A Story of Persistence
Dr. Nengo was born and reared in Nairobi, Kenya. As a gifted high school student he developed a keen interest in biology and when famed wildlife biologist and paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey visited the school, young Isaiah's imagination was fired and he decided to devote his life to the science of human origins.
Convincing Dr. Leakey to take him on board was another matter! Zillions of kids want to be paleontologists, what's rare is to stick with it. But he persisted, graduating college with a degree in Zoology and Botany. His tenacity bore out with Dr. Leakey as well and soon he was out in the field discovering crucial fossils that tell the fascinating story of our remote hominid forerunners and the ancestral primates that came long before our own species was even a glimmer on the horizon.
Although soft-spoken, his brilliance as a scientist soon became apparent and he was offered admission to Harvard University's Ph.D. program. At Harvard he studied with top paleoanthropologist David Plibeam, and became a protege of Stephen Jay Gould. Dr. Nengo's dissertation on ape limb bones challenged established notions of ape evolution and set his reputation as an innovative thinker.
He settled in California with his wife and small son. Two more children soon followed and then tenure at De Anza College. But his colleagues in Kenya weren't content to have him based overwhelmingly in America. During a fateful visit by Louise Leakey to the Bay Area, she plead the case that he should come home! Her entreaties worked! He reprised his work in Africa, introducing his own children and dozens of De Anza students to the joys of field work.
In 2015 he led a small contingent of sharp-eyed Kenyans known as some of the best fossil finders in Turkana into the area called Napudet. It is a notoriously difficult area in which to find fossils and people told him he was wasting his time. But Dr. Nengo knew the sediments there were of the perfect age to find ancestral apes. At first, as everyone predicted, they found nothing. But his persistence again paid off as one of his group, John Ekusi, finally spotted a small, round rock protruding from the ground. It looked like an elephant's kneecap but as they excavated around it, they quickly saw that it was, in fact, an entire primate skull, beautifully preserved and still embedded in the original rock that had formed around it 13 million years ago!
This was the famous Alesi fossil destined for the pages of the world's foremost scientific journal Nature!
Unlike many paleoanthropologists who keep their cards close to the vest and spend a dozen years with a small group doing all the work (and getting all the glory when the fossil is finally published), Dr. Nengo believes science advances best when a diversity of researchers with complementary strengths collaborates. He gathered a large team of crack scientists from around the world to analyze this utterly unique find using the latest technology.
He has helped pioneer new methods of fossil analysis, approaching French physicists with the idea of using their particle accelerator to map the interior of the fossil, eliminating the need to open the head and disturb or destroy any of its valuable contents. Not knowing if by great good luck any of the anatomy of the brain and other soft tissue had possibly been preserved, he traveled to Grenoble with the fossil in a special protective case. To everyone's joy and amazement, the interior of the fossil is beautifully intact. Fine scanning of the teeth revealed that the little ape
met her demise at the tender age of 16 months. A sad tragedy for her but a wonderful gift to science!
No other fossil primate skull in the history of the field is so complete-not the famous Lucy or Ardi nor the famous Rusinga Island specimen found by Mary Leakey's team, nor the Taung skull. And the quality is extraordinary -unerupted teeth in perfect condition scanned by electrons in the synchrotron provide far better data than any specimens exposed to the elements in burial or normal wear and tear in life. The inner ear is mapped in stunning detail. Analysis of the brain itself has really only just begun but is yielding tantalizing clues!
His own children going off to college, Dr. Nengo now spends half the year in Africa. He accepted a position at Stony Brook University in New York, and has become Associate Director of the Turkana Basin Institute, taking charge of science and research operations in Kenya.