The paleontologist Richard Leakey was born and raised in Kenya, son of the famous paleontologist team, Louis and Mary Leakey. Influenced by his dynamic parents, the value of a traditional English education waned in the face of both adventures of new hominid discoveries and the diversity of life found in the African environment. After successful completion of his primary school education, Leakey attempted to further his education by attending the Duke of York. Contrary to previous success, his scholastic term at Duke of York was less than illustrious. Similar to his father’s plight, the free, warm, and sympathetic association with the native populations of Africa led to social conflict for the young Leakey, eventually leading him to become a social outcast. However, the prospects of an African adventure allured Leakey from the halls of academia to the rugged African landscape that was a form of personal comfort. For Richard Leakey, who skipped classes and was fiercely independent, both his rebellious nature and the issue of dropping out of school were divisive factors in the crippling of the relationship with his father. However, the decision that led to Richard’s financial independence (due to his father’s ultimatum and generosity) would eventually shape his future endeavors.
With monies secured by his parents, Leakey’s wildlife venture earned him the respect and financial independence that he sought. This success continued and was furthered by the formation of his safari company shortly before Kenya’s independence in 1963. During an excursion to Olduvia, he became aware of the geological formations at Tanganyika’s Lake. The ensuing expedition yielded an exciting discovery, for evidence of a new fossil hominid was recovered. Although Richard was initially absent during its discovery, the recovery, interpretation, and announcement of this new species, Homo habilis, was left to the patriarch of the Leakey clan, his father Louis. The second expedition might not have had the same importance as the first expedition, but the fossils recovered were just as impressive.
Leakey married Margaret Cooper in 1966 (divorced in 1969) and later married Meave Epps in 1970. Between the two marriages, he had three children.
Leakey acquired additional professional responsibilities during this period. He served as director of the National Museums of Kenya (1968-1989) and director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (1989). His days in the field came to an end in 1993 when his plane crashed. Concerned with political corruption and environmental issues, Leakey’s efforts for environmental protection and political reform had led to the creation of the political party Safina. Subjected to hostile intentions from political and criminal enterprises, Leakey continues to further his ideals through education and writings. His publications include Origins in 1977, People of the Lake in 1978, The Making of Mankind in 1981, and The Origin of Humankind in 1994.
Contributions and Perspectives
Similar to Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Louis Leakey (1903-1972), Richard Leakey considered Africa as the evolutionary cradle of the human species. Although he was not a credited scholar, the influence of his parents and his naturalism led him to a historical approach within an anthropological framework. Within this historical approach, Leakey placed the evolution of the human species’ history that can be traced back to the origin of bipedality in the African environment around 5 to 10 million years ago, although evidence of Australopithecus afarensis places the earliest known bipedal creature between 3 and 4 million years ago. From this point, both brain expansion (complexity is another issue) and stone tool use in Africa were seen between 2 and 3 million years ago. Major advancements in stone technology (for example, the Achulean) were seen between 1 and 2 million years ago, when the expansion of Homo habilis out of Africa coincided with an increase in meat consumption. With the first use of fire around 700,000 years ago, another major technological advancement (the Mousterian) led to the origins of modern humans in Africa around 200,000 years ago. However, the greatest advancements can be seen as stemming from the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago. From this point, divisions of labor and the creation of cities with larger populations made both the Industrial Revolution and the Technological Revolution possible. All this progress became possible through the refinement of hominid bipedality around 5 to 10 million years ago.
Although this post hoc analysis of human antiquity does possess an evaluative power, Leakey’s analysis of hominid taxonomical structure becomes a point of interest. Unlike most taxonomical analysis that places the human species as sharing a common ancestor, A. afarensis, with other hominids, Leakey depicted our species as descending from an unknown hominid form. In this manner, a hominid taxonomical structure creates two parallel evolutionary branches: one consisting of the Homo line and the other for the Australopithecines. When placed in a hierarchy, an unknown species of Homo gave rise to H. habilis, and then Homo erectus, ending with the human species Homo sapiens. Parallel to the Homo line, A. afarensis gave rise to both Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus Boisei, and A. africanus gave rise to Australopithecus robustus. Compared with the accepted phylogenetic analysis as performed by Randall Skelton and colleagues in 1986, A. afarensis gave rise to A. africanus, which then split into two branches: H. habilis and A. robustus/boisei. The interpretation of the evidence does become a point of inquiry. In the use of inference from molecular genetic evidence, as with Leakey’s preference, it is important to implement extreme caution when classifying extinct hominid forms based solely on some unstandardized morphological characteristics.
Regardless of the interpretation of the evidence, Leakey’s vitality and deep interest in our own humanity created an opportunity for open dialogue and research. Viewing the human species as a part of nature, it becomes clear that it is human’s own responsibility to conserve their natural environment. With understanding and compassion, if not being subjected to utility, this process should be extended to all life, including the treatment of members of the human species. Perhaps stemming from his cultural environment, Leakey’s political activity clearly depicts his concerns based on his earlier experiences. Although the plane crash ended his fieldwork, paleoanthropology will continue to benefit from the “Leakey luck” that has greatly enriched the field of anthropology. Work will continue by Richard’s wife, Meave, and the couple’s daughter, Louise. Richard Leakey, like his father Louis, will be remembered as one of the patriarchs of African paleoanthropology.
- Leakey, R. (1978). People of the lake: Mankind and its beginnings. New York: Anchor.
- Leakey, R. (1981). The making of mankind. New York: Dutton.
- Leakey, R. (1982). Human origins. New York: Lodestar.
- Leakey, R. (1994). The origin of humankind. New York: Basic Books.
- Meikle, W. E. (1994). Naming our ancestors: An anthology of hominid taxonomy. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
- Morell, V. (1995). Ancestral passions: The Leakey family and the quest for humankind’s beginnings. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Skelton, R., McHenry, H. M., & Drawhorn, G. M. (1986). Phylogenetic analysis of early hominids. Current Anthropology, 27, 21-43.