From a reader

Learning from Our Past—Transforming the Future: The Legacy of Richard Leakey

Updated

This letter has been updated by the author to reflect reader feedback on the most recent developments in the fossil records of early humans and their ancestors.

Richard Leakey, with two skull discoveries in 1977.

 

Richard Leakey, with the two fossilized skulls of two ancestors of humans discovered in 1977 near Lake Turkana, Kenya    Photo: Alamy

Richard Leakey died at his home in Nairobi, Kenya, on January 2 at the age of 77. His death is a real loss for the people of the world, and it is important to understand what he accomplished and why it is significant.

Leakey, author of several books, including ORIGINS, and co-author of The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Mankind, and widely known for his work as a wildlife conservationist in Kenya (which I will return to), was a paleoanthropologist. Anthropology, broadly defined, is the study of humans. Paleontology is the study of fossils. Paleoanthropology is the study of the early development of humans, including the evolutionary pathway that led to the emergence of the human race (scientifically named homo sapiens). You might characterize paleoanthropologists as “fossil hunters” but the fossils they are looking for are not dinosaurs’, but those of early humans and our ancestors. It is painstaking work, often in difficult conditions, with not only advances but setbacks and failures, as in most science, but at the same time precious to humanity.

The Leakey family name is one of the most famous in all of anthropology. Richard’s parents, Louis and Mary, were both ardent advocates of Darwin’s theories on evolution. Their fossil discoveries, including in the Olduvai River gorge in Tanzania and Mary Leakey’s later discovery of Homo habilis (the “tool maker”), an ancestor of modern humans, who lived around 2 million years ago, helped revolutionize our understanding of who we (humans) are as a species and where we originated as a species, with common ancestryfrom the Rift Valley of Africa.

A Passionate Curiosity and Ferocity for the Truth

Richard Leakey grew up in this environment, unearthing his first fossil when he was four years old. Dropping out of high school, he began leading his own teams on “digs” in his early 20s. Over the course of his career, his teams, including his second wife, Meave, working primarily in the Turkana Lake region of Kenya, accumulated what is considered to be the most extensive and diverse collection of hominid1 fossil records in existence, helping to fill many gaps in our understanding of the evolution of the ancestors of humans (homo sapiens) and giving us a much clearer understanding of the evolutionary process.

Leakey understood that the fossils his team, and others, were excavating provided further irrefutable evidence of the validity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution; that all living species (including humans) change over time due to adaptation to changes in their environment, and that some of these changes will lead to the emergence of entirely new species. This brought him into repeated clashes with religious fundamentalist fanatics, who couldn’t accept the scientific reality that not only were humans (scientifically named “homo sapiens”) related to apes but that we could technically be considered “apes” ourselves, because going back some 5 million years, fossilized remains had shown that humans and what are today known as the “great apes,” including chimpanzees, had a common ancestor. Leakey relished explaining to audiences and challenging religious fundamentalists with the fact that chimpanzees share over 95% of the same genes as humans.

He greatly appreciated and supported the work of others in this regard. After reading Ardea Skybreak’s The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism,2 he wrote, in part, that the book was “…of tremendous benefit to many, especially those in the teaching profession where there are frequent opportunities to defend science against the ridiculous assertions by religious zealots and fundamentalists.”

Homonid timeline chart.

 

This is a timeline of hominin family tree including modern-day humans (Homo sapiens), the only member of the hominin family still alive. Recent discoveries now push this timeline back almost 7 million years.   

Hominin Family Tree stretching back 7 million years.

 

As anthropologists continue to discover new fossil records, in different parts of the globe, our knowledge of the hominin family tree, stretching back almost 7 million years, including of homo sapiens, the only member of the hominin family still alive, continues to come into clearer focus.   

Contributing to the Interests of Humanity

He was even more passionate about popularizing another aspect of human evolutionthe proven fact that all human beings are one species (homo sapiens) and, irrespective of whether we are an indigenous tribe in the Amazon or New Guinea, African, Asian, Native American or white European, we are all descendants of a small group of early homo sapiens situated in sub-Saharan Africa, who migrated out of Africa to populate the rest of the planet. Leakey was here greatly aided by scientific advances in genetics that were able to confirm this by testing the genes of populations of humans from around the globe. Later genetic investigation confirmed that all of humanity can be traced to those early waves of migrations that started out of Africa some 125 thousand years ago.3

On the significance of this, Leakey once wrote, “I believe that if we can make the science of the origins of humanity accessible and exciting to everyone, and show people the amazing journey of humanity, we can shift paradigms and change the world.” At the time of his death, he was leading an initiative to build an international museum in Nairobi to celebrate this journey.

Diverse group of children.

 

For Richard Leakey, the understanding that we are all one species, of a common ancestor, opened up amazing potential for humanity.   

Leakey was also against “bad” or “junk” science used to justify oppression. Early anthropology had played a role in justifying the horrific and brutal European conquest of sub-Saharan Africa—that even those (Black) Africans, who had developed highly evolved societies, were of an inferior species to white Europeans. Leakey felt that the more people around the globe came to understand that Africa—particularly, sub-Saharan Africa—was the birthplace of all of humanity, the more unacceptable the continued exploitation and brutalization of the African people would be seen in the eyes of the rest of world.

In the late 1980s Leakey pivoted away from the day-to-day work of paleoanthropology and turned his attention and towards another lifelong passion, wildlife conservation. He is often credited with saving the African Elephant and African Black Rhinoceros from extinction. These were the early days of wildlife conservation and marked by wrong—and at times grievously harmful—approaches to the complex relationship between the people involved in poaching and greater forces at work.4 It is beyond the scope of this letter to dig into all of this. His later involvement in official Kenyan politics, his lifelong home, was also problematic.

However, this does not necessarily diminish Leakey’s scientific contributions and his commitment to making these contributions and those of other scientists more broadly known and accessible to broad masses of people. He was fearless in this regard, willing to risk friendships, professional advancement and even his personal safety,5 to fight for what he knew to be true or understood what is needed. There is much to be cherished in his example and he will be missed.

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FOOTNOTES:

1. “Hominins” are considered all the species of mammals, going back millions of years, that are more human-like than ape-like. These are our distant ancestors. The point in time when the ancestors of humans split off from those that became the other “great apes” is generally considered to be around 6-7 million years ago. The fossils unearthed by the Leakeys at Turkana Lake generally ranged from 1.5 million to 2.5 million years old. “Hominids” are generally considered the biological family of which humans are a member. Informally, they are known as the Great Apes, and include four groups: humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.  [back]

2. THE SCIENCE OF EVOLUTION AND THE MYTH OF CREATIONISMKnowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, by Ardea Skybreak, Insight Press, 2006. Chapter 7, “The Evolution of Human Beings,” is an extremely valuable and deep exploration of human evolution. [back]

3. Scientists have drawn a strong relationship between major changes in climate and these successive waves of migration out of Africa, with the most significant taking place 65 thousand years ago. [back]

4. In the 1980s, there was an extremely profitable international market in ivory and rhinoceros’ horn. The slaughter of these animals in Kenya and other parts of Africa was driving them to extinction. In 1989, Leakey agreed to become head of the Kenyan Wildlife Department to use his influence and prestige to bring an end to this slaughter. At the time, the Wildlife Department was considered perhaps “the most corrupt organization in Kenya,” working hand in hand with international syndicates and assisting in organizing violent gangs to enforce this practice in Kenya. In fighting it, Leakey arranged a massive bonfire of seized ivory, a public relations triumph, while calling for an international ban on the trade of ivory. Both these actions contributed to raising awareness of the situation and were positive steps in slowing the killings. However, he also issued semi-automatic weapons to park rangers, with orders to shoot any poachers they came into contact with, a controversial policy that is wrong and harmful overall, including against those whose traditional rural ways of life had been destroyed by the encroachment of the capitalist-imperialist system and had been left with no other way to support their families. [back]

5. It is widely suspected that a plane crash in 1993, in which Leakey lost both of his legs, was the result of sabotage by political opponents due to his anti-corruption campaign within the Kenyan Wildlife Department and his efforts to halt the trade in elephant ivory. [back]

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