In 1991, a fossil was found in northern Malawi that formed a new link in the chain of human evolution. The common scenario for such a discovery in Africa would be: the specimen disappears to a foreign lab for study; expatriate scientists receive laud and honour; and the host country, especially local residents, never hear about it again.
Fortunately for Malawi and for visitors from around the world, this story ends differently. Timothy G. Bromage and Friedemann Schrenk, palaeontologists, developed a deep relationship with Malawi and local colleagues during ten years of research there.
The result is the Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga (CMCK), dedicated to presenting some rare finds of ancient history as well as preserving local Malawian culture. The Centre is an active site of learning, research, and the sharing of cultural heritage.
Karonga, Malawi: A discovery meant to be shared
Midmorning on July 29, 1991, Timothy Bromage and his team of fossil diggers took a break from the fierce midmorning sun to seek some shade and a thermos of cold water. On a hillside near Uraha village in northern Malawi, they had already worked several hours since sun up. They walked slowly, bent forward with hands crossed behind their backs, staring at the ground to detect fossils.
When someone identified a bone or significant fragment, they documented the find. This involved snapping an instant Polaroid photo, fixing the position with a GPS, and sketching the environment.
It had been a good day already. They’d found dozens of teeth of primeval antelopes, a sign of an especially dense area of fossils.
Yet so far, it was a routine day of work. For more than ten years, Bromage, Friedemann Schrenk and a team of assistants had been pursuing a dream in Northern Malawi. The palaeontologists were determined to find a human fossil that would provide a missing link in the relics of human history identified in Southern and East Africa.
To cheer up the lagging spirits, Bromage said: “OK boys, we have enough antelope, let’s find a Hominid” (the scientific family of humans and erect-walking primates).
|Tyson: hominid finder
Years later, Bromage wrote that he recalled the next several minutes exactly: “I noticed how Tyson Msiska lowered his head and stared at the ground under his feet. He was only three steps away from me. I saw him bend down and lift a fragment, turned the fossil in his hands, cleaned it, and gave it to me. I was so overcome by the object I held in my hand that I was rendered speechless, and could not utter a word. I knew this was a hominid relic…”
The scientists’ dream had come true: they had found the jawbone of a very early human ancestor.
With permission from Malawi’s Minister of Culture, the fossil soon travelled to Germany for analysis. Then there was another year of study, including a return to Malawi for 8 weeks to find a missing tooth. Finally, they identified the jawbone as a 2.3-2.5 million year old human relic which represents the earliest evidence of the genus Homo. It was named UR 501 (the number inspired by Bromage’s Levi 501 jeans) and its bearer affectionately ‘Uraha man,’ for the village near the excavation site.
The Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga (CMCK)
From the day of the discovery of ‘Uraha man’, this fossil belonged to the people.
The same evening, while Schrenk and Bromage sat astonished at a table at their camp, their 16 member digging team were organizing a celebration. About 500 people gathered for feasting and dancing to honour the event. At one point, Bromage recalls, the precious fossil, protected in an improvised leafy basket, was secretly snatched from them. It was returned held aloft, part of the procession of a local celebration dance called Malipenga.
Over the next several years, the Uraha Foundation Malawi was formed to develop a way to showcase Malawi’s ancient relics. Archibald Mwakasungula, a former foreign diplomat with old roots in Karonga, joined the Foundation in 1998 and remains the Chairman.
“We are most proud that what started as an idea among a few friends has been realized into a magnificent national treasure,” said Mwakasungula.
He recalled the political pressure to locate the museum in more popular and accessible southern Malawi. The Karonga location is key: not only is this a museum, but a site for ongoing study in the historically rich local areas.
The Museum Treasures
Meanwhile in the 1990’s, other history–changing discoveries were made in the ancient sediment and fossil beds in the North, including Malawi’s own dinosaur.
By 2004 when the museum opened, natural and human relics spanning 250 million years had been identified and included.
The tour begins at the head of a snake: a 100-meter stone snake, whose body is a pebbled path that takes the visitor along a journey through time.
From the Karoo Age, 260-230 million years ago, trees and rocks tell the stories.
|How the Malawisaurus would have looked
Soon the snake’s tail turns to the creature that dominates the far end of the room: the life-sized, skeletal model of Malawisaurus, about 4 meters high and 9 metres long. Malawi’s own dinosaur was a plant-eating titanosaurid; fossil found in South America belongs to its closest known relative.
After a knot on the snake tail (signifying a long break in time), stories of the ancient human ancestors begin. Africa as the cradle of humankind: Uraha man connects the evidence previously found in Southern and East Africa. The museum presents facts analyzed through the disciplines of biology, anthropology, and even astronomy.
The snakes’ last third covers the modern history of Karonga District. Local residents, in polls about the museum, insisted that their social history be included. Relics of the early settlers, the Ngonde, include elaborate beads, beautifully detailed pots, and musical instruments. A section is devoted to the Arab slave trade which captured and killed thousands of Ngonde. The influence of David Livingstone and subsequent missionaries is documented.
The exhibit continues through the British colonial period, Malawi’s winning independence, and becoming a multi-party democracy in 1994.
The museum comprises two spacious buildings, one of displays and another for research and storage. Designed but not yet completed are a 1,000 seat open area theatre that would present local and visiting cultural events, and a library for ongoing local research.
The museum itself is worth a good half-day visit, with friendly and helpful guides and a café attached that serves simple local fare like fish and chips.
For the more studious visitor, trips can be arranged to local excavation sites. There is Malema camp, an active excavation site with simple accommodations (see below), and the hills near Uraha village where the famous human jawbone was found.
Social history sites include the Mbande hills, a sacred site where the traditional leaders, the Kyungu, were consecrated and received their blessing from ancestral spirits.
Northern Malawi also attracts visitors for nearby areas of spectacular natural beauty. Karonga sits on the shore of Lake Malawi, and within an hour are beautiful beaches safe for swimming and snorkelling. The Nyika Plateau to the southwest is a vast national park of wild open grassland broken by patches of savannah woodland. Rising to 2000 metres, it hosts buffalo, zebra, leopard, and many antelope species amidst spectacular wilderness.
CMCK Contact Information: The museum is open Monday-Friday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Sunday 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.
For special tours or events, visitors should contact the museum in advance.
Mr. Isaac Chawinga, Public Relations Officer. Tel & Fax: +265 (0) 1 362 579/363 Mobile: +265 (0) 8 870 345
Getting there: Karonga is a long day’s drive from the capital, Lilongwe, along the M1 highway. Also, Air Malawi operates into the northern city of Mzuzu, about 250 kilometres south of Karonga. The CMCK is located in the centre of Karonga; there are signs from the dinosaur statue in the main traffic circle.
1. The CMCK developed its own facility for visitors, Malema Camp, which is secure and clean but simple. It has three well-kept and attractive chalets (not en suite), and camping ground; one flush toilet and two communal
showers. A cook will prepare food brought by guests. Electricity is fairly reliable from solar panels.
2. 80 kilometres southwest of CMCK is the rustic and charming Lukwe Eco Lodge. The last 10 kilometres of the drive is up a recently renovated but steep road that climbs nearly 1000 metres. Grass and thatch chalets perched on the edge of the escarpment offer spectacular views of a nearby waterfall and the distant lake. There is also a dormitory and camping. Home-cooked meals include local organic produce and fresh baked bread.
Within a half-hour’s drive is the historic Livingstone Mission, where the 100-year old church is surrounded by an active community and farms.
Website: http://www.lukwe.com/ Note: phone contact is the most reliable.
3. Within a day’s drive are two safari resorts run by the Nyika Safari Company. Camping, mid-priced and high end accommodation is available.
Author’s Note: The fossil digging stories were adapted with permission from Adam’s Ancestors by Timothy G. Bromage and Friedemann Schrenk with Stephanie Muller. (C.H. Beck, Munich 2005).
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Copyright © 2007 Melissa Aberle-Grasse