The famous fossil hunter helped our understanding of human evolution


The significance of the 1972 discovery was that the skull was contemporary with Australopithecus, a violent and warlike species. Australopithecus, concluded Leakey, could not be a human ancestor as previously believed, but only a “cousin”, evolving simultaneously.

In a series of books, many of which were co-authored with Roger Lewin, Leakey argued that the evolution of humanity began around seven million years ago, when our ancestors began to stand afterwards. that climate change has cleared forests and forced them down from the trees.

In the field, it took greater intelligence and a cooperative effort to survive. It was, he believed, the start of agriculture that introduced the conflict, when people began to take personal interest in the land.

As Director of the National Museums of Kenya from 1968 to 1989, Leakey helped establish the Kenya Museums Service as one of the most prestigious in Africa, but his greatest achievement in public life came from his appointment. head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1989.

At that time, Kenya’s wildlife was at the mercy of poachers, who threatened to drive many species to extinction. Leakey implemented a shoot-to-kill policy against elephant poachers, stamped out corruption, fired half of KWS’s 4,500 employees and established an effective police force, and refused to give jobs to relatives politicians.

Richard Leakey with a pile of elephant ivory, confiscated by the Kenyan government and due to be burned in April 1989.Credit:Getty

It has attracted over $ 300 million from foreign donors and has implemented community development programs to give people living near wildlife sanctuaries an interest in tourism.

He successfully campaigned for a global ban on the ivory trade, a feat symbolized when in 1990 a mountain of ivory tusks was set on fire by Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, a television show that won Moi global prestige.

But Leakey was as renowned for his habit of making enemies as he was for his organizational skills, and in 1994 he resigned from KWS after bitter disagreements with government officials over how best to balance needs. of local farmers with the conservation of Kenya’s wildlife.

Descendant of British missionaries who came to Kenya in the 19th century, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born in Nairobi on December 19, 1944, the second of three sons of Louis and Mary Leakey.

His parents often took young Richard with them on their fossil hunting expeditions; he found his first fossil – a pig – at the age of six.

Their forays into the African bush were sometimes dangerous: one day, anxious to prove that man could have survived hundreds of thousands of years as a scavenger before inventing the hunt, the Leakeys – father and son – came together Undressed, armed themselves with some of the giraffe bones, and managed to drive a pack of hyenas away from a zebra carcass long enough to tear a leg from the dead animal.

Despite these excitement, young Richard decided he didn’t want anything to do with the fossils. Trying to distance himself from his parents, he dropped out of Duke of York School in Nairobi at the age of 16 and rejected the prospect of a university education.

Instead, manifesting the organizational prowess and cruelty that had become his hallmark, he started a small business trapping and selling small animals to zoos and supplying skeletons to institutions. By the age of 19, he had started a photography safari business and had learned to fly on his own.

His father eventually hired his son to organize an international fossil hunting expedition to the southern Omo Valley in western Kenya. Louis Leakey, however, remained the scientific leader and received credit for discoveries, including a fossil hominid jaw discovered by his son.

Richard Leakey discovered hundreds of fossils in Africa.

Richard Leakey discovered hundreds of fossils in Africa.Credit:Getty

Deeply resentful, Richard Leakey developed a late interest in paleoanthropology and, despite his lack of qualifications, decided to embark on fossil hunting on his own.

While flying over the eastern shore of Lake Rudolf, he had located in Koobi Fora what looked like heavily eroded sedimentary deposits, which geologists had assured him were volcanic ash. Without telling his father, he decided to take his helicopter to investigate. His intuition was correct. The area was one of the rapidly eroding sedimentary deposits rich in fossilized bones.

Louis Leakey did not learn of his son’s discovery until four months later when he attended a National Geographic Society meeting in America where he had hoped to get more money for his fossil hunting expeditions. . Out of the blue, her son revealed his own most promising findings and asked for funds.

The £ 16,000 grant went to Richard rather than Louis Leakey, resulting in a rift between father and son that was not mended until shortly before Louis Leakey’s death in 1972.

Thrilled by his good fortune, Richard Leakey decided to fly to London for a two-year college course. He lasted six months, but decided to take on his parents’ mantle nonetheless, and upon his return to Kenya he began to organize expeditions, obtaining considerable financial support from European and American companies and trusts.

The grant from the Geographical Society proved to be justified, as the Koobi Fora site turned out to be a treasure trove of hominid relics. From 1967 to 1977, Leakey and his colleagues discovered some 400 pieces of hominid bones, the remains of more than 200 people.

In 1968, at only 23 years old, Leakey was appointed director of the National Museum of Kenya, which in 21 years he would make one of the most respected museums in Africa.

His fossil finds were almost as remarkable as his ability to escape death. He fractured his skull as a child, nearly died after receiving a kidney transplant from his brother Philip in 1979, lost both legs in a plane crash in 1993 and has already been treated for skin cancer.

Richard Leakey pictured in 2017.

Richard Leakey pictured in 2017.Credit:PA

In 2002, Leakey moved to the United States, becoming a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York. In 2004, he founded WildlifeDirect, a charity created to support environmentalists in Africa. In 2007 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Leakey as chairman of the KWS board of directors, in that capacity he negotiated a controversial deal that allowed a railway to cross Nairobi National Park on an 18-meter viaduct. from above.


Leakey has written or co-authored eight books. With science writer Roger Lewin he wrote Origins (1977), People of the lake (1976), The origins reconsidered (1992) and The sixth extinction (1995). His autobiography, A life, was published in 1984. Her last book, co-authored with Virginia Morell, was Wildlife Wars: my fight to save Africa’s natural treasures (2001).

Despite being ruthlessly opportunistic, Leakey was capable of alluring charm, and in his private life he was said to be surprisingly low-key and calm.

He was married twice, first in 1966 to Margaret Cropper, an archaeologist, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage was dissolved and in 1970 he married, second, Maeve Epps, zoologist and paleontologist with whom he had two daughters. In 1995, she discovered a four-million-year-old skeleton in the Lake Turkana area, the oldest known specimen of a hominid walking upright on two legs.

His wife and children survive him.

The Telegraph, London.


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