The Fossil—And Family—Records Of Richard Leakey

17:32 minutes

an old white sitting beneath a tree
Richard Leakey. Credit: Sara Stathas

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey died on January 2 at the age of 77. The Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter was the son of paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who helped redefine the early parts of the human family tree. Richard was part of the team that discovered ‘Turkana Boy,’ a Homo erectus skeleton—one of the most complete early hominin skeletons ever found.  

In later years, he was the director of the National Museum of Kenya, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, helped found a political party, and led the Kenyan Civil Service in the midst of an anti-corruption campaign. 

In this edited interview from 2011, Leakey describes his work in the field, his famous fossil-hunting lineage, and his desire to convince skeptics of the reality of human evolution.

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Segment Guests

Richard Leakey

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey died at the age of 77. He was the son of iconic paleontologists Mary and Louis. Rather than just reading an obituary, I wanted to let Dr. Leakey describe some of his life and work for himself. This is from an interview with Science Friday from 2011.

If you’re ever even remotely interested in anthropology and human origins, chances are you’ve heard about the name Leakey. A dynasty of fossil hunters in East Africa, of whom my next guest is a member. His father and his mother, Louis and Mary Leakey, contributed volumes to our understanding of human evolution with the fossils they uncovered at the Olduvai Gorge, along with Mary Leakey’s later discovery of a long trail of footprints left by bipedal hominids some 3 and 1/2 million years ago in Tanzania.

My next guest added to the human family tree with many finds of his own, including the nearly complete skeleton of Turkana Boy, a Homo erectus youth. He also has served as the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service in his time there, sparing many elephants and rhinos from being poached for their ivory. And he spent a fair amount of time in Kenyan politics, too. So he’s sort of led three different lives, and he’s here with us to talk about it.

Richard Leakey is founder of the Turkana Basin institute in Kenya, where he lives. He’s a professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. And he’s here in our New York studios. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to Science Friday.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for being here. What does it mean to be a Leakey?

RICHARD LEAKEY: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think there’s an awful lot of privilege associated with it. But like anyone who is known, it carries a certain weight with it. And one has to be careful what one says and where one goes and what one does once you get that sort of notoriety. But it does carry a lot of privilege. And it’s great fun, particularly earlier on in life, to be recognized.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. Tell us what it’s like to be out there. And one of the things we try to ask scientists is to describe for our audience, what’s it like to do what they do? What’s it like to be out there looking for fossils?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, I think like in any branch of science, much of what you do is drudgery. Much of it isn’t exciting. Much of it is based on one’s own conviction that, with time, you’re going to get the answer that you’re looking for. And so there are not really very many days when you feel you’re wasting your time. You just feel frustrated that you haven’t got what you’re looking for.

Many of the fossils that I have been associated with finding have been found in very remote parts of Kenya, very desolate, hot, dry, desert areas. I’ve built up a personal love for the desert and fascination. But looking for human fossils is only part of the story. They’re usually part of an extinct fauna, when there were fossils of other creatures that lived in the same environments.

It’s really like visiting a new zoo every day. You go out and you find things that you haven’t seen before. You’re intellectually piqued practically throughout the day. And so there’s nothing in a day that doesn’t give you some form of satisfaction, even though it may be tough. But it’s an enormously privileged activity to go out and look for things that, if you find them, may change the course of understanding of humanity.

IRA FLATOW: It must be– you say it gives you satisfaction, but it must be incredibly frustrating knowing it could take you years. Took your father decades to find what he was looking for, and then your mom found it.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, I think frustration is the wrong word. I mean, I think I have been very fortunate in my career in that when I went up to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, it turned out to be there were so many fossils that one really had very little of the difficulties that my parents experienced. 40 years later, there are far fewer fossils to be found because they’ve largely been collected.

But there are very specific questions. And over the last five years, my wife, Meave, and daughter have been focusing on very specific things they’re looking for. And they’ve zeroed into particular time bands represented in the geology. And they have spent days and days looking specifically for fossils in a particular time zone.

They have been rewarded. They have found them. But that is a much more diligent task than simply the exploration that I was privileged to have fun doing.

IRA FLATOW: And what are they looking for at this point?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, they were– last few years, they’ve been looking for the origin of Homo and trying to find out what more complete specimens would have looked like that relate to a Homo habilis story that my parents worked on at Olduvai, and maybe look into the whole question of the ancestry of Homo and whether Homo habilis, which comes before Homo erectus, really is distinctive from some of the things that have been called Homo habilis but are not. It all gets very technical. But one of the problems with paleoanthropology is that although there’s a remarkable story, much of the story is still represented by frustratingly fragmentary evidence. And so more has to be found to tie up a few loose ends. But it’s so much further along than it used to be even 20 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: So when you find a fossil, what do you see in these old bones that can tell you whether or not something was our ancestor?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, I guess it’s like– it’s harder today in America where you use paper cups and paper plates. But if you think of your grandparents cutlery and crockery, if you break up a series of plates of different kinds and different sources and you mix it up with the dirt, and you’ve studied plates and crockery, when you pick something up, you can say, ah, this is the edge of a plate that was probably used for soup, and this is a plate that was probably used for dessert, and this was a piece of a plate that was probably a serving plate, just from its shape, thickness, and design.

If you’re familiar with anatomy, and you’re familiar with the anatomy of fossils that have been found previously, it’s relatively easy to categorize what you’re finding quite quickly into a broad set of characters. Then, clearly, you have the problems of you haven’t found enough of the specimen, what it actually compares to, but you can look on the specimen and see if it’s got any evidence of being recently broken. You then determine whether to excavate, whether to screen the area, and you can gradually build up a picture.

It’s like when we found the Turkana Boy. I didn’t find it, but Kamoya, one of my assistants, discovered a little piece of skull. And it was clearly a little piece of a hominid skull, but whether it was going to lead to anything, I didn’t know. But in these cases, you always look further. And within a few days, we had found enough of the skull to know that the front of the skull was represented with a fragment, the back of the skull was represented with a fragment, and so presumably the middle of the skull was, too.

So we had to then start a much more extensive excavation. And we started to find bits of ribs. Well, skull and ribs mean there’s probably something connecting them. And it was then we found that we had an almost complete skeleton. But that took three months to uncover.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Are you down there with a little toothbrush and a pick, and–

RICHARD LEAKEY: I was then, yes. It was enormously exciting, because every day, practically, for the first six weeks, we were finding things that had never been seen before by modern humans. And we were the first to see them and realized that we had things in our hands that were going to answer questions that people have been worrying about for years.

IRA FLATOW: So then you must keep these very secret when you find these spots, I would imagine. You don’t want somebody else coming by saying–

RICHARD LEAKEY: No, no, no, no. No, no. One doesn’t suffer from that. It’s no problem at all.

IRA FLATOW: No? It’s not secret?

RICHARD LEAKEY: No, people can work anywhere in Kenya if they get the right permits.

IRA FLATOW: But if you’ve got– you’re there all day, and you’re eager to get back the next day to keep digging up something–

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, these are pretty remote areas. I mean, the worry is, sometimes when you preserve a bone with a preservative, in the night, a hyena will come along and like the taste of the glue and chew it. So you sometimes–

IRA FLATOW: You hate it when that happens.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, worse than hate, yes. Much worse than hate.

IRA FLATOW: Does it happen often, that kind of thing?

RICHARD LEAKEY: We never lost a human fossil, but we’ve lost some wonderful other creatures’ fossils that have been left overnight to dry from the hardener. And in the morning, there’s just been a crumpled wreck where a hyena’s chewed on it to get what it thought might be good tasting. After three million years, it chews up a skeleton.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you’ve exposed it for him, and he’s taking it away.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Very irritating.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Talking with Richard Leakey. I know that you’ve had a few scientific feuds in your life, and notably with Donald Johanson over the discovery– who discovered Lucy. You don’t think Lucy was an ancestor. Would I be summing that up correctly? You don’t think that Lucy was ancestral to Homo.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, we had a big sort of discussion, to put it in–

IRA FLATOW: Frank exchange of views, as they say in Washington.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Frank exchange of views, yes, back in the mid ’70s. And I felt then that the story was probably a little more complex than was being presented. I confess that I was largely acting on hunch. We had a few fossils, but they were not particularly convincing. And we disagreed and chose to disagree over what this represented.

But I think over the last 25, 30 years, so much more material has come in that the picture is much clearer. It’s perhaps fortunate that over the last 30 years, I have been focusing more on conservation and more on politics, and I haven’t kept abreast of some of the discoveries. But certainly, at 3 million years, there is more than one candidate for Homo ancestry. And I think that’s probably the best way to leave it at the moment.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know, a lot of people who are creationists and do not believe in human evolution, they like to say that, oh, no human is descended from a monkey or an ape or a chimpanzee. And that’s exactly correct, isn’t it? It’s not that we were descendants from them, but there is a common ancestry.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, indeed, and I think if we were very fair, which humans aren’t, and one had the classification of primates done by a non-primate, there would be six great apes, not five, because we are just an ape. We just happened to have been a more intelligent one and did the classification ourselves. And I think this, added to the whole idea that God created us in his image, makes changing our image very difficult for people intellectually. And I think that’s really what it’s about.

And I’m quite sure, had Charles Darwin not suggested that we too had evolved, evolution would have been perfectly acceptable to everybody. But it wasn’t thus, and all the evidence today– and there’s abundant evidence and very clear evidence– is that we have evolved. And if you go back far enough, our ancestors don’t look anything like we do today.

But people didn’t like the idea that the world wasn’t the center of the universe. People didn’t like the idea that the world wasn’t flat. Given time and evidence, people learn to accept these things if they’re true, and I think there’s no question of the truth of human evolution. None at all.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. You’re listening to an interview from 2011 with the late paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, who died this week at the age of 77.

Let’s go to Anne in Adrian, Michigan. Hi, Anne.

ANNE COOKSEY SHERMAN: Hey, Ira. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hey there.

ANNE COOKSEY SHERMAN: Good. I just wanted to say hello to Richard. Richard, it’s Anne Cooksey Sherman.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Hi, Ann. How are you? You used to work with my mother, and you worked with me, and you were there when Turkana Boy was found.

ANNE COOKSEY SHERMAN: That’s right, and I also worked for years with Mary, of course.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Indeed. Well, nice to hear from you.

IRA FLATOW: See, we bring people together on this.



RICHARD LEAKEY: Send me a note.


RICHARD LEAKEY: Send me a note so I know where you are.


IRA FLATOW: And I want to embarrass Richard now. I want you to tell me a really good story about him that no one knows.

ANNE COOKSEY SHERMAN: Well, let’s see, according to his mother, I saved his life once. I was studying to become a nurse at the time and was working and visiting Turkana. He was very, very ill and couldn’t keep anything down. And I had some codeine tablets, and I gave him a couple of those, and before too long, you were feeling better, weren’t you?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, I didn’t know my mother had told you. I told you that you saved my life and I’m forever grateful, Anne, and you know that.

ANNE COOKSEY SHERMAN: Oh, your mother said she was very against me becoming a nurse, and so she said, I’ll never complain again.

RICHARD LEAKEY: But maybe we should leave storytelling there.


IRA FLATOW: All right.

ANNE COOKSEY SHERMAN: Well, thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Anne. Thanks, Anne. Thanks for calling. We never know who’s going to call in on this show.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, that’s a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us a little bit of your change of career, why you left the fossil hunting business, if I can call it a business, and went on to other things.

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, I was running a museum, a natural history museum. Fossil hunting was a part-time activity. The museum had grown into a bit of a bureaucracy. I had about 600 staff. I was attending meeting after meeting with government officials, spending half my life raising money for things that were perhaps important, but didn’t seem that important at the time in the sort of run of important things in Kenya.

And I was probably a little bored, and I thought it would be more fun to look for something else to do. And the president of Kenya offered me the chance to create a new wildlife organization and take over the management of wildlife conservation in Kenya, which at the time was in very bad shape. And I thought that would be a good challenge, and so I took it on.

IRA FLATOW: And how long did you do that for?

RICHARD LEAKEY: I did that for an initial 4 and 1/2 years, and then I fell out with the government and the president over matters concerning corruption and their unwillingness to help me deal with corruption that was affecting what I was doing. And so I decided to go into opposition politics and fight corruption, and I formed a new political party in opposition to the government, ended up in parliament, and got reasonably bored with that after a while.

IRA FLATOW: We have a scientist who we follow who started out in science and went into Congress. And he said the difference between science and Congress is that in science, facts mean everything and illusions mean nothing, and in politics, it’s just the opposite.

RICHARD LEAKEY: I think that’s very fair. And then I went from that to head the Kenya government’s civil service and secretary of the cabinet. And there, it’s a good cross between science and politics. And you’re very selective of what you want to believe and what you don’t. And facts don’t play that much value in your judgments.

IRA FLATOW: Do you find more scientists in politics over there in Kenya?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Very few. But there are very few scientists in Africa. Science education has been sadly neglected for far too long.

IRA FLATOW: Is that your next mission, to help science education?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Yes, it is, and that’s why I have this strong association with Stony Brook and why we developed the Turkana Basin Institute through Stony Brook, to try and develop the opportunities for science education, particularly in paleoanthropology and geology and related sciences.

IRA FLATOW: In the few minutes we have left, I want to give you my blank check question I give to scientists sometimes. And they start drooling early when I mention that. And that is, if you had all the money in the world and all the resources, what would you do? What question would you like to answer, and how would you go about spending that money to find it?

RICHARD LEAKEY: Well, funnily enough, I think this conversation has pointed to an area that I think is now absolutely critical. I think for a long time we in paleoanthropology have tried to persuade people of our evolution, and we’ve started at the wrong end. We’ve been looking for the oldest fossils, which are least like us. And people have had an easy time discounting them and saying, no, that’s an ape.

I think we need to turn it round and start with us, and look at the genetic story, look now at the language story, and then look at the fossil story. And you will find fossils at 30,000 40,000, years that are identical to the skeletons of the two of us sitting here and everybody listening to us. You then go back in time, and I think if we’d started that way at the beginning, we would have got a lot further with dealing with acceptance of human evolution.

I personally believe that if we could accept human evolution and evolution, science would be much more acceptable. And I think the only way out of the mess this species is in today is for science to get greater currency value in the world. And I think a lot of biological and natural science has been discounted because of the fear of evolution. Evolution is nothing to be afraid of. And if we could get a lot of money and a lot of attention and look at the last 100,000 years, which I think we can do now, I think we could clear this up once and for all. And it’s late, but there’s still time.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Richard Leakey, paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician, who died January 2 at the age of 77. Our condolences to his friends and loved ones.

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