Kenya 2012: The Mpala Team

May 19, 2012

Here at Mpala, we are accompanied by a group of extremely intelligent, kind and patient people who have dedicated large portions of their lives and time to contributing to the advancement of archaeological and anthropological knowledge.  This mix-matched group of people combines to form an excellent team that features different strengths and focused areas of expertise that all equally add to the effectiveness of the excavations.  It also doesn’t hurt that everyone truly enjoys having a good time!


From left to right…(and then imaginary me!)

Paul Mpala (our guide at the research center)

Paul Kunoni

Paul met Kathleen in 1991 and has acted as her translator in Maasailand and throughout her travels in Kenya ever since.  Paul is a medical scientist officially, but spends these research trips helping Kathleen to communicate with the people who live in rural areas of Kenya.  Originally, Paul’s brother was the translator, but when he moved to India, Paul inherited the job.  He has known Kathleen for over twenty years now.  Not only does Paul act as an effective translator for the group, but he is also very knowledgeable when it comes to local plant life and medicinal uses of plants.  I’ve gotten to know Paul better during this trip and I must say, he makes the long car rides fun!  For example, today we learned how ant colonies nest and breed within pods of the whistling thorn plant.  Paul risked getting stung so that he could give us the opportunity to see the ants at work by slicing open the small pod and exposing the queen and all of her workers.  Small instances like this contribute greatly to the overall experience of the group and make the excavations a truly well rounded event.

Simon Katisya

Simon started his work with the first archeologist south of the Sahara, a man who grew up right here in Kenya.  After working in archaeology for many years, he started to gain more interest in the topic, but once again, his entrance into the field mirrors that of Paul Watene.  He was first offered a job and then grew to enjoy the practice.  Simon was eventually offered a position at the National Museums of Kenya and has worked there for many years.  After working at the field school at Koobi Fora (as well as many other field schools where he gained experience), he was elected out of a group to be matched with Kathleen’s excavation project many years ago.  This is how Simon became involved in more excavations in the Laikipia area and why he is working in the group presently.  Simon is one of the original members of Kathleen’s excavation teams.  He may seem quiet, but once asked about his experiences in the archaeological field, Simon opened up and shared his many stories of participation in field works, referencing more experience than seems possible in a lifetime.

Paul Mitchell

Paul intends to graduate from University of Pennsylvania in 2013 with majors in philosophy and biological anthropology and minors in geology and cognitive science.  So, you might be thinking, how does one decide to go into these areas of study?  Paul explains that while he grew up in a very loving environment, evolutionary ideas were not a part of his education.  This changed when he read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  It opened up a new perspective on science and its relationship with religion and fueled his study of evolutionary science.  When applying to colleges, Paul’s original plan was to major in political science, but after deciding it could be better described as political “arts and trickery,” he decided to pursue the biological sciences instead.  His mentorship with an excellent professor, Dr. Janet Monge, only solidified his interest.  It has been two and half years since Paul found his passions and he has made it a goal to keep learning.  He has participated in research on bioarchaeology and skeletal biology in the U.S. as well as in New Zealand, and continues his own research on early hominin fossils.  While attending UPenn, Paul currently works at the Penn Museum.

Paul Watene

“Matter is neither created nor destroyed.”

After graduating from school, Paul began work at the National Museums of Kenya.  He was originally employed in the archaeology department because that is where he was offered a position and through that experience, he was exposed to many other specialists in subjects such as, taxonomy, geology and osteology.  He worked in the archaeology department at the museum for some time, but eventually transferred his specialty to lithics.  This included studying the Neo- lithic, or New Stone Age formations and rocks.  Eventually after some years in this field, Paul decided to switch to faunal studies due to the competition that was present in the lithics field.  He also wanted to participate in research that was not debatable and more definitive.  We can now all attest to Paul’s vast knowledge of organismal biology and his expertise in faunal osteology.  Just today, someone found a large limb bone of what we thought might be a giraffe or elephant.  Everyone’s first reaction was to ask our very own expert!  Sure enough, he could not only pinpoint the animal within a matter of seconds, but corrected us on the actual classified bone.  This man knows his stuff!  He also holds interesting views on the acquisition of jobs in Kenya.  When Paul was growing up, when you were offered a job, you took it, no matter what.  This is how he first became involved in archaeology.  It was not a choice.  He grew to enjoy learning about certain aspects of the subject and was eventually able to turn his job in archaeology into an examination of something he found deeply interesting: osteology.

Louise Hanson

Louise met Kathleen during a cocktail party this year that was held at the Penn Museum.  They got to talking about Kathleen’s research and after getting to know each other, Louise was offered the opportunity to join Kathleen during her 2012 trip to Kenya.  Louise has dedicated her academic and working career to chemistry.  She earned her masters degree at University of Michigan, a PhD at University of Washington and has also acquired a post-doctorate at NIH (National Institute of Health).  With these degrees, Louise worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  Her education and professional work is not necessarily directly related to archaeology, but she enjoys exploring other fields now that she is retired.  She has always had a great interest in archaeology and was able to take a few classes as an undergraduate, but her intensive chemistry courses did not allow for much flexibility.  Instead, after retiring, Louise opted to start auditing archaeology and anthropology courses at Stony Brook University.  She has been a welcome and dedicated member of the excavation team at Mpala.

Kathleen Ryan

Kathleen Ryan is the director of the Kenya 2012 trip sponsored by the Penn Museum.  She started off her career with an undergraduate degree in archeology at the University College Dublin and joined Dr. Wailes’ excavation site at Dun Ailinne in Ireland where she worked off and on for eight years.  She came over to the U.S. and continued to be interested in the subject, but had stopped taking courses for a few years.  Kathleen decided to apply to the history department at UPenn for a PhD.  She was originally hoping to do a comparative study of the Maasai and Irish cattle people.  This idea to study the Maasai eventually brought Kathleen back to her archaeological roots.  She spent two months each year for a six year span in India with another UPenn professor and traveled and excavated throughout China and Thailand visiting colleagues.  Kathleen first considered working in Kenya in 1988 and went to Maasailand in 1990 to ask people there if they would be willing to work with her.  Their “yes” made this current research possible.  In 2002, Kathleen joined Karega-Munene to set up the archaeology project in Laikipia and has since been working there annually.

Joseph Komande

Joseph first met Kathleen years ago.  His father, Justice, was once the driver for Kathleen’s excavations and anthropological trips.  Five years ago, Joseph inherited the job.  Normally, Joseph says he “drives people all over Kenya,” for hours at a time, but with Kathleen’s trips, it gives him a chance to relax and enjoy watching the excavations take place.  It’s hilarious watching the relationship between Kathleen and Komande as well; they behave almost like siblings, participating in what seems like constant banter!  Joseph seems to truly enjoy spending time with the excavation team and has been continuously kind to all new members, including myself.  He acts as a rock for the group and keeps everyone in check through precise timing and making definitive plans.

Christopher Kirwa

Chris says that he is fascinated by archaeology because he believes that it is important to examine who man is today in comparison to what we were in the past.  He wasn’t sure that he would choose the path of archaeology when he first considered a career.  In fact, Chris originally wanted to study botany in school and start his own business by running a farm where he planned to grow plants and raise dairy cattle.  This was inspired by his mother, an herbalist, and his father, a dairy farmer.  Chris told us a story about how his mother knew exactly which proportions of an herb combination to give to a calf or adult cow to cure any sickness.  He wanted to learn about these processes and become an expert as well.  When he attended school, Chris became entranced by archaeology instead.  After graduating, he was asked to work for the National Museums of Kenya.  He still works there today and is a newer addition to Kathleen’s team here at the Mpala site.  Chris hopes that in the future he can incorporate botanical knowledge with his archaeological work and maybe someday he will start his farm business after all!

Mulu Muia

Mulu began his career interested in geography, which quickly turned into a passion for archaeology.  He loved the idea of going out into the field and working outdoors.  During his second year of undergraduate education, he participated in a field school, which only solidified his devotion to the subject.  He was then invited to work with a friend on an excavation site in Nakuru and decided that he would rather study archaeology than anything else.  Mulu applied to graduate school at the University of Nairobi and then later attended the University of Illinois.  Kathleen used to work with Karega-Munene (Mulu’s boss at the time) at the National Museums of Kenya.  This is how Mulu became involved in Kathleen’s projects.  In 2004, he was asked to analyze stone tools that were excavated during Kathleen’s trip to Kenya a few years earlier and has since been a part of the team.

Erika Hoffman

I am currently a Junior at College of Charleston in South Carolina and plan to graduate in 2014 with majors in anthropology and history and a minor in environmental studies.  I have always been interested in anthropology and archaeology, but it wasn’t until I started working with Kathleen and began my college career that I knew I wanted to pursue my education in the subject.  I began working with Kathleen Ryan during my senior year in high school when she acted as my mentor for a senior project.  I spent two weeks interning with Kathleen at the Penn Museum and completed a project which involved educating younger audiences about Maasai culture and their medicinal use of plants.  After this experience, I continued to visit Kathleen at the museum and have spent time working with her on various projects during my breaks from school.  Kathleen offered me the opportunity to travel with her to Kenya this year and I jumped at the chance.  It is an amazing experience to witness in person all of the research and culture that I have been learning about for years.