The Omo-Turkana Basin Fossil Hominins and Their Contribution to Our Understanding of Human Evolution in Africa


  • Bernard Wood,

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    • Bernard Wood is University Professor of Human Origins at The George Washington University and adjunct senior scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In 1968, he took part in the first field season at what was then called East Rudolf. He is the author of the 1991 monograph on the hominin cranial remains from Koobi Fora. He edits the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution.

  • Meave Leakey

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    • Meave Leakey is a research professor in the Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University, New York. She has carried out field work in the Turkana Basin over the past four decades and currently co-leads the Koobi Fora Research Project with her daughter Louise. She is an Explorer-in-Residence of the National Geographic Society, which has funded field work in East Africa for many decades and currently, in large measure, funds the KFRP field research at Turkana. Meave's research interests include the evolution of cercopithecids and hominids, as well as the study of past faunal assemblages as proxies for reconstructing paleohabitats and past environmental changes. Together with Richard and Louise Leakey, and in collaboration with Stony Brook University, Meave is developing the Turkana Basin Institute with two research facilities to the east and west of Lake Turkana.


The Omo-Turkana Basin, including the hominin fossil sites around Lake Turkana and the sites along the lower reaches of the Omo River, has made and continues to make an important contribution to improving our murky understanding of human evolution. This review highlights the various ways the Omo-Turkana Basin fossil record has contributed to, and continues to challenge, interpretations of human evolution. Despite many diagrams that look suspiciously like comprehensive hypotheses about human evolutionary history, any sensible paleoanthropologist knows that the early hominin fossil record is too meager to do anything other than offer very provisional statements about hominin taxonomy and phylogeny. If history tells us anything, it is that we still have much to learn about the hominin clade. Thus, we summarize the current state of knowledge of the hominin species represented at the Omo-Turkana Basin sites. We then focus on three specific topics for which the fossil evidence is especially relevant: the origin and nature of Paranthropus; the origin and nature of early Homo; and the ongoing debate about whether the pattern of human evolution is more consistent with speciation by cladogenesis, with greater taxonomic diversity or with speciation by anagenetic transformation, resulting in less taxonomic diversity and a more linear interpretation of human evolutionary history. © Wiley Periodicals, Inc.