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BOX 1: The Turkana Database: An Archive Of Vertebrate Evolution In East Africa
After more than four decades
of paleontological and geological
research, the Turkana Basin has
become one of the preeminent places
to study the ecological and environ-
mental context of early human evolu-
tion. To strengthen and enhance
continuing research on human ori-
gins, it is important that the wealth
of paleobiological information from
the Turkana Basin be readily avail-
able to the scientific community and
to the public at large, beyond publi-
cations in specialized journals and
comprehensive monographs. Publicly
available databases have become
standard tools in scientific research
in many areas of study, including,
for example, the field of genomics,
and paleoanthropology is no excep-
tion. In a partnership between the
National Museums of Kenya and the
Smithsonian Institution, we have
established a ‘‘living’’ faunal database
that can serve as a powerful and sus-
tainable tool in the analysis of paleo-
ecological patterns and faunal change
in the context of human evolution.
The Turkana Database is a speci-
men-based compilation of fossil
vertebrates from the Turkana
Basin of Kenya. This contrasts
with other database structures that
provide lists of taxa by locality or
collection (for example, species
occurrences), such as the Paleobi-
ology Database (PBDB, http://,
the Eurasian NOW Database
and the Smithsonian’s Human
Origins Program Database. The
Paleobiology Database includes tax-
onomic occurrence records for the
East African Mio-Pleistocene fauna
originally captured by the Evolu-
tion of Terrestrial Ecosystems
(ETE) database.
The Turkana
Database contains searchable infor-
mation about all published speci-
mens from Lothagam (Nawata and
Nachukui formations), Kanapoi
(Kanapoi Formation), West Tur-
kana (Nachukui Formation), and
East Turkana (Koobi Fora Forma-
tion). The specimens date from the
Late Miocene to the Early Pleisto-
cene; that is, from about 7.5 mil-
lion years ago to about 1.4 million
years ago. The fossils and the in-
formation they contain represent
tens of thousands of hours devoted
to searching, collecting, catalogu-
ing, and conserving by hundreds
of researchers and skilled techni-
cians since the mid-1960s. Cur-
rently, the public version of the
database has more than 13,500
records from 28 mammalian fami-
lies. It will continue to grow as
new publications appear. There are
34 fields in the public database,
with each field providing, along
with other contextual information,
basic information about a fossil
specimen: museum accession num-
ber, associated specimens, geo-
graphical location of the site, strat-
igraphic information, taxonomic
designation, skeletal part, and
degree of completeness. The parent
Turkana Database contains both
published and unpublished speci-
mens, currently totaling about
17,000 records; access to unpub-
lished information requires permis-
sion from the Palaeontology Division
at the National Museums of Kenya.
The Turkana Database was
designed as a research tool, and it
has been used for this purpose in
peer-reviewed publications as well
as dissertations and student proj-
ects. It has also become a valuable
tool for curators at the National
Museums of Kenya (NMK) and for
researchers visiting the vast verte-
brate paleontology collections at the
museum. Scholars who conduct
research at NMK can easily locate
specimens of interest and find
appropriate comparative collections.
Scholars who are planning to visit
NMK can get exact numbers and
locations of specimens they wish to
study before they travel, and thus
can plan their work ahead of time.
The public database can be accessed
through the National Museums of
Kenya, Earth Sciences Department
(Palaeontology Division), and the
Smithsonian Institution’s Evolution of
Terrestrial Ecosystems web pages: and http://
There are several aspects of the
current database and data quality
that we plan to improve in the near
future. First, some of the specimens
were originally collected with rela-
tively broad stratigraphic prove-
nience data (at the level of geological
members), even though the geo-
graphic origin of the specimens is
known with meter-level accuracy
and precision. We plan to reassign
specimens with well-known geo-
graphic provenience records to
updated geological subunits within
known geological members. Second,
some of the taxonomic identifica-
tions of Turkana Basin fossils have
not been revised or updated since
they were first published two or
three decades ago. The recent publi-
cation of a volume on African mam-
mal evolution provides renewed
impetus to update these records and
bring them into the current taxo-
nomic framework for African paleo-
Third, some of the non-
mammalian taxa have not been well
studied and require thorough
reevaluation, although there are
some notable exceptions, such as
the fossil fishes from Kanapoi and
Lothagam. In future versions of the
database, we plan to include all verte-
brate fossils, not just mammals. With
refined stratigraphic provenience,
updated taxonomy, and inclusion of
all fossil vertebrates, we also will
include in the database a range of
new ecomorphological and paleoeco-
logical data derived from the fossils.
Currently there is no single source of
paleoecological information of Tur-
kana Basin fossils. These data can be
easily incorporated into the structure
of the Turkana Database (fields for
measurements and interpretations,
such as grazer, browser, mixed
feeder). The database will continue to
be maintained by the National Muse-
ums of Kenya and the Smithsonian
Rene´ Bobe
Anna K. Behrensmeyer
Meave G. Leakey
Emma Mbua
256 Rene
... Data for Koobi Fora were taken from the PaleoTurkana Database (PTD). The database was originally compiled from the fossil collections at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) by the first author in collaboration with A.K. Behrensmeyer of the Smithsonian Institution and Meave Leakey from NMK (Bobe, 2011;Bobe et al., 2011). It was augmented with data on the fossil mammals from Area 1A at Ileret as well as other exposures of the Koobi Fora Formation collected by the authors, in collaboration with the Koobi Fora Field School, through fieldwork at East Turkana during the 2007e2014 field seasons. ...
... Many of these specimens have been published in some detail (Harris, 1983(Harris, , 1991Black and Krishtalka, 1986;Harris et al., 1988;Wood, 1991;Walker and Leakey, 1993;Harris and Leakey, 2003;Leakey and Harris, 2003;Jablonski and Leakey, 2008;Geraads et al., 2013;Werdelin and Lewis, 2013), but many specimens remain unpublished. A public version of the database has been available to the scientific community and the public since 2004 through the Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of Natural History, Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program) and the National Museums of Kenya (Department of Earth Sciences) (see Bobe et al., 2011). Both the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program and the National Museums of Kenya hold current version of the database. ...
The newly described partial skeleton of Paranthropus boisei KNM-ER 47000 as well as the FwJj14E Ileret footprints provide new evidence on the paleobiology and diversity of hominins from the Okote Member of the Koobi Fora Formation at East Turkana about 1.5 Ma. To better understand the ecological context of the Okote hominins, it is necessary to broaden the geographical focus of the analysis to include the entire Omo-Turkana ecosystem, and the temporal focus to encompass the early Pleistocene. Previous work has shown that important changes in the regional vegetation occurred after 2 Ma, and that there was a peak in mammalian turnover and diversity close to 1.8 Ma. This peak in diversity included the Hominini, with the species P. boisei, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus co-occurring at around 1.8 Ma. There is considerable debate about whether H. habilis and H. rudolfensis indeed constitute separate species, but even if we consider them both as H. habilis sensu lato, the co-occurrence of three hominin species at any one time and place is rather unusually high diversity for hominin standards (even if not so for other mammalian groups such as suids, bovids, or cercopithecids). Here we use mammalian faunal abundance data to place confidence intervals on first and last appearances of hominin species in the early Pleistocene of the Omo-Turkana Basin, and use these estimates to discuss hominin diversity in the Okote Member. We suggest that in the early Pleistocene a wide range of depositional environments and vegetation types, along with a high frequency of volcanism, likely maintained high levels of environmental variability both in time and space across the Omo-Turkana region, and provided ecological opportunities for the coexistence of at least three hominin species alongside a diverse mammalian fauna.
... The stratigraphic age of the proboscidean specimens was based mainly on radiometrically dated volcanic tuffs [67][68][69][70] (Supplementary Data 2-4). Where a range is given, the median age is used in graphing and analyses. ...
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Identification of the selective forces that shaped adaptive phenotypes generally relies on current habitat and function, but these may differ from the context in which adaptations arose. Moreover, the fixation of adaptive change in a fluctuating environment and the mechanisms of long-term trends are still poorly understood, as is the role of behaviour in triggering these processes. Time series of fossils can provide evidence on these questions, but examples of individual lineages with adequate fossil and proxy data over extended periods are rare. Here, we present new data on proboscidean dental evolution in East Africa over the past 26 million years, tracking temporal patterns of morphological change in relation to proxy evidence of diet, vegetation and climate (aridity). We show that behavioural experimentation in diet is correlated with environmental context, and that major adaptive change in dental traits followed the changes in diet and environment but only after acquisition of functional innovations in the masticatory system. We partition traits by selective agent, showing that the acquisition of high, multiridged molars was primarily a response to an increase in open, arid environments with high dust accumulation, whereas enamel folding was more associated with the amount of grass in the diet. We further show that long-term trends in these features proceeded in a ratchet-like mode, alternating between directional change at times of high selective pressure and stasis when the selective regime reversed. This provides an explanation for morphology adapted to more extreme conditions than current usage (Liem’s Paradox). Our study illustrates how, in fossil series with adequate stratigraphic control and proxy data, environmental and behavioural factors can be mapped on to time series of morphological change, illuminating the mode of acquisition of an adaptive complex.
... The eastern African bovid and Turkana Basin large-mammal specimen databases were assembled from numerous sources, with the largest contributions from the Turkana Public Database (74), the International Omo Research Expedition and Omo Group Research Expedition databases (both courtesy of J.-R. Boisserie), and Middle Awash (courtesy of T. White), and data from the literature (e.g., Hadar, Laetoli, Olduvai; see SI Text), with many updates based on specimen study by F.B. In total, these comprise 134 bovid species (77 non-single-interval taxa) (Dataset S1) and 172 Turkana large mammal species (130 nonsingletons) (Dataset S2). ...
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Significance Many have argued that major developments in mammalian (including human) evolution were timed with large and sudden changes to Earth’s climate. Our new analyses of the eastern African Plio-Pleistocene mammalian fossil record indicate that most species originations and extinctions took place continuously and gradually. This means that evolution was not clustered in short intervals, nor were sudden global climatic changes the main cause of species extinction in the past. Global climate may have influenced longer-term (million year) evolutionary trends, but local environmental changes and species interactions were more important at shorter (100,000 y) time scales.
The majority of attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the hominin clade proceed as if the hominin fossil record is a precise, accurate, and comprehensive record of human evolutionary history. In this contribution we review the various ways in which the apparent scarcity of early hominins on the landscape means that the existing hominin fossil record almost certainly falls short of this assumption, especially with respect to taxic diversity, as well as the spatial and temporal distribution of known taxa. We also suggest that interpretations of the hominin fossil record are particularly affected by practices that likely violate the principles of reproducibility, as well as by confirmation bias. The hominin fossil record should be seen for what it is; an incomplete record of human evolutionary history that limits what should be said about it. Generated narratives should be treated as heuristic devices, not as accurate and comprehensive descriptions of past events.
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The KNM-ER 2598 occipital is among the oldest fossils attributed to Homo erectus but questions have been raised about whether it may derive from a younger horizon. Here we report on efforts to relocate the KNM-ER 2598 locality and investigate its paleontological and geological context. Although located in a different East Turkana collection area (Area 13) than initially reported, the locality is stratigraphically positioned below the KBS Tuff and the outcrops show no evidence of deflation of a younger unit, supporting an age of >1.855 Ma. Newly recovered faunal material consists primarily of C4 grazers, further confirmed by enamel isotope data. A hominin proximal 3rd metatarsal and partial ilium were discovered <50 m from the reconstructed location where KNM-ER 2598 was originally found but these cannot be associated directly with the occipital. The postcrania are consistent with fossil Homo and may represent the earliest postcrania attributable to Homo erectus.
Eight years of excavation work by the Olduvai Geochronology and Archaeology Project (OGAP) has produced a rich vertebrate fauna from several sites within Bed II, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Study of these as well as recently re-organized collections from Mary Leakey's 1972 HWK EE excavations here provides a synthetic view of the faunal community of Olduvai during Middle Bed II at ∼1.7-1.4 Ma, an interval that captures the local transition from Oldowan to Acheulean technology. We expand the faunal list for this interval, name a new bovid species, clarify the evolution of several mammalian lineages, and record new local first and last appearances. Compositions of the fish and large mammal assemblages support previous indications for the dominance of open and seasonal grassland habitats at the margins of an alkaline lake. Fish diversity is low and dominated by cichlids, which indicates strongly saline conditions. The taphonomy of the fish assemblages supports reconstructions of fluctuating lake levels with mass die-offs in evaporating pools. The mammals are dominated by grazing bovids and equids. Habitats remained consistently dry and open throughout the entire Bed II sequence, with no major turnover or paleoecological changes taking place. Rather, wooded and wet habitats had already given way to drier and more open habitats by the top of Bed I, at 1.85-1.80 Ma. This ecological change is close to the age of the Oldowan-Acheulean transition in Kenya and Ethiopia, but precedes the local transition in Middle Bed II. The Middle Bed II large mammal community is much richer in species and includes a much larger number of large-bodied species (>300 kg) than the modern Serengeti. This reflects the severity of Pleistocene extinctions on African large mammals, with the loss of large species fitting a pattern typical of defaunation or 'downsizing' by human disturbance. However, trophic network (food web) analyses show that the Middle Bed II community was robust, and comparisons with the Serengeti community indicate that the fundamental structure of food webs remained intact despite Pleistocene extinctions. The presence of a generalized meat-eating hominin in the Middle Bed II community would have increased competition among carnivores and vulnerability among herbivores, but the high generality and interconnectedness of the Middle Bed II food web suggests this community was buffered against extinctions caused by trophic interactions.
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