Richard Leakey’s Legacy in Science, Conservation and Politics

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Richard Leakey, a paleoanthropologist, environmentalist and Kenyan political leader, died on January 2 at his home near Nairobi. His expeditions discovered hundreds of hominid fossils, which led Fred Spoor, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, to tell me that his findings were “a most extensive and diverse fossil record of early human evolution. “. Other scientists, environmentalists, writers, artists and filmmakers have tried to get people to pay attention to current existential crises, including climate change and the Sixth Extinction (the predicted mass extinction of much of life on earth). They tried to make us change behavior, like our dependence on fossil fuels, which they believe will lead to our demise. Leakey believed that our ancestral fossils showed us our shared humanity and carried a clear message: Like all other species of the past that once inhabited Earth, we too would likely be extinct.

But he also wanted us to see that we could delay this unfortunate event if we recognized and dealt with these crises. He shared this message in the museums and research institutes he has built in Kenya, in his writings and television appearances, and through the many young people he has helped educate. Even at the time of his death he was busy designing a great new international museum celebrate – and warn – humanity.

Leakey was the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, famous paleoanthropologists who discovered numerous fossilized bones of early humans in East Africa. Their discoveries turned out beyond question that Africa was the cradle of humanity. Richard Leakey added to their legacy, unearthing an abundance of fossils, almost all in his native Kenya and with the help of his team of Kenyan fossil hunters.

One of his team’s most spectacular discoveries was the almost complete skull and skeleton of a 10-year-old. homo erectus boy at a site called Nariokotome on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The Turkana or Nariokotome Boy, as the scientists affectionately nicknamed the fossil, died 1.6 million years ago and is the most complete early human skeleton ever discovered.

The skeleton is also beautifully preserved, revealing previously unknown aspects of the anatomy and life history of its species. Based on his height of five feet, for example, scientists calculated that the boy would be six feet tall at maturity and with a lanky build suitable for a hot climate. He lived at a time when his species discovered fire and invented new stone technologies. homo erectus ventured out of Africa and would eventually become us, Homo sapiens.

By the time Leakey made this discovery, he had been hunting fossils for four decades. He was six years old when he made his first significant fossil discovery: a jawbone of an extinct giant pig that lived near Lake Victoria about two million years ago.

I was fortunate enough to join Leakey at his Nariokotome camp, where his team were digging up the Turkana Boy bones in the mid-1980s. Some nights we sat side by side in canvas camping chairs under the sky. dazzling starry. Leakey liked to take moments like this to point out that he wasn’t always having fun “in the sediment.”

Looking through the layers of the fossil record, seeing new species emerge as others go extinct, gave Leakey a perspective few of us have. He knew that many of these “long-extinct species have thrived much longer” on Earth than we modern humans ever will.

We are the newcomers, our ancestors having set foot on the African savannah barely three million years ago; our own kind, Homo sapiens, probably only 300,000 years ago. The fossil record is a reminder “Of our mortality as a species,” he said in Origins, a book he co-wrote in 1977 on what was then known about the human fossil record.

By the time his team unearthed the Turkana Boy, Leakey had already made his mark as a builder of world-class museums and research institutions in Kenya, which served as models for the museums of Tanzania and Ethiopiasays Carol Ward, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Missouri, Colombia. But he was getting more and more restless, Leakey told me, and admitted he was looking for “a new challenge.” A few years later, he gave up fossil hunting to become director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) at a time when Kenya’s elephant population was on the verge of extinction.

Outraged by the commercialization of ivory, he persuaded then President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, to burn the country’s 12-ton stockpile of tusks. Dramatic hell helped end (for a time) the ivory trade. Subsequently, he co-founded one of Kenya’s first political parties, Safina, and served as a member of parliament and head of the country’s civil service.

Leakey had spent little time with living elephants, and his experience observing them with elephant researcher Joyce Poole affected him deeply. He realized that he and KWS “were protecting sentient creatures,” animals with families, babies, sisters and aunts, he wrote in Wildlife wars, a book he co-wrote about his efforts to save East Africa’s wildlife and wilderness.

But as climatologists revealed their long-term fears for Earth’s future, Leakey came to a new realization: probably in the 21st century, elephant habitat was certain to change to such an extent that they would go out. From his life in the sediment, Leakey knew that all animal species have a beginning and an end. But it was particularly distressing that elephants and all other animals, including humans, could be threatened with extinction, not because of an asteroid, but because of the action or inaction of the man.

Leakey believed that a bustling museum that overlooked the valley of our origins and protected a boy’s skeleton would allow people to see their common humanity and come out of their complacency with the future.

“If we can make the science of the origins of mankind accessible and exciting to everyone, and show people the incredible journey of mankind, we can shift the paradigm and change the world,” Leakey wrote in February. 2021 in the strategic plan for the new museum.

Leakey “had two great passions: paleoanthropology and Kenya,” says Ward, who credits Leakey with helping shape his career.

Leakey was buried on January 3 under a majestic acacia tree not far from the site intended for N’garen. His grave overlooks the Rift Valley, where he has spent much of his life exploring the past. It is a simple mound of earth with a scattering of rocks. His family hopes that other passers-by will stop to add a stone to the pile, as is the practice in Kenya for “a real African leader”, explains Mwangi Njagi, African historian at the Nairobi Center of the American University. and close friend of Kenya. Leakey’s.

These passions come together in N’garen. The groundbreaking ceremony is slated to take place later this year, and the museum is slated to open in 2026.

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