not care to know because there are so many other things which I don't know how.

THOMPKINS: That's CB Peter, a theologian and teacher at Saint Paul's Seminary in Limuru, Kenya. Peter is an Indian-born Anglican who teaches the methodology of academic research. He says he will visit Turkana Boy when the National Museum opens in July. And yes, he'll feel somehow related. But then, Peter is related to everybody.

Mr. PETER: My continuum is metaphysical and spiritual, and it comes from faith. On that count, I feel a continuum with you, and we have only met since yesterday. And we have not discovered any bones between us yet. Bones between us, that's a very interesting expression.

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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