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Lothagam: The Dawn of Humanity in Eastern Africa

Meave G. Leakey
John M. Harris
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 688
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Located at the southwest corner of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, Lothagam represents one of the most important intervals in African prehistory. Early human remains are restricted in distribution to Africa and the acquisition of an upright bipedal striding gait, the hallmark of humanity, appears to be at least circumstantially linked to the reduction of equatorial forests and the spread of grasslands on that continent. The diverse Lothagam fauna documents the end-Miocene transition from forested to more open habitats that were exploited by grazing horses and antelopes, hippos, giant pigs, and true elephants. It also includes spectacularly complete fossil carnivore skeletons and some of the oldest human remains.

    Enlisting a team of highly qualified specialists, this book provides the geologic context and dating framework for the Lothagam fossiliferous sequences, describes the immense diversity of vertebrate fossils recovered from the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene sediments, and synthesizes the results to interpret the changing paleoenvironments that prevailed at this site. The book will interest anthropologists, paleontologists, geologists, and anyone interested in human origins.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50760-8
    Subjects: Paleontology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. 1-14)
    Meave G. Leakey

    An island of sediments surrounded by the sandy, windswept plains of the Turkana desert, Lothagam in northern Kenya is one of Africa’s most important Late Miocene sites. Its rich red sedimentary rocks, which range in age from 8 to a little less than 4 Ma, preserve an exceptional record of events at a time of dramatic change in the African biota. Expansion of the modern C4 savanna grassland flora in the Late Miocene coincided with the emergence of faunal elements that would dominate the later Cenozoic—elephants, hippos, giant pigs, grazing antelopes, true giraffes, and humans. Synchronous shrinkage of the...

  4. 2 Geology, Paleosols, and Dating

    • 2.1 Stratigraphy and Depositional History of the Lothagam Sequence
      (pp. 17-30)
      Craig S. Feibel

      The sedimentary strata exposed at Lothagam have received considerable attention from both geologists and paleontologists since they were first recognized by L. H. Robbins in 1965 (Robbins 1967). The significance of these strata lies in the evidence they preserve of rift evolution, patterns of biotic change through the fossil record, and associated clues to the history of environmental change for this part of the African continent. Systematic investigation of the Lothagam strata began with the work of the Harvard and Princeton expeditions (Patterson et al. 1970; Behrensmeyer 1976; Powers 1980) and was extended with work by Meave Leakey’s team from...

    • 2.2 Miocene and Pliocene Paleosols of Lothagam
      (pp. 31-42)
      Jonathan G. Wynn

      This report describes the field and laboratory characterization of paleosols collected during the 1996 field season at Lothagam. The potential for paleoenvironmental reconstruction of Lothagam paleosols is alluring because these soils provide a rare account of the landscapes in which the earliest hominids evolved. Furthermore, recent advances in the stratigraphy and dating of the Lothagam sequence have enabled a more precise evaluation of the local response to global climate change events such as the Late Miocene (Messinian) salinity crises now dated between about 6.7 and 5.5 Ma (Zhang and Scott 1996; Van Couvering et al. 1976).

      Through much of the...

    • 2.3 Numerical Age Control for the Miocene-Pliocene Succession at Lothagam, a Hominoid-bearing Sequence in the Northern Kenya Rift
      (pp. 43-64)
      Ian McDougall and Craig S. Feibel

      Lothagam, located at about 2° 54¢ N and 36° 03¢ E, is a westward tilted (~10°) , uplifted fault block, about 11 by 4 km, rising out of the sandy plains of northern Kenya, just to the west of Lake Turkana (figure 2.15). Lothagam lies within the major region of extension in the northern part of the Kenya Rift (Morley et al. 1992). Volcanism began in this region about 30 Ma ago in the Oligocene (Zanettin et al. 1983; McDougall and Watkins 1988; Boschetto et al. 1992), heralding the active rifting which continues today. From seismic and other evidence, Morley...

  5. 3 Crustacea and Pisces

    • 3.1 Fossil Crabs (Crustacea, Decapoda, Brachyura) from Lothagam
      (pp. 67-74)
      Joel W. Martin and Sandra Trautwein

      Freshwater crabs are a tremendously diverse assemblage of true (brachyuran) crabs known from Central and South America, Africa (including Madagascar), Australasia, southern Europe, and south and Southeast Asia. There are an estimated 900 species in the group, making them one of the most diverse assemblages of crabs. Species are known from cold, rapidly flowing mountain streams, tropical rainforest floors (where they may even be semiterrestrial or arboreal), warm lowland ponds and paddies, and just about any other freshwater environment (Ng 1988; Rodríguez 1982, 1992; Cumberlidge 1991; Cumberlidge and Sachs 1989a, 1989b). Their diversity, range, and size make them important ecologically,...

    • 3.2 Fossil Fish Remains from Mio-Pliocene Deposits at Lothagam, Kenya
      (pp. 75-112)
      Kathlyn M. Stewart

      More than 7,000 fossil fish elements were collected from the Lothagam deposits from 1991 to 1993 by a National Museums of Kenya team that included the author. Previous expeditions had noted the presence of fish (e.g., Smart 1976), and occasional surface collections had been made (e.g., Schwartz 1983) but before the National Museums of Kenya expeditions no systematic recovery of fish had been undertaken.

      Fish elements were collected from the Lower and Upper Nawata, and from the Apak, Muruongori, and Kaiyumung Members of the Nachukui Formation. Elements from Holocene-aged deposits were rarely collected and are not reported here. In the...

  6. 4 Reptilia and Aves

    • 4.1 Fossil Turtles from Lothagam
      (pp. 115-136)
      Roger C. Wood

      When Professor Bryan Patterson’s Harvard expedition first discovered the Lothagam fossil locality during the latter part of the summer of 1966, it was immediately apparent that fossil turtles were an abundant and often well preserved component of the fauna. Subsequent collections confirmed that Lothagam has an unusually diverse chelonian fauna as well. Some of the Lothagam fossil turtle material has already been described (Meylan et al. 1990; Wood 1976, 1983). The purpose of this contribution is to formally document the single most abundant and best preserved of all the Lothagam fossil chelonians, a new genus and species of pelomedusid (side-necked)...

    • 4.2 Late Miocene–Early Pliocene Crocodilian Fauna of Lothagam, Southwest Turkana Basin, Kenya
      (pp. 137-160)
      Glenn W. Storrs

      The Late Miocene–Early Pliocene East African locality of Lothagam in the southwestern portion of the Turkana Basin, first exploited by Patterson and others (Patterson et al. 1970; Behrensmeyer 1976; Smart 1976; Leakey et al. 1996), preserves an important and unusually diverse assemblage of Neogene eusuchian-grade crocodilians (Crocodylia sensu Benton and Clark 1988). Previous studies of the fossil crocodilians of East Africa have focused on those from the Early Miocene of the Victoria Basin, for example Rusinga Island (Tchernov and Van Couvering 1978), and on those of the Plio-Pleistocene of the north and eastern Turkana Basin (Tchernov 1976, 1986). However,...

    • 4.3 Lothagam Birds
      (pp. 161-166)
      John M. Harris and Meave G. Leakey

      Only two avian specimens were collected by the Harvard University expeditions but remains of more than 30 individuals were retrieved by the recent National Museums of Kenya expeditions. The majority of bones recovered are those of waterfowl. Fragments of ratite eggshell have also been collected and appear to represent two, perhaps three, different species.

      Lower Nawata: 25085, many shell fragments.

      A single specimen comprising many shell fragments shows the aepyornithoid pore pattern described by Sauer (1972) with dagger point pores, sting pores, and linear grooves. The shell is relatively thin. This specimen is tentatively referred to the Aepyornithidae.

      Lower Nawata:...

  7. 5 Lagomorpha and Rodentia

    • Rodents and Lagomorphs from the Miocene and Pliocene of Lothagam, Northern Kenya
      (pp. 169-198)
      Alisa J. Winkler

      The fossiliferous deposits at Lothagam provide a rare glimpse into the faunas and environments of the poorly known Late Miocene of East Africa. These deposits are significant not only in yielding Late Miocene faunas but also in producing taxa from successively younger strata that document both faunal and environmental change through time (Leakey et al. 1996). Rodents and lagomorphs are uncommon from Lothagam. However, the Late Miocene sample (Lower and Upper Nawata) includes at least 12 taxa, some of which are known from fairly complete cranial and postcranial remains.

      Excavations at Lothagam prior to the late 1980s yielded one rodent...

  8. 6 Primates

    • 6.1 Cercopithecidae from Lothagam
      (pp. 201-248)
      Meave G. Leakey, Mark F. Teaford and Carol V. Ward

      The origins of the Cercopithecidae are believed to date back to the earliest Miocene, although the oldest known fossil, an M2 approximately 19 Ma old, is from Napak, Uganda (Pilbeam and Walker 1968). Other early occurrences known from East Africa are from slightly younger sites (~17 Ma) and include an M₃ from Ombo, Kenya (Le Gros Clark and Leakey 1951); a mandible fragment and an isolated molar from Loperot, Kenya (Szalay and Delson 1979); and 16 specimens including mandibular and maxillary fragments and isolated teeth from Buluk, northern Kenya (Leakey 1985). In North Africa, cercopithecids assigned to the genus Prohylobates...

    • 6.2 The Lothagam Hominids
      (pp. 249-258)
      Meave G. Leakey and Alan C. Walker

      In spite of increasing interest in recent years in the earliest stages of human evolution, fossils that document this crucial time are frustratingly few (Hill and Ward 1988). Recent discoveries at Aramis in Ethiopia (White et al. 1994) and Kanapoi in Kenya (Leakey and Walker 1997; Leakey et al. 1998) have provided good samples of two new species of early hominins aged between 4.4 and 4 Ma. The ca. 6 Ma hominids from Kenya (Senut et al. 2001) whose hominid status is debated and the recently announced 5.8–5.2 Ma hominids from the Middle Awash, Ethiopia (Haile-Selassie 2001) are important...

  9. 7 Carnivora

    • Mio-Pliocene Carnivora from Lothagam, Kenya
      (pp. 261-328)
      Lars Werdelin

      In contrast to the extensive investigations of Late Miocene carnivores of Eurasia (summarized in Werdelin 1996b; Werdelin and Solounias 1996), very little has to date been written about Late Miocene carnivores of Africa. This is partly because of a lack of appropriate sites and material, but mainly because carnivores from this time period have been studied relatively little compared to other taxa that have had a greater perceived significance to efforts at dating and paleoecological analysis. Thus, despite several publications on other faunal elements at Lothagam (see references in Leakey et al. 1996), the only record of carnivores collected during...

  10. 8 Proboscidea and Tubulidentata

    • 8.1 Elephantoidea from Lothagam
      (pp. 331-358)
      Pascal Tassy

      Lothagam proboscideans provide a key to understanding the early differentiation of elephantids and were originally studied by Vincent J. Maglio in the 1970s (Maglio 1970, 1973; Maglio and Ricca 1977). Most of Maglio’s material was recovered from the Lothagam region during the late 1960s by a team led by Brian Patterson of Harvard University. Maglio described two primitive elephantids from Lothagam, Stegotetrabelodon orbus and Primelephas gomphotheroides, in 1970. In the same paper, Maglio described a primitive member of the loxodont elephantine lineage, Loxodonta adaurora, from the Early Pliocene locality of Kanapoi and from Lothagam. Maglio thus established that elephantines originated...

    • 8.2 Deinotheres from the Lothagam Succession
      (pp. 359-362)
      John M. Harris

      Deinotheres were evidently restricted in distribution to Neogene and Quaternary localities of the Old World and appear to have originated in Africa as a sister group of the Elephantoidea. The earliest known representatives of the family, from Early Miocene localities in Kenya, had attained elephantine size but were characterized by dental and postcranial features that differentiated them unequivocally from the elephantoids. The dentition, in particular, is fundamentally diagnostic, and the combination of characters that is peculiar to the deinotheres—absence of upper tusks, downward curvature of the lower tusks, bifunctional and (mostly) bilophodont cheek teeth that are retained throughout the...

    • 8.3 Fossil Aardvarks from the Lothagam Beds
      (pp. 363-368)
      Simon A. H. Milledge

      The fossil tubulidentates from Lothagam represent two different species, a small and generalized form and a larger form, both restricted to the Nawata Formation. The smaller Leptorycteropus guilielmi, was described by Patterson (1975) from a partial skeleton (LT 419) recovered in 1967. L. guilielmi was about half the size of the extant Orycteropus afer and had a short facial region and slender limb bones with relatively small areas of muscle attachment. The genus is distinguished by primitive fossorial features that make it the most generalized member of the Orycteropodidae. The larger species was evidently about one fifth smaller than the...

  11. 9 Perissodactyla

    • 9.1 Lothagam Rhinocerotidae
      (pp. 371-386)
      John M. Harris and Meave G. Leakey

      The 1967 collection of rhinoceroses from Lothagam comprised a score of specimens, about half of which were believed to have derived from Lothagam Member 1B and the remainder from Member 1C. They were described by Hooijer and Patterson (1972), who recognized two new species—Brachypotherium lewisi and Ceratotherium praecox, the latter being better known from Kanapoi (Hooijer and Patterson 1972) and Langebaanweg (Hooijer 1972). The material was of interest in that it contained the largest and latest representative of the Brachypotherium lineage, and this evidently coexisted with the earliest known individual of Ceratotherium. These specimens were described in great detail...

    • 9.2 Systematics and Evolutionary Biology of the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene Hipparionine Equids from Lothagam, Kenya
      (pp. 387-438)
      Raymond L. Bernor and John M. Harris

      African hipparions had a complex history of migration, dispersion, adaptation, and evolutionary radiation (Bernor and Lipscomb 1991, 1995; Bernor and Armour-Chelu 1999). The first Old World hipparions occur near the base of the Late Miocene (Steininger et al. 1996). The most primitive taxon currently recognized, Hippotherium primigenium, would appear to be most closely related to the late Middle–early Late Miocene North American taxon Cormohipparion occidentale s.l., or its predecessor, Cormohipparion quinni (Woodburne 1996). The migration from North America to Eurasia via Beringia is correlated with the terminal Serravallian regression (Bernor et al. 1988, 1989). Recently, there has been much...

  12. 10 Hippopotamidae and Suidae

    • 10.1 Fossil Hippopotamidae from Lothagam
      (pp. 441-484)
      Eleanor M. Weston

      Hippos are the most frequently preserved mammals in the Lothagam assemblage. The sample is comprised of more than 300 specimens that constitute 14 percent of the fossil vertebrate fauna and 27 percent of the mammalian fauna. Several different species of hippo are present in the Lothagam assemblage. Most of the material is from the Nawata Formation and ranges in age from 7.91 to 5.23 Ma (Powers 1980; Leakey et al. 1996; McDougall and Feibel 1999). A small portion of the fossil sample, 18 specimens of known provenance, is from the overlying Apak Member of the Nachukui Formation, estimated to range...

    • 10.2 Lothagam Suidae
      (pp. 485-520)
      John M. Harris and Meave G. Leakey

      As of the early 1970s, some 23 different genera (77 species) of suids had been described from about 50 African Plio-Pleistocene localities. Subsequent revision by Cooke (1978), White and Harris (1977), and Harris and White (1979) reduced this number to more manageable proportions. Harris and White recognized 16 species within seven genera inclusive of the extant sub-Saharan suids. Although that analysis erred on the conservative side, and additional species now appear valid, it did identify the relationships of the major suid genera and provided a starting point for subsequent analysis. The evolution of the African Suidae was reasonably well documented...

  13. 11 Ruminantia

    • 11.1 Lothagam Giraffids
      (pp. 523-530)
      John M. Harris

      Giraffoids are rare elements of middle Miocene faunas in East Africa and are best represented by Climacoceras africanus at Maboko, Climacoceras gentryi at Fort Ternan, and Paleotragus primaevus from Fort Ternan and Ngorora (Hamilton 1978). Churcher (1970) also described Samotherium africanum from Fort Ternan on the basis of ossicones and cervical vertebrae, but Hamilton (1978) considered the assigned material to be insufficient either to establish the identity of Churcher’s species or to validate its purported generic identity. Recent fieldwork at Maboko, under the direction of Brenda Benefit and Monte McCrossin, has yielded a wealth of new Climacoceras africanus material. Dentally...

    • 11.2 Bovidae from the Lothagam Succession
      (pp. 531-580)
      John M. Harris

      The Bovidae are sparsely represented at early Miocene localities in East and North Africa (Hamilton 1973; Gentry 1978) but bovids were the most numerous terrestrial mammals at the Mid-Miocene site of Fort Ternan (Gentry 1970) and they dominated younger vertebrate fossil assemblages from eastern Africa. Bovids occur in both Eurasia and Africa during the Early Miocene, and thereafter migrations between these continents occurred repeatedly (Vrba 1985, 1995), but Gentry (1990) argues for Africa as the origin of this family. Because the sole apomorphic character distinguishing the Bovidae is the presence of horn cores (Janis and Scott 1987), it would be...

  14. 12 Isotopes

    • 12.1 Stable Isotope Ecology of Northern Kenya, with Emphasis on the Turkana Basin
      (pp. 583-604)
      Thure E. Cerling, John M. Harris, Meave G. Leakey and Nina Mudida

      The stable isotopic composition of pedogenic carbonate and biogenic minerals is related to climate and ecology, and to dietary preferences and metabolic strategies, respectively. The δ18O and δ13C component of bioapatites has proven to be an important indicator of water sources and diet (Longinelli 1984; Lee-Thorp and van der Merwe 1987; Koch 1998). The δ18O of apatite is measured either as the phosphate (e.g., Longinelli 1984; Crowson et al. 1991) or as the CO₃ component as released by reaction with H₃PO₄ (Lee-Thorp and van der Merwe 1987). On a global scale, the bioapatite δ18O of a species is controlled by...

    • 12.2 Isotope Paleoecology of the Nawata and Nachukui Formations at Lothagam, Turkana Basin, Kenya
      (pp. 605-624)
      Thure E. Cerling, John M. Harris and Meave G. Leakey

      The stable carbon and oxygen isotope values of paleosols, fossil tooth enamel, and fossil eggshell provide important information about the paleoecology and paleophysiology of mammals and birds (Cerling 1984; Cerling et al. 1988, 1989, 1993, 1997; Lee-Thorp and van der Merwe 1987; Bryant et al. 1994). The δ13C fraction in soils and paleosols is an indicator of the relative abundance of C₄ biomass in the ecosystem, whereas that in teeth and eggshell reflects the proportion of dietary C₄ plant matter. The δ18O fraction is related to the isotopic composition of soil and body water and is a useful way to...

    (pp. 625-660)
    Meave G. Leakey and John M. Harris

    Lothagam, located to the southwest of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, is an uplifted fault block composed of a gently westward-dipping sequence of volcanic and sedimentary rocks. These rocks have been subdivided into four major lithostratigraphic units, which document discrete stages in the large-scale tectonic and climatic evolution of the region and record a sequence of river systems and lakes (Feibel this volume: chapter 2.1). The Middle to Late Miocene Nabwal Arangan beds comprise conglomerates and lavas derived from a nearby high-relief volcanic source; to date, this basal unit has yielded only fossil wood. The main fossiliferous sequence begins with...

    (pp. 661-666)
    Mauricio Antón
    (pp. 667-668)
  18. Index
    (pp. 669-680)