Memory Made Tangible
By the late 1980s, Turle was deep in his collecting mania. Channeling his British schoolboy rectitude, he started applying for permits for his burgeoning collection. One certificate authenticated 240 objects. He also donated pieces from his collection to national museums in Kenya and Tanzania.
Turle was increasingly aware that Kenya was changing. Wildlife populations were plummeting while human population rose inexorably. By 2016, researchers found that populations of Kenya's most common wild animals had dropped by two-thirds. The media loved covering elephants, but less iconic but equally valuable species were verging on extinction: wildebeest, giraffe, Grevy's zebra, the delicate Hirola, a type of hartebeest living in proximity to the similarly endangered Boni people, hunter gatherers on the Kenya-Somalia border.
America was captive to Wall Street's new credo: Greed is Good - or, one might argue, Greed is God. Kenya was no different. Corruption, which had started with Jomo Kenyatta, was more deeply entrenched.
Beard was increasingly bitter and pessimistic, according to his biographer Jon Bowermaster. He landed an assignment that brought him to southern Africa, where conservation efforts were more successful. In Namibia, he met Garth Owen-Smith and Maggie Jacobsohn, a couple who had spent decades working with the Himba people to protect desert elephants and lions.
Owen-Smith hadn't started out as a professional conservationist. Arriving from South Africa in the 1960s, he had simply seen work to be done. Jacobsohn arrived to interview him and stayed; her anthropology background stood her in good stead with the locals. Thanks to their efforts, poaching halted without bloodshed.
Back in Kenya, Beard found refuge with people whose lives were intertwined with the animals who made a landscape a living thing. Traveling with Turle on his trips to Maasailand, he shot photographs of the carved bones and horns, tools of the laiboni. They embodied his aesthetic. Andrea Whittle described it in W magazine as “memory made tangible.”
Turle and Beard found it strange that the Maasai ritual diviners didn't show up in scholarship by Western anthropologists. Turle found one reference in a 1905 book, The Maasai: Their Language and Folklore, by British colonial administrator Alfred Claude Hollis. “Old men amongst the Masai make pipes of goats' bones, rhinoceros horns, or pieces of wood,” Hollis had written.
Hollis described “medicine-men” who cast stones in buffalo horns, adding this note:
“Lastly, if a rhinoceros is killed, its horn is taken and carved into clubs, which are used for beating the he-goats and bulls with. The counsellors’ clubs are also made of rhinoceros horn.”
This explained the rhino horn rungu. But unless Turle could prove that his rapidly growing collection—and Beard’s—were genuine antiquities, it was almost certainly illegal to buy or sell them. Perhaps it was even illegal to possess them. Rhinos were endangered, and protected under the CITES treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Under CITES, it was also illegal to trade in ivory.
The two “eager schoolboys” were skirting Kenyan law, too. In the 1970s, animal rights groups had convinced the Kenyan government to ban hunting and the buying or selling wildlife parts. The bans did nothing to help Kenya's animals; in fact, they may have made the situation worse. Hunting groups point out, not without justice, that since hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977, wildlife populations have dropped 70 percent.
A fluffier version of British colonialism, interference by Western animal rights activists and international banks turned traditional hunters into criminals, leaving the field clear for poaching operations run by the country’s elite in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Beard was well aware of this colossal blunder. Decried as an elitist because of his insistence that overpopulation was going to destroy the world, Beard had spent much of his young manhood in the bush with African guides. He understood the inequities of Kenya’s targeting of traditional hunters, the latest iteration of the cultural genocide started by the British.
“Most of the elephants in Tsavo depended on traditional hunters, people we labeled as poachers, to keep their numbers down so the trees didn’t completely go and they had that woodland cover to take them through the drought,” Beard told documentary filmmaker Lars Brunn in 1996.
“But of course poachers had to be eliminated in our way of thinking. We eradicated traditional hunters. The population went up and ate the habitat. We saved the game! We were saving the game, buying an elephant a drink, water for wild animals. All of our do-gooder causes destroyed the balance, the equilibrium and the age-old systems of a dynamic mosaic, a rich, diverse habitat.
“And we ended up with a desert and 35 to 45,000 dead elephants in the biggest national park where you’re supposed to be saving. We gave it the human touch,” he wound up, more sadness than bitterness in his voice.
Elephant Bones at Sala Gate, Galana (Tsavo Die-Off), 1976
Louis Leakey's Son
Convinced the Maasai laibon tradition had enormous aesthetic and anthropological value, Beard persuaded a United Nations official to include the artifacts in an exhibit of indigenous art at U.N. headquarters in New York. Turle landed a book contract from Alfred A. Knopf. The two men were, as they say, stoked.
They had reason to be optimistic. In early 1990, Turle had received a letter from Andrew Cheptum at the National Museum in Nairobi thanking him for donating 144 artifacts to the museum. Cheptum noted that an expert at the Institute for African Studies had determined the objects were used between the 1850s and 1940s, “for practicing medicine and divining purposes.”
Turle needed additional certificates to send pieces to United Nations headquarters in New York. When he arrived at the National Museum, he didn’t anticipate problems. But Andrew Cheptum’s letter had been sent before Leakey’s return to the museum.
“I took in a bunch of artifacts and I sat in front of him,” Turle recalls. “He had a huge desk, big enough to play ping pong on. I was pulling things out of my bag, saying, ‘Hey, look at this.’”
As Turle remembers it, Leakey said, ‘We know who killed, carved and smoked your last five rhinoceros rungus. He had your name and address in his pocket.’”
“My mouth dried up,” Turle recalls. He rallied, asking Leakey why he hadn’t arrested the man. More to the point, why would a poacher sell rhino horn to Gillies Turle for $150, roughly what he was paying for these objects, when rhino horn was considered an aphrodisiac in China and Vietnam and fetching $60,000 a kilo? “Who on earth is going to kill a rhinoceros, and shave the horn down to a thin, artistic, incredibly elegant medicinal pipe?”
Leakey acknowledged that part of the collection might be old, according to Turle. Turle asked if Leakey had any idea which would qualify as antiquities and which might have been carved by an imitator. There was no answer, according to Turle. The meeting ended without a resolution.
Not long afterwards, the Kenya Wildlife Service raided Hog Ranch. Agents confiscated 15 rungus made of rhino horn, but left behind the bone and horn objects, Turle recalls. While Leakey was working at the museum rather than the KWS at that point, it seemed clear that Leakey had instigated the raid.
Nobody was arrested. Not that time.
The raid might have been the end of it. But Beard wasn’t letting go of his criticisms of Leakey, and Leakey didn’t let go of Beard. For his part, Turle couldn’t stop collecting. Over the years, he had developed into an aesthete not unlike Bruce Chatwin’s obsessive collector, the fictional character in the eponymous novel Utz. Turle knew he was being reckless, but he couldn’t stop himself.
Leakey was a formidable opponent. His long-running and highly publicized disagreement with Donald Johanson, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, over human origins had been a fixture of paleontology since the Seventies. (New York Times science reporter John Noble Wilford called their televised debate a “brawl.”)
Johanson had discovered the 3.2-million-year old "Lucy" skeleton in Ethiopia in 1974, while Leakey, in his youth, had found the 1.6-million-year-old "Turkana Boy" skeleton in Kenya. Johanson proposed that Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, was the oldest known ancestor of human beings as well as Australopithecus, a branch of ''ape-men'' that would become extinct. If this were true, Johanson would displace the Leakeys as the discoverer of humanity’s origins.
In 1989, Wilford wrote:
“From Mr. Johanson's telling of the quarrel, its basis may now be less professional than personal. It reached a nadir in pettiness when he and Richard Leakey had an explosive confrontation in 1981 while taping a television show with Walter Cronkite. Recalling the argument, Mr. Johanson attributes Richard's unyielding stance to the burden he may be bearing as the son of the famous Louis Leakey.
When Leakey finally capitulated, the ultimate showman managed to turn defeat into hagiography. The two men appeared on stage together, Leakey acknowledging that Johanson had been right, in a live-streamed event at the American Museum of Natural History in 2011.
Leakey may have been wrong about Lucy, but there was one area in which his hegemony was unquestioned: publicity. To one anthropologist, Leakey's obdurate refusal to admit error had unacceptable consequences: “Leakey set back paleoanthropology decades,” he said about the nearly 40-year feud.
In the less well-publicized case of The Bones, Leakey was equally obdurate. He believed—or convinced himself—that the artifacts were fakes and that Turle and Beard were selling them to fund their indulgences: travel, women, and in Peter’s case, self-medicating with weed and coke, plus the odd magic mushroom. The two were perennially short of cash but Leakey, too, had found himself in straits at times. It may seem petty and implausible for a man of Leakey’s stature to take a personal grudge to the lengths of what happened next.
The real problem may have been Beard’s other art form: the rant. For Beard, Leakey represented the two things he detested most: authority and the phoniness of white savior conservation. Beard admired Graham Hancock’s 1994 book debunking international aid organizations, The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business. Later, he would cite Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo’s 2009 book critiquing foreign aid. He laid it out in the Brunn documentary, sounding particularly bitter.
“The environmentalists are like the do-gooders, the Lords of Poverty, the alms race, the cliches…The whole industry of doing good. It’s a huge cliche and to be an environmentalist is to be a joke,” he said.
Later, Leakey himself would talk of regret at one aspect of Western interference with Kenyan conservation: the bans on hunting and the trade in wildlife objects.
“Hunting has never been stopped in Kenya, and there is more hunting in Kenya today than at any time since independence,” Leakey said in a 2006 speech at Nairobi’s Strathmore University. “(Thousands) of animals are being killed annually with no control. Snaring, poisoning, and shooting are common things. So when you have a fear of debate about hunting, please don’t think there is no hunting. Think of a policy to regulate it, so that we can make it sustainable.”
Polite as Beard usually was, he didn’t mince words once he got going. According to Gillies Turle, Beard railed endlessly about Leakey, not caring who was listening. Later Beard would say that Leakey was a perfectly decent companion on a safari. He couldn’t understand why Leakey had it in for him. Could it have been the fact that Beard was bad-mouthing him to anyone who would listen?
Beard’s arguments made sense, in a purist way. By brokering funds from the World Bank and other institutions with their own ideas about poaching and conservation, Leakey had enabled Western influence on Kenyan conservation.
Countries like South Africa and Namibia were using a more homegrown approach and succeeding in keeping wildlife populations viable by giving Africans an economic stake in conservation. In some cases, this meant not only low-wage, unreliable ecotourism, but controlled hunting and “harvesting” (yes, that word) of wildlife by Africans themselves. Conservation was supporting itself, to some extent.
By contrast, Kenya, the Westerner’s dream image of Africa, was foundering. It wasn't just mythology that attracted Western dollars. Kenya had a common border with Somalia and other nations whose weak civil societies made it easy for Islamic extremists to gain a foothold. Over time, a system had developed, not just in Kenya, but in Africa generally, that balanced the West’s need for military bases with a lukewarm desire to curb corruption. Corrupt politicians skimmed funds from development loans into their Swiss bank accounts, but cracking down was dicey, involving geopolitics as well as delicate questions of national sovereignty. Evidence of effort, or, in plainer terms, window dressing, was usually enough.
In the 1990s, Leakey still thought he had a chance to make inroads against corruption. As head of Kenya's Civil Service, he might even be in line to become the country's first white African president. To accomplish anything, though, he had to keep the balls in the air. Beard ranting to a fellow Yalie who worked for the World Bank or the International Money Fund about his incompetence could sink him.
That might have been a concern. Or perhaps it was simply ego. It’s certainly possible that Leakey genuinely believed Beard was a con man.
In this tale, is Beard the villain or is Leakey? When Beard urged Rod Blackburn to apply for a permit to research the laibon artifacts, he gave Leakey credit for knowing his way around the East African bush. He also, according to Blackburn’s journal entry, called Leakey a “thief” who had diverted funding from the Danish government earmarked for the Karen Blixen Museum, part of Kenya’s system of 22 museum facilities and monuments. Beard had been on the board of the Blixen museum, so Blackburn thought the accusation worth noting. There is no documentation for this charge, but it demonstrates the inflammatory nature of Beard’s rants. Blackburn wrote this detailed account of his meeting with Leakey.
06.22.90: 1 June 22
Nairobi Appointment to see Richard Leakey. Go to R. Leakey's office at entrance to Nairobi National Park. Purpose is to acquaint him with my current research on hunter-gatherer tribes in East Africa and that I [am] now about to do a survey of those in central Kenya...
He indicates that he knows of my research on the Okiek. He sits on the edge of his chair wanting to finish up our conversation before it has hardly begun by responding in short answers. He gives no response to some leading political questions. So I explained the survey I was doing of the Okiek and gave him a copy of it. Showed him my travel route.
He acted like he didn't have specific information on areas or Dorobo. But he gave me names of three people in his department to see...
I mention that I had been shown some unusual Maasai things belonging to a Mr. Gillies Turle. He responded "I am very suspicious of that man, I don't know what he is up to. he had an appointment with me and canceled saying he was sick. But maybe he was just avoiding seeing me about these things. I am very dubious about their authenticity. I think they are new and faked with smoke to look old. I know the rhino rungu is new. I have traced a rhino kill to it. That is a very serious matter. I have never heard of these things, some of the early settlers collected from the Maasai and they would have some of these if they were real. How do you know this Turle?
I was given his address in Nairobi as a contact to meet Peter Beard/.
Oh, I didn't know they knew each other.
I guess they must if the address is the same.
Do you know Peter Beard?
No, only met him for the first time when I just arrived in Nairobi.
Well I am very suspicious of him. He is a great faker [i.e. don't believe what he shows or tells you]. He is an artist you know.
According to the notes he scribbled as soon as he returned to his car, Blackburn mentioned that Turle had donated part of his collection to the National Museum. Leakey responded that he thinks this was a clever ploy. Leakey ordered him to wait while he went into another room. Returning with a cardboard box, Leakey turned it upside down, dumping a pile of carved pieces on his desk.
Leakey told him to take the objects into the field and figure out where the “fakes” had come from. Worried about having contraband items in his possession, Blackburn refused, telling Leakey he’d rely on photographs.
Blackburn had spent his career avoiding conflict. He didn’t want to take on Leakey. But he, too, was curious. Carrying Beard’s photographs and some of his own, he headed out to talk to the Maasai.
At the end of June, Rod interviewed Taiyanna Ole Ol-onana. Taiyanna was the last living son of the Maasai’s most famous diviner and leader, Ol-onana. Ol-onana, whose name means “the gentle one” in Maa, had been the principal laibon and paramount chief of the Loita Maasai until his death in 1911. Rod estimated that Taiyanna, one of his younger sons, was about eighty-five when they spoke in 1990.
The two men sat under a wizened little acacia tree for four hours ”in the course of the conversation…during which a cow gave birth to calf which was nursing by the time we left.”
“The dorobo [hunter gatherers] cut these things and bring them to us,” Rod wrote that Tayianna told him. Taiyana explained that a certain bone pipe in one photograph had been brought to his father by the dorobo.
Not only had Taiyanna identified a specific piece from the collection, he had provided the missing link. The Maasai were not hunters; their taking of wildlife was confined to initiation rituals. And they were not “makers.” How had laibons obtained the raw materials for these pipes and fetishes? Who carved them? According to Taiyanna, it was the hunter gatherers who lived nearby.
Like a good reporter, Rod wanted a second source: confirmation from the dorobo themselves. Realizing that his little side-trip was turning into a full-fledged research project, he drove his Land Rover to the places that Taiyanna had mentioned.
His Okiek sources denied making the objects. Rod wasn’t sure if they were telling him the truth. Secrecy is part of the mystic tradition in virtually all traditional cultures. But the strictures that bound them to silence went deeper. British colonialists had severely punished Africans accused of witchcraft. And the hunting ban had intensified the fear.
John Lonkushu around 1990, photo by Roderic Blackburn
The informal news service of small town gossip was remarkably efficient. When Rod stopped at his usual gas station for fuel and supplies, the young man behind the counter asked about his work. He had heard that Rod was looking for someone who knew about certain kinds of objects.
The young man’s name was John Lonkushu. He was Saleita, hunter gatherers who, along with the Okiek, inhabited the area Taiyanna had identified as the source of the objects.
Rod Blackburn described their meeting this way:
I told him of my trip there and how no one knew about these objects, to which he calmly said "Oh, I know about those things."
I stared at this bright-eyed young man who could hardly have been more than 25 thinking, how could he at this tender age know what his elders do not? I showed him the photographs and he, to my great surprise, began to tell me what the objects were, generally confirming what Taiyana had said about them.
How is it you know so much about these I asked? He went on to explain that his grandfather had been a kind of loibon for the Saleta, had been very knowledgeable about medicines and curing, and had made and used these bone objects himself and traded them and medicines to the Maasai loibons in the Loita Hills. Even, he said, his father knew a lot about these things.
Is he alive I ask? Yes, he said, and he will be in Narok in a couple days and you can talk with him.
I shook my head in amazement at this accidental meeting. Finally, I exclaimed, the one person among the Dorobo who knows about these things, his father, and he is about to be dropped into my lap by pure chance.
John, for that was his name, smiled and glanced at me askance, softly saying "Maybe not by chance".
Rod Blackburn’s lucky encounter with John Lonkushu could have been a simple story. But what happened next was anything but simple. The Bones, as Rod Blackburn came to call them, became a screen onto which Westerners projected love, ambition, jealousy, and, deepest of all, grief.
Carved from rhino horn, ivory tusks, and the bones of giraffes, antelope, and wildebeest, Rod sometimes only half-joking remarked that the Bones seemed to possess power, even if it was only in the minds of the people who fought over them.
And just as it did in Maasailand, that power, whether real or imaginary, might cure and protect, but it could also destroy. They harmed Beard and Rod Blackburn, but those men went on with their lives. They almost destroyed Gillies Turle.
High Crimes or Misdemeanors?
Gillies Turle with the Maasai laibon Ole Kiapi
In 1992, Alfred A. Knopf published The Art of the Maasai, the book about the artifacts and Turle’s experiences with the Maasai, with Beard’s photographs and Turle’s text. What comes through is an evocation of a way of life that was disappearing, a life offering transcendence and a sense of proportion, the peace that comes from connection rather than constant anxiety. It is not just the animals who suffer when the landscape dies. Or rather it is, because we, too, are animals.
There was a flurry of attention, much of it negative. A virtual bar fight broke out in the pages of African Arts, a quasi-academic journal published by the University of California Los Angeles. According to one anthropologist, the general reaction was that Beard and Turle were in it for the money.
Turle freely admits that he had hoped to sell much of the collection to museums; he still would like to produce replicas of the artifacts like the turquoise hippopotamus and jewelry sold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He estimates that he spent about $200,000 on the collection, and with court fees, even though Beard pitched in, his compulsion practically bankrupted him.
If Turle’s doggedness in the face of legal jeopardy is any indication, the objects meant far more than a business proposition. For the second son, they were a chance to do something valuable with his life. The collection was a validation both for his reckless streak and his aesthetic. And like any aesthete, petty concerns paled in relation to the Absolute.
“I was there with the money, the connections, and the nerve to pick these pieces up, knowing it was gray territory,” Turle said. “You couldn’t put this collection together again. I was going around with the Maasai in those days. I was going to the ceremonies. My friend was the circumciser. I knew it was the end of things.”
American journalist Bill Kurtis went on the road with Turle, visiting laibons in Kenya and Tanzania for a PBS documentary called “Secrets of an Ancient Culture.” Kurtis, a respected TV anchorman in Chicago and winner of the William Allen White award, hired safari guide Peter Jones to make arrangements for the film crew.
Like Richard Leakey, Jones was the son of a scientist who possessed little formal schooling. Coincidentally, he had a connection to the Leakey family. As a young man, he had worked on the field crew of Mary Leakey, Richard's mother.
Jones was dubious about the provenance of the objects. After the video shoot, he and his wife, an American heiress named Margot Kiser (then Kiser-Jones), asked Turle to introduce them to the laibons in the Loita Hills. According to Turle, the couple insisted on bringing their own interpreter, who created tensions. The visit did not go well.
Kiser aspired to be a journalist. Scenting a story, contacted Leakey about the objects, hoping for a “scoop” on Peter Beard. She had visited Beard at Hog Ranch, according to her Instagram. Yet, apparently convinced of his guilt, she papered the Internet with comments like these on the Vogue magazine website:
"Peter Beard does NOT spend his time between Kenya and NY. The Kenyan gov relegated him PNG for eight years after it was discovered that he was had been laundering and smuggling ivory and rhino horn out of Africa. He now lives mainly in France."
She contacted Rod Blackburn by email, but after a few exchanges he ended the correspondence. His last email was uncharacteristically severe.
"Margot, it is increasingly evident to me from this and prior communications that your inquiry about these objects is not a productive approach to understanding them. You, as have some others, focus on personalities and relationships when you should focus on Maasai and Dorobo ethnography."
Not long after Kiser contacted him, Leakey ordered a second raid of Hog Ranch. This raid involved not only Kenyan police, but also agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Turle was at an ashram in India, using his still-extant military training to help with logistics at a camp treating the poor for cataracts. The same ashram, he notes wryly, that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about in Eat, Pray, Love.
“Beard and Tunney [Peter Tunney, Beard’s gallerist] were at Hog Ranch and this raid came on. I was in my ashram sort of holier than thou,” Turle recalled. “I got a telegram saying there was trouble. Beard left as quick as he could after that."
In Turle's account, Beard kept his smaller collection of objects in a suitcase. As the agents arrived, he quickly dispatched it to a friend. Then he headed out of the country.
By the time the agents reached his tent, there was nothing to confiscate, no evidence to charge anyone. Not that night. But there was a slip of paper. When they rifled Turle’s files, the agents found a receipt for a storage locker. Inside the locker were 17 tin chests containing nearly 3,000 objects.
When he returned from India, Turle was thrown into jail.
While the melodrama played out in Kenya, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents were questioning officials at the American Museum of Natural History. At Hog Ranch, the raid had yielded a letter from one of the museum's curators expressing interest in the objects. And in Chicago, agents showed up at the office of documentary filmmaker Bill Kurtis.
Kurtis said that the agents confiscated a single rungu that he had brought home as a souvenir. In the documentary, he had carefully hedged on the question of authenticity, because of the lack of experts who could validate Turle’s collection. Personally, after talking to the laibons, he had no doubt that many of the objects were antiquities that had been ritually used by the Maasai.
“So your shit detector didn’t go off?” I asked him.
“Not at all,” he answered. He seemed to find the episode faintly ridiculous. Turle felt much the same, only with more at stake.
“The ’99 raid was that they wanted to catch Peter. Peter was the big fish,” Turle said. “These agents, together with Kenyans looking for the team of poachers that I had trained and armed. It was a massive delusion.”
After more than a year, the court dropped Turle's case without reaching a verdict. Turle never knew why.
The questions remained. Could Peter Beard, the artist manqué of wild Africa, have secretly been involved in the smuggling of rhino horn and ivory? Beard had been known to pull a prank or two. He had launched the career of the model Iman by satirizing Western views of Africa: Beard touted Iman, who would later marry David Bowie, as a simple Somali herd girl when he knew perfectly well that she was a well-groomed, well-educated diplomat's daughter.
That prank was harmless. But Beard was fond of the épater le bourgeois. He’d boasted about smuggling some of the artifacts into the U.S. Beard and Turle were both chronically short of money, so it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility that a few pieces might have been sold to discerning friends.
People are complicated. Like sports figures whose dark proclivities somehow still manage to shock us, the character of people who think far enough outside the box to discover something new (or old) may require scrutiny of their discoveries, but does not preclude authenticity. Heinrich Schliemann, the dodgy German businessman who discovered Troy, was genuinely obsessed with Homer and completely unscientific in his methods, yet managed to find the long-sought city of Troy and the mask of Agamemnon. Beard and Turle are veritable saints compared to Schliemann.
But a vast smuggling ring? Leakey was accusing Beard and Turle of far more serious crimes, including working with poachers. Wildlife is the fourth-largest smuggling trade behind drugs, humans, and arms, and the illegal trade is estimated at $20 billion annually, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Program and Interpol.
For anyone who knew them, the idea that Beard and Turle were running a poaching operation was laughable. Not only were both men passionate about wildlife, they were terrible businessmen. Certainly, Peter Beard was the antithesis of an international crime kingpin, an artist who often left home with no cash and traded photographs for dinners. Turle had done slightly better, but given the compulsive nature of his collecting, it’s hard not to believe him when he says that the ledger, if there had been one, was firmly in the negative, by his estimation, roughly $200,000.
Does any of it matter now? The real question is the Maasai ritual tradition, the beauty of the artifacts, and the way of life they represent. For years, it seemed that this shard of African history, culture, and art had been forgotten. The nearly 3,000 objects collected by Turle, ostensibly locked away at the Kenya Wildlife Service, might be gone. Nobody dared ask Leakey about them.
The Chronicler of Bones
Gillies Turle showing photographs from his book to Maasai guys in Shela Village, Lamu.
In 2011, I was living on Lamu Island, where Gillies Turle ran a hotel and Richard Leakey has a vacation home, when I received an odd text message from a woman I’d met briefly on the island. She was asking me for information about Turle. I had found her rude and peremptory. This is hardly how you cultivate a source, I remember thinking. Besides, I didn’t know what she was talking about. I didn’t respond.
Not long afterward, I interviewed Richard Leakey for a profile that later appeared in Sierra magazine. We’d enjoyed a delightful lunch on his rooftop terrace. Our interview had been relaxed, and far-ranging. As I was headed down the stairs to the first floor, I casually asked about the obscure gossip she had mentioned. Some dark secret about Gillies Turle?
Leakey’s eyes hardened. He told me that he had nothing against Gillies. A decent fellow, he called him. It was Beard he was after. Leakey told me that he regretted that he had been out of town when his agents arrested Gillies. I paraphrase, because I’d put away my notebook by then, but what I remember is Leakey saying: I could have broken him. He would have “persuaded” Turle to give up Beard. Based on what was generally known about Kenyan police, it was a natural assumption that this meant having him beaten.
The change in Leakey’s demeanor was striking. I didn’t know Gillies Turle well - I sometimes took his yoga classes - but when I returned to Shela village, on the other side of the rather small island, I contacted him. Turle had always struck me as reserved, but when I asked him about this episode in his life, the story poured out.
I had no intention of writing anything. The woman — she turned out to be Margot Kiser, the heiress who had traveled with Turle and Bill Kurtis for the TV documentary — seemed to consider it her territory and I was concentrating on fiction at the time.
But when I returned to the U.S., missing Kenya, I did an internet search for Peter Beard. In Leslie Bennetts’s Vanity Fair profile, a glancing reference to the controversial objects contained a reasonable-sounding quote from Rod Blackburn. I searched the name. Blackburn lived a few miles from my house.
I called him, and to my surprise, he was willing to talk to me. "I'm not going to try to influence what you write," he told me. "Look at the evidence and make up your own mind."
It was clear that Blackburn’s systematic research among the Maasai and Saleita had yielded a storehouse of information about the practices of laibons, men he describes as “ritual experts, diviners, prophets, shamans and, sometimes, sorcerers.”
His notes provided a fascinating window into a way of life that, according to the estimates of museum officials like Andrew Cheptum that were borne out by Rod's notes, existed until around the 1940s.
Miniature ivory and bone spears were used to put enemies to sleep before warriors raided their cattle enclosures. Laibons used certain objects to bless the Maasai warriors called morans. They used others to “empty the mind” of anxieties. Still others were the means to cause someone’s death.
The sheer number of objects the informants recognized was striking. One or more of them recognized 58 out of the 60 objects shown in the photographs. More than a dozen Maasai laibons identified the types of objects in his photographs. Several recognized not just types, but, like Taiyanna, identified specific objects that had belonged to people they knew.
Blackburn left Kenya for the final time in 1993. In the seven years following his departure, Lonkushu continued showing photographs of the artifacts to Saleita elders, always asking the same series of questions, and carefully recording the answers in slanting schoolboy cursive.
In his unpublished manuscript, Blackburn noted that his research was augmented by nearly 3,000 pages of testimony collected by John Lonkushu. He sent some of the material to Gillies Turle and myself with this comment:"What is really new are the richly detailed interviews with the Saleita who were once a virtual factory for these objects, mostly to the Loita Maasai but also to other Maasai, even into Tanzania."
I asked Blackburn why generations of anthropologists drawn to Maasai, Kenya’s most iconic and most-studied tribe, hadn't found evidence of these practices.
“They didn’t ask,” Blackburn said simply.
He had experienced a similar cultural disconnect. In the mid-Sixties, when he lived with the Okiek, he hadn’t thought of asking about medicinal plants. In the 1990s, when he and his wife returned to research Okiek ethnobotany, it turned out that their use of medicinal plants for traditional medicine was extensive.
Rod wrote about his humbling revelation when interviewing the laibon Taiyanna.
As Taiyana droned on, occasionally sipping beer, my mind was abuzz with what else I had missed years ago. I had all but ignored the subjects of forest medicines yet apparently the Dorobo were experts in this area, supplying the Maasai. I had little information on witchcraft, how it is practiced and cured, yet on this matter the Dorobo and the Maasai loibons [sic] apparently have a close relationship.
I had always been proud of the rich quality of my field notes but now began to realize that the subtlest incident could have opened a whole area of inquiry if I had been just tuned into its significance. A word here or there that I did not understand and so ignored may have been the key to what I now see I missed.
Blackburn was too hard on himself. His sources had good reasons for not volunteering information, the harsh penalties for practicing “witchcraft” and the bans on hunting, trading, or possessing animal parts.
By the 2000s, several anthropologists had begun to interview laibons, including Elliot Fratkin, a professor of African Studies at Smith College. But Rod had not kept up in the field, and his health was starting to fail. He didn't know of their work. When he wrote to the British anthropologist he regarded as the expert, the man had recently died.
But in Kenya, a new generation of African anthropologists were rushing to preserve their heritage. I contacted a friend at Kenya's National Museum, and she gave me the name of Mercy Gakii Kinyua, an anthropologist who specialized in the Maasai. (Mercy herself is Meru, not Maasai.)
Rod sent her his manuscript and she promised to look for John Lonkushu. It took her 18 months to locate him. It was another year before I managed to get back to Kenya.
From Maasailand to East Egg
Peter Beard and his daughter Zara at Hog Ranch. Photo by Rod Blackburn
Before I returned to Kenya, I tried to contact Peter Beard. I had made overtures before. Phone messages weren’t returned. Peter’s wife Nejma answered my emails, telling me that Peter had health problems and it would be better if I sent questions in an email. I balked at the idea, a terrible way to interview someone. I was afraid that as soon as I brought up the artifacts, Nejma would shut me down and I wouldn’t get another chance. She had taken over the management of Beard’s career, creating a market for his photographs that earned $2 million in 2020, the year of his death. She had a reputation for zealously controlling access to her husband.
We all knew there was a deadline. I’d heard that Beard was bringing up the subjects with reporters and friends, but nobody had followed up except in a cursory fashion. None had access to Blackburn’s research. Until recently, none, to my knowledge, contacted Turle. If they had, they might have access to the information that I received from him over a period of years.
Around this time, Gillies Turle found among his files a 52-page account by an anthropology student named Sheena Gidoomal. In 1991, Gidoomal traveled to neighboring Tanzania to ask about the artifacts collected by Turle. Her results were almost identical, statistically, to Blackburn’s. Anecdotally, they contained their own Eureka moment.
Two laibons named Laitayioni and Birrika possessed ivory pipes similar to those in Turle’s collection. Birrika told Sheena Gidoomal that the objects were used between the 1850s and the 1940s—the same time period specified by the National Museum’s Andrew Cheptum. The time period tracked with what Taiyanna had told Rod Blackburn.
The key moment for Gidoomal was when Birrkia pointed to the photograph of an ivory pipe in Turle’s collection, saying that he had seen the pipe—not a pipe like it, but the identical one—used to cure madness. When I had this in hand, I was even more determined to talk to Peter Beard.
Beard rarely went to Kenya anymore. He had retreated to New York; an apartment at the Osborne on West 57th Street that he’d owned for years and his place on Montauk, the “End of the World” a wild seascape where he had once hung out with Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones. When I heard there was an opening for a show of his photography at an Easthampton gallery, I did something I had never done in thirty years as a reporter. I ambushed him. Or I tried.
This ambush stuff wasn’t my style. I remember being unbearably nervous as I waited outside for the gallery to open. Finally, the doors swung. The gallery-goers looked affluent, but Easthampton still had the ambience of the old Hamptons, mercifully free of hedge fund vulgarians. Beard hadn’t arrived.
Then the crowd parted. There he was, a blurred version of the lithe young man of my teenage Vogue reading, still handsome but visibly battered. He wore sheepskin slippers and shuffled. As Nejma had written in her email, there had been health problems. A stroke, maybe more than one. I introduced myself, mentioning Rod Blackburn. Beard asked after him with evident affection. His manners were effortless, his accent almost imperceptibly upper-class WASP.
I told him that I’d tried to contact him before but Nejma didn’t want him interviewed. “I don’t care,” he said bitterly, almost shockingly visceral after the almost tender politesse. He’d let that anger slip in interviews, I remembered, calling her “a terrorist.” Yet they had remained married. He couldn’t have been easy; I remembered the regular coverage on Page Six when Beard was well into his seventies, affairs with models that never ceased, the story of Nejma signing him in for psychiatric evaluation after he trundled home in the wee hours with Russian hookers in tow.
I handed him a signed copy of my first book, a history of the environmental movement. An enormous bodyguard instantly snatched it out of his hands. Other people came up to talk to him. The bodyguard imposed his bulk between us.
It all went so fast. I talked to Nejma, awkward and tongue-tied, surrounded by that glossy crowd. Later I thought of the silky long dresses that Nejma and Zara wore that day, and remembered the scene from The Great Gatsby: “Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans.”
Were these people merely rich? I wondered. Was that all there was to it? No. In an interview, Beard had called a book tour “my prostitution trip.”
“I cannot stand these parties, because I’m really a pathetic person. I have a hard time talking with one person, and two people make it impossible. “But, he added, “I have the ability to adapt to things very easily when I come back to this rat race. I can force myself, in a phony way, to enjoy this life.”
The Objects Collect Us
As I prepared to leave for Kenya in 2018, I tried to persuade Rod to come with me. He refused, saying that he preferred to remember it as it had been.
He gave me several tasks. One was to get John Lonkushu’s contact information so the two men could speak again, after an absence of more than a decade.
The Loita Hills, a three-hour drive from Nairobi and not far from the famed Maasai Mara, is a region famous for the laibons who live there. Mercy and I went to visit Kirriapa ole Simel, someone Mercy had known for years, a kindly-looking old man with spindly legs encased in Wellingtons. His brother is the chief laibon of the Loita Maasai.
On the night we arrived, he launched a spiel about the cosmology and history of the Loita Maasai. It sounded practiced, as if he had given it before to visiting scholars. Mercy’s laptop was running out of battery life. Rod Blackburn’s photos of the artifacts were on the laptop and we had no paper copies. I started to panic.
Interrupting the old man, I asked if he would look at the photographs. Our interpreter, Henry Saitabau, a young Maasai anthropologist who grew up in the Loita Hills, flashed me a look that told me I was being rude. The laibon, unruffled, acquiesced. We showed him the photographs, one after another.
Yes. No, not that one. Yes. Yes. So these are used by laibons?
He looked at us quizzically.
Yes, he said in Maa, the Maasai language. Would you like to see mine?
His tone was so matter of fact he might have been asking if we wanted to see his mother’s collection of Hummel figurines. Rod Blackburn had written about the same experience when he visited Taiyanna, mentioning his shock when the old man had simply asked if he wanted to see his tools of the trade.
Early the next morning, the laibon disappeared from the house. He came back carrying a leather bag. Carefully laying out a piece of red fabric on the grass, he unpacked the tools, and placed them on the fabric. Two were pipes made from delicately curved antlers, spiral edges circling like corkscrews. Others were smooth and resembled gourds. They looked like some of the pictures we’d shown him.
He packed herbs into a pipe and smoked. Then he shook a gourd that had been worked into a canteen with a top. He threw stones out. He answered our questions about our futures. Our interpreter and I asked about our marriages. Mercy begged off, saying she’d rather not know.
He asked if we were going to visit the chief laibon, his brother. We said yes. He predicted that his brother would be drunk. We did. He was. No points for that one.
Mercy Gakii and John Lonkushu, Narok town, 2018
After eighteen months of searching, Mercy had located Rod Blackburn’s research assistant, John Lonkushu. We all met for lunch at a restaurant in Narok. It was market day and shuka-clad Maasai morans thronged the stalls. John showed us the pages from Rod’s ethnobotany research, smoothing them out on the table’s oilcloth. He had kept them all these years.
I returned from Kenya jubilant, but when I told Rod that we had found John, Rod looked baffled. He no longer remembered John. His son Logan told me later that Rod had been diagnosed with brain cancer and left it untreated.
As I write this, Rod Blackburn is still alive. He has lucid flashes, but fewer now. John has tried to contact him several times by email. When he was well into his 70s, Rod built his own websites, researched university databases, producing full-color catalogues, maps, and illustrated book manuscripts. He is no longer is able to use a computer to answer John’s messages.
Beard photographed by Helmut Newton
All three of these men - Beard, Turle, and Blackburn - were nagged by the unfinished business of the Bones. As I researched the story over the span of a decade, I watched them age before my eyes.
Leakey is slightly younger, but battered by health problems that would have felled a less determined character: not only the damage to his legs from the plane crash, but two kidney transplants, a liver transplant, skin cancer.
When I contacted Leakey for this article, telling him that I knew a Kenyan anthropologist interested in the collection, he wrote that he was “disinclined” to get involved. He did say this: “It’s important for the young anthropologist to be aware that the objects were fabricated in a homestead on the Ngong Hills and a good deal of video was shot showing all plus some rather incriminatory audio. The objects are fake and I saw some of the video. I retired years ago from KWS. Sorry but on this I cannot help. R”
If Blackburn and Gidoomal’s research is right, then Richard Leakey is wrong. Or at least partly wrong. Some of the objects that Turle collected might have been “fakes” made by people who got wind of his compulsion. Turle himself acknowledges this. But according to many testimonies from the laibons themselves, at least part of the collection is genuine. In that case, Leakey not only wronged Blackburn, Beard, and Turle. By making the collection inaccessible to scholars, he did a disservice to the Maasai and the world’s storehouse of cultural knowledge.
Whatever his flaws, it almost makes me sad to say it. Because Leakey, too, grieved. In the 1996 book he wrote with Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction, he wrote that he was an ardent naturalist as a child, “more interested in living things than old bones,” which were, of course, his parents’ stock in trade.
That does not excuse the missed opportunity to follow up on Rod Blackburn’s research with the laibons and Saleta elders, or the disappearance of nearly 3,000 objects. Is Turle’s collection still in the possession of the Kenya Wildlife Service or have the pieces been sold off on the black market?
Corruption in Kenya is threaded throughout society, from petty bribes to low-level government officials to multi-billion dollar scams, and there has been little or no progress since Leakey’s numerous attempts to root it out. It’s likely that at least some of Turle's collection is gone. Still, hundreds of laibon tools remain, scattered throughout the country. But they are hidden, largely because of Leakey’s ire.
Beard is gone. Rod Blackburn is in hospice, cared for by his son Logan, as I write this. Gillies Turle is eighty. Once he dies, will anyone re-assemble his voluminous notes, photographs, documents, and diaries? What about Rod Blackburn’s research?
Monika Sairo, a PhD candidate in social anthropology, is not taking no for an answer
For nearly a decade before he became ill, I often found Rod Blackburn working late into the night in his Kinderhook, N.Y. office. He assembled a book of maps of Kenya’s indigenous lands and a memoir of living with the Okiek.
After I contacted him in 2013, Blackburn revisited his research on the Maasai objects. He was surprised at the amount of material in his files, especially John Lonkushu's notebooks. Eventually he assembled a detailed spreadsheet and a book manuscript. I have begun circulating these to reputable academics, something Blackburn started but was unable to finish before his illness.
Richard Waller, Professor of African History Emeritus at Bucknell University and author of a seminal work on the Maasai wrote this:
I was peripherally involved in the controversy years ago and remember some of it. The general view, I recall, was that the objects were probably fakes, artificially aged. For some reason, they were not properly examined for signs of ageing or use. Part of the difficulty was that Turle and Beard were thought in some quarters to be rather dubious characters, and it wasn’t difficult to see that they had a financial interest. They were certainly very reticent about the exact circumstances of acquisition. My own view was, and is, that the verdict should be Not Proven, certainly in the absence of proper forensic examination.
The argument that artefacts like these had never previously been reported is not a very strong one. There are a number of good reasons for their apparent absence. (a) Laibons are usually quite secretive about the tools of their trade, for good professional reasons. It would be difficult to get access to things like these without permission and it would be very dangerous indeed to try without, let alone to steal something from a laibon. (2) During the colonial era, laibons were regarded with some suspicion by the authorities. With some notable exceptions, they tended to keep a low profile.
Many of the objects are far less exotic or esoteric than is made out. Laibons do certainly grind ingredients for medicines and the various mortars shown here would be suitable for the purpose – and not much use to ordinary Maasai. The same might be said of the pipes. Staffs of office are held by spokesmen rather than laibons (despite Olonana’s “poker”) and are quite public.
Usually now, they are of wood but I have certainly heard of rhino horn clubs in the past. Horn containers are used by elders of all sorts, for things including snuff and magadi. None of this, of course, proves that the objects are “genuine/authentic”, but it does suggest plausible reasons for them. As far as motive/intent and methods of acquisition are concerned I can have no opinion.
I asked Waller if it was time for the Kenya Wildlife Service to release Turle's collection, it if it still in the agency's possession. While it seemed likely that Turle had, in effect, created a market for fake artifacts, based on the research, it was equally likely that some of the collection was genuine.
Waller's answer was unequivocally yes. He wrote that “it would certainly seem sensible to have all the extant pieces examined for (artificial) aging and actual use (traces of medicine etc). It would also be helpful to establish when, where and by whom the photos Rod Blackburn used were taken; and, if possible, link them to actual pieces.”
He noted that while rhino horn or ivory objects would be subject to strict controls, “it is difficult to see how a carved wooden spoon or a giraffe vertebra could now be regarded as inherently contraband, especially if pieces are to be ‘returned’ to the Maasai.”
Lenana, the most famous Maasai laibon, born in the 1870s
The story might have been simpler if Peter Beard had never wandered in to the Loita Hills with his friend Gillies. The battle over the Bones felt so personal, it reminded me less of a scientific argument and more of a dispute over family heirlooms, second sons externalizing loss onto family keepsakes.
As the dispute fades, the objects take on yet another meaning. Laibon artifacts are being sought by the descendants of the people who originally used them: the Maasai. A few months ago, Monicah Nkina Sairo, a 32-year-old anthropology student who is Maasai, began her own investigation of the laibon tradition. A PhD. candidate at Roehampton University, she has been showing photographs of items from Turle’s collection to people in Kenya’s Maasai community.
There doesn’t seem to be much mystery about them. People know what they are, including, to Sairo’s surprise, her own mother.
“My mother has been meeting with the laibon himself,” Sairo said. “He wore one of these objects around his neck. She told me the name. She was actually flattered that I was asking. She gave me more details than I even expected. She told me how the rituals were done. She said, ‘Oh, my God, I had forgotten the new generations are so unaware.’”
While veteran staff at Kenya’s National Museum remain cautious, Sairo says she isn’t intimidated. At the same time, she isn’t trying to get Turle’s collection back from the Kenya Wildlife Service. She’s smart enough not to engage in a power struggle with Leakey, but she’s also determined, a Millennial with her own sense of authority on matters of equality and justice.
“There is lots of politics around this, but that will not stop me from trying to understand my own culture,” she told me.
Sairo and her colleagues hold the real answer to this mystery. With a new museum dedicated to Maasai culture that opened in 2019, run by the Maasai themselves, not the National Museum of Kenya where Leakey still wields influence, it seems likely that the artifacts will be studied. When traditions of secrecy permit, they will be seen by the great-great-grandchildren of the famous laibons that Beard photographed. Perhaps most of Turle’s collection will never be found, but there are other pipes and rungus, amulets and charms.
I feel lucky to have had my own experience with them, in the bush, unbound by museum rules. On that last trip I made to Kenya, surrounded by Maasai elders, I held a bone pipe in my hand.
While the others talked around me, I clutched it. I didn’t want to let it go. This was not some abstract, symbolic notion of extinction or colonialism or misguided wildlife policy. Like Gollum, I wanted it. The object had power.
Mercy, the anthropologist from the National Museum, noticed my reaction. “Put it down,” she ordered. I looked at her. She was serious. “You can’t take it,” she said. “You can’t have it.”
The bones collect us. We want to hang on, all of us. Perhaps all that will remain of the earth’s great and beautiful creatures is art, if that: the caves at Lascaux, rock art in the Namibian desert, a Francis Bacon painting, a Noguchi sculpture.
Is what matters in the end safari, the journey? Turle is writing a memoir of his bushwhacking days in Kenya. Rod Blackburn is in Kinderhook, cared for by his son. Richard Leakey is raising money for a $100 million museum designed by star architect Daniel Liebeskind. The first $2 million in funding for Ngaren: The Museum of Humankind came from Tullow Oil, the company drilling in the remote Turkana region that is home to some of Kenya’s poorest people.
I keep thinking about Beard’s last walkabout. Nineteen days after his disappearance when that hunter stumbled on his body in Camp Hero State Park. It may have been a fitting end, as his family suggested (“He died where he lived: in nature,” read the statement issued by Nejma) or merely sad, an 82-year-old man with dementia dying alone in a scratched-over remnant of the big wilderness that once gave him succor.
Guillaume Bonn, a French-Malagasy photographer befriended by Beard, wrote this: “When I heard he was gone, I remembered a story he had told me in Paris, years ago. He said: ‘Guillaume, the best way to go, and to have people talk about you, is you go down to a beach, you leave your shoes, and you vanish.’”
Susan Zakin is the founder of Journal of the Plague Year. She covered the environment for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and later wrote about politics in Africa. Her first book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, told the story of radical environmentalists who were among the first to recognize the extinction crisis.
Playlist by the inimitable Brian Cullman
For editorial help, thanks to Brian Cullman, Paul Cullum, and Diana Hembree.