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Hidden Mysteries Lie in Wait Inside Kenya’s Fossil Treasury

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AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Something extraordinary lay inside the wooden drawer in an office behind Nairobi National Museum. It’s a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs — the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore declared to be a new species in 2019.

“This is one of a kind,” said Kenyan paleontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of Simbakubwa kutokaafrika.

For nearly 40 years, the specimens — proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilogram meat eater that dwarfed lions — sat in a drawer in downtown Nairobi.

How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognized for so long?

Kibii, who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s paleontology department, has an idea. “We have tons and tons of specimens … that haven’t been analyzed,” he said. “Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered.”

A card-based filing system is used to find specific fossils. But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii said, overwhelming his 15 staff members who must clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum to be accessioned — labeled, recorded and stored for future generations.

If an expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorized or waylaid.

“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi.

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a back room and ignored for decades.

Kibii is one of just seven paleontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home. He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection.

Even better, a micro-CT scanner — a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of paleontology — would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said.

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