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Case of a Missing Boy Takes a Paleontologist Back 1.6 Million Years

April 10, 1986|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

A boy about 12 years old disappeared one day along the banks of Lake Turkana in eastern Africa and was next seen 1.6 million years later in remarkably good condition, considering his age.

Unearthing the near-complete skeleton of the prehistoric Homo erectus in 1984 was heady stuff for a small band of paleontologists, including John M. Harris of Hacienda Heights, which had been ready to break camp and leave the next day after spending a sweltering month in futile prospecting.

Harris, who heads the division of earth sciences of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, is about to head back to Africa to continue his annual leaps into antiquity with a prospecting team.

In his spacious paneled office at the museum, Harris recalled the excitement and the painstaking work that followed the discovery by another member of the team of one tiny, fossilized bone the size of a matchbook.

Discovery of the bone fragment led to more exploration that unearthed what paleontologists say is the most significant fossil discovery of an early human ancestor in this decade.

For more than 15 years, Harris, 43, has been a paleontologist on an exploration team led by Richard Leakey, son of the late Louis Leakey and his widow, Mary, famous for their fossil discoveries in Africa.

The fossil boy who is now known as KNM-WT 15000 (indicating Kenya National Museum-West Turkana and the skeleton's catalogue number) might be viewed as Harris' reward for years of painstaking work under difficult, primitive conditions, but that is not how he sees it.

The historic find was indeed exciting, Harris acknowledged, but while team members sifted through mounds of dirt for more bone fragments, he went about his regular business, which led him to yet another discovery. Exploring a nearby area on the western side of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, he found a cache of fossilized dinosaur bones in a gravel bed. The bones date back about 120 million years, to the Mesozoic Era.

"My skills are wandering around and looking," Harris explained.

Returning to Kenya

So he will return to Kenya this summer, as he has on every one of his summer vacations since taking the museum position in 1980. He said he will divide his time between the Kenya National Museum, where he will work at identifying fossils, and exploring the area that yielded the dinosaur bones. He hopes to find evidence of "very scarce little furry creatures" that were ancestors of mammals.

Harris is a slender, soft-spoken family man whose gentle demeanor belies physical and intellectual ruggedness.

A native of London, he earned a master's degree in 1967 at the University of Texas at Austin, where he could work with fossils and be a teaching assistant at the same time. Later, he returned to England, where he received a doctorate in paleontology at the University of Bristol. In 1970 he moved to Africa, where he became director of paleontology at the National Museum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Permanent Home

He was named to the Natural History Museum position after he and his wife, Judy, "decided it was time to have a more permanent base" for their children, Jackie and Julian, now ages 10 and 8.

From what he calls a pleasant life in suburbia and at the museum in Los Angeles, Harris still returns to Africa each summer. His family has returned to Kenya for visits twice, but not to explore with Harris, who says field work is too demanding for children that young.

He describes his days thus: Up before daybreak and in the field for the earliest morning light; exploring and digging until 11:30 a.m., when the sun's heat and light become too intense; back at work from about 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.; and in bed by 9 p.m. "because we're too tired to keep going."

The daily diet usually is canned corned beef, potatoes, rice and sometimes a kind of porridge that is a basic food for Kenyans. The uncomplaining Harris calls this "only what we need to keep ourselves fortified."

The discovery of the ancient skeleton began with Kimoya Kimeu, a Kenyan on the Leakey team, who found the first tiny bone fragment in surface soil in the dry bed of the Nariokotome River on the western side of Lake Turkana.

Jaws Were Intact

Harris said the bone was distinctly part of a human skull and was in a layer of soil that was known to be 1.6 million years old. Further exploration produced most of the ancient skeleton. The men could tell by examining its pelvis that KNM-WT 15000 was male; his age was determined by almost-intact jaws, which, after 1.6 million years, still hold unerupted canine and wisdom teeth.

Harris speculates that the boy probably fell in marshlands, sinking into a layer of mud that preserved the skeleton from the animals and weather that usually destroy surface bones.

The bone fragments were found on a goat track, Harris said, "where generations of goats could have ruined them. We were surprised that anything could be there."

"We're looking for all life, but I admit feeling excitement that this was human," Harris said. "This guy is the key to discovering more about the species. His people were the first to have sophisticated stone tools. They were the first to harness fire, the first to migrate out of Africa."

Even without much study, KNM-WT 15000 has offered some new information. His skull is flatter and slightly smaller than those of humans now, indicating a somewhat smaller brain. At an estimated height of 5 feet, 4 inches, he would probably have grown to least six feet.

"From the neck down, he is virtually identical to modern man," Harris said. "That's a surprise. We were expecting more differences."

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