Pentecostals vs. Paleoanthropologists

Some of anthropology's greatest scientific treasures rest in the National Museums of Kenya. But they may soon become all but invisible if Christian fundamentalists get their way.

Yes, it's another so-called culture war battle being played out over the fossilized skeletal remains of early man -- or is it early ape?

The museum is home to the most complete skeleton found yet of Homo erectus, the 1.7 million-year-old "Turkana Boy" unearthed by famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey more than two decades ago near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

The museum also holds bones from several specimens of the first hominid to walk upright, four million years ago. In short, the museum contains the most convincing historic record of the origins of Homo sapiens. That's us, we're talking about.

Now, leaders of Kenya's Pentecostal congregation want the fossils de-emphasized. They'd prefer the bones be relegated to a backroom in the museum where fewer visitors would observe them or learn about the evolutionary theory of man.

Bishop Bonifes Adoyo who heads the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries, is leading the campaign.

"The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact, " Adoyo told the Skeptical Inquirer. "Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory."

Leakey, who discovered the ancient skeletal remains in 1984, is outraged. He told The Daily Telegraph in London he will fight any plan to diminish the importance of his discovery. "The National Museums of Kenya should be extremely strong in presenting a very forceful case for the evolutionary theory of the origins of mankind," he said.

Leakey was the director of the museum for many years and still wields considerable influence over the administration of the country's museum system. "The collection the museum holds is one of Kenya's very few global claims to fame and it must be forthright in defending its right to be at the forefront of this branch of science," he said.

Bishop Adoyo vows a tough fight and says all of Kenya's six million Pentecostal adherents will be called on to "unite and force the museum" to de-emphasize the skeletal remains. "We will write them (museum directors), we will call them, we will make sure our people know about this, and we will see what we can do to make our voice known," he said.

Those comments ignited an explosive reaction from Leakey. "Their theories are far, far from the mainstream on this. They cannot be allowed to meddle with what is the world's leading collection of these types of fossils," he said.

The power of Kenya's Pentecostal movement should not be underestimated.

Years ago, following the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, I made a couple of follow-up reporting trips to Kenya. I distinctly remember Pentecostal services resembling "revivals" being held regularly in downtown parks.

They were always well attended, led by fiery, energetic preachers who passionately implored followers to follow the scripture -- the scripture as interpreted by this or that Pentecostal preacher. It struck me then that these preachers could easily organize the faithful, which is exactly what's happening now. How far they will take it is the question.

The museum, which reopens after eighteen months of renovations in June 2007, seems to be walking a tightrope.

"It's a tricky situation," Ali Ghege, public relations manager for the National Museums of Kenya, told the Skeptical Inquirer. "We have a responsibility to present all our artifacts in the best way that we can so that everyone who sees them can gain a full understanding of their significance. But things can get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists, or researchers on the other, saying the opposite."

No doubt Darwin would be fascinated by the latest battle between those who subscribe to his theory of evolution and those who fervently believe in creationism.

It does, after all go to the very origins of mankind. That's us, we're talking about.

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