“Turkana Boy,” or "Nariokotome Boy," is the name given to an early specimen of Homo erectus that lived and died approximately 1.5 million years ago. While most early hominin fossils consist of mere fragments, Turkana Boy’s remains are 40% complete, and include parts of both the skull and the skeleton. Anthropologists have been able to learn much about the body size, shape, and growth rate of Homo erectus through his remarkably intact remains.

Because his wisdom teeth had not erupted, scientists know that the individual was not an adult. Microscopic analysis of the growth patterns of the teeth indicate that he was between eight and 12 years old when he died. He was 5 feet 3 inches (1.6 meters) tall and weighed 106 pounds (48 kilograms); if he had survived to adulthood, he may have grown to just over six feet.

Turkana Boy (Forensic Facial Reconstruction)
Turkana Boy (Forensic Facial Reconstruction

Many anthropologists believe that he suffered from a congenital disease that caused a slight curvature of the spine, such as dwarfism or scoliosis. This is because the rib bones appeared asymmetrical in relation to the spine. However, a new study published in 2013 reported that a different arrangement of the ribs made them appear symmetrical, and that other peculiarities could be explained as characteristic of early hominins. If this finding is confirmed, Turkana Boy could be even more useful to scientists, as he would be a better representative of his species.

While the new study is controversial, anthropologists agree that Turkana Boy did have a herniated disk, which could have contributed to his early demise. The cause of his death is unknown. His bones show no signs of damage from predators or scavengers. However, Turkana Boy’s jaw was abscessed where a baby tooth had fallen out. They boy likely had an infection, and may have died of septicemia (blood poisoning). Scientists believe his body then sank into a marsh, where it was protected from scavengers and fossilized. A member of anthropologist Louis Leakey’s team discovered the fossilized skeleton in 1984 near Kenya’s Lake Turkana, where many fossils of ancient human ancestors have been found.

Image Credit: Cicero Moraes, CC BY-SA 3.0