We humans don’t know enough about our own family — our taxonomic family, that is, the hominids.
We do know that we’ve been around a long time. Our genus Homo began to develop almost 3 million years ago. That’s long enough to learn how to walk on two legs, make tools out of stone to survive and part ways with the great apes to blaze our own trail.
With that much time, a family is sure to evolve. But without a family tree or a photo album, how do we learn the details?
Meet the Leakeys — not a taxonomic family, but certainly scientific. They’re dubbed “the first family of paleoanthropology,” as much of what we know about our prehistoric ancestors is thanks to their groundbreaking discoveries.
In 1968, Richard Leakey explored the Lake Turkana Basin in his home country of Kenya, established a base camp there and didn’t look back. Decades of digging at that locale uncovered nearly half of all our known fossil evidence of human evolution — enough to be featured on the cover of Nature, the world’s most highly cited science journal, an unparalleled 11 times.
Richard partnered with Stony Brook University in 2005 to create the Turkana Basin Institute, and now the Leakeys are inspiring students to become the next generation of fossil finders, while providing crucial infrastructure for researchers at one of the world’s most prolific places for finding evidence of human evolution in an effort to reveal our very origins.
The Origin of the Leakeys
Paleoanthropology studies the evolutionary development of humans by discovering and examining fossil bone fragments, footprints and stone tools. What paleoanthropologists find, claim and prove helps us answer a very big question: Why are we who we are today?
In 1959, world-renowned paleontologist Louis Leakey and his wife, archaeologist Mary Leakey, discovered a fossil cranium they called Zinjanthropus boisei, later renamed Paranthropus boisei, and ultimately nicknamed “Nutcracker Man” for its large teeth. Then in 1960, they announced the discovery of a fossil lower jaw and teeth, the first evidence of the species Homo habilis, found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. These discoveries helped the Leakeys secure ongoing funding from the National Geographic Society and put both the Leakey name and paleoanthropology in the public eye.
With paleoanthropology on the map, and momentum for more discovery in full swing, Louis and Mary’s son Richard was ready to lead a new generation of Leakey research in Africa.
Richard Leads His Own Expedition
By age 23, Richard Leakey had already discovered a major clue to the origin of our species Homo sapiens. During a 1967 expedition in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, he found two partial fossil hominin skulls called Omo I and Omo II. Confirmed by recent geological dating efforts, these two specimens are the oldest fossils of Homo sapiens yet to be found (195,000 years), supporting the theory that East Africa is the birthplace of modern humans.
But the Omo Valley of Ethiopia was a place Louis asked Richard to go as part of an international fossil-finding project, and after years of providing support to his parents, Richard’s instinct was not to follow in their footprints, but to create his own.“Richard didn’t want to take over anywhere his parents had worked,” said Lawrence Martin, director of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). “He wanted to do something new and different.”
Finding that new, different place came sooner than expected. On the return flight from Ethiopia to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, the pilot descended over the eastern shore of Lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm, and Richard spotted something intriguing — potentially fossiliferous sedimentary rock.
Richard hired a helicopter to take him back to Lake Turkana and found evidence of fossils and artifacts shortly after landing. He was onto something, and by 1968 he’d properly surveyed the area, secured funding from the National Geographic Society to lead his own expedition, recruited several young student researchers to join him, and established a base camp at Koobi Fora along Lake Turkana’s eastern shore.
“I was excited to have finally found a site with fossils where neither of my parents had ever been before,” said Richard. “It wasn’t their show; it was my show. That gave me a lot of enthusiasm.”
Lake Turkana Isn’t What It Used to Be
Koobi Fora, and the Turkana Basin itself, is by most definitions a desert — hot, arid and generally unpopulated. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake, its water a jade green.
But about 2 million years ago, tree-lined rivers flowed through the area, and animals like crocodiles, giraffes and baboons thrived there while nearby volcanoes occasionally spewed ash that would settle on the ground and riverbeds.
Today, layers of volcanic ash help scientists accurately date the sediments in which fossils are found, and thanks to the area’s very long history of concentrated tectonic activity and resulting erosion, searching for fossils at Koobi Fora and the Turkana Basin is very rewarding. As Richard once wrote of Koobi Fora, “One of our biggest problems was the sheer quantity of fossils!”
Richard and his team, including primatologist Meave Epps, explored Koobi Fora by camel during the camp’s first field season and got a taste of Turkana’s logistical issues early on, facing tough terrain and dangerous wildlife.
Despite the challenges, Richard and Meave made a major discovery at Koobi Fora in 1969 called KNM-ER 406: a cranium of Paranthropus boisei, the same “Nutcracker Man” species Richard’s parents unearthed at Olduvai Gorge.
“406 really marked the beginning of our success in the same way that Zinjanthropus marked my parents’ success,” said Richard. “It was very exciting and confirmed that we’d got a good site.”
When Richard and Meave spotted the fossilized skull, it rested on the ground in plain sight — like a gift that tumbled out of a nearby riverbank, and certainly a sign of what the Turkana Basin had in store for paleoanthropology.
A Museum and a Major Discovery
Richard established the camp at Koobi Fora around the time he began work as administrative director for the National Museum of Kenya.
Richard and Meave married in 1970 and had their first child, Louise, in 1972, the same year Richard’s father, Louis, passed away.
That was also the year Richard’s team made their next major discovery at Koobi Fora, KNM-ER 1470. Meave reconstructed their find from more than 150 fragments of fossilized bone. The result is a nearly complete cranium of an early Homo, dated at roughly 1.9 million years old.
They plugged the skull’s holes with modeling clay, poured sand inside and measured its brain volume using the camp’s rain gauge.
“We found it to hold 750 cc, about the same as my father’s estimate for Homo habilis,” said Richard. “We showed my father the skull the same year that he died, and he was very excited.”
KNM-ER 1470 drew major international press attention. Some called it “Leakey luck,” but Richard was no longer just Louis Leakey’s son — he was revered as a Kenyan paleoanthropological pioneer and appeared beside a re-creation ofHomo habilis on the cover of Time magazine.
The ’70s were fruitful for the Turkana Basin, producing many more discoveries, including KNM-ER 1813, one of the most complete Homo habilis skulls ever found, and KNM-ER 3733, one of the best-preserved skulls of Homo erectus.
Richard sought to share his team’s rapidly evolving knowledge of human origins with the public, so he gave lectures around the world and wrote several best-selling books. At the same time, he faced worsening health due to what doctors diagnosed as terminal kidney disease. Thanks to a transplant from his brother Philip in 1979, Richard recovered to full health.
Turning Over Turkana and Taking On Politics
During the early ’80s, Richard was still director of the National Museum of Kenya while working on a seven-part series for the BBC. He was also running new expeditions to the west side of Lake Turkana, encouraging other researchers to make their own remarkable discoveries there.
On one such expedition in 1984, Kamoya Kimeu, a renowned fossil collector and Richard’s right-hand man, found what’s known as “Turkana Boy,” a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus youth dated roughly 1.6 million years old.
“ ‘Turkana Boy’ showed that by 1.6 million years, evolution produced something that from the neck down was pretty much us, but from the neck up, clearly still wasn’t,” said TBI’s Martin.
The next year, Leakey colleague and anthropologist Alan Walker discovered KNM-WT 17000, also called the “Black Skull,” which is classified as the only known adult skull of the species Paranthropus aethiopicus.
By 1989, Richard’s focus shifted from finding fossils to conserving wildlife. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed him to lead the Kenya Wildlife Service in response to the national elephant poaching crisis, a tough job made tougher by political problems. In 1993 Richard lost both legs below the knee when the plane he was flying crashed. The following year, he left the job, while Meave continued and Louise began paleoanthropological work at Koobi Fora.
Political challenges continued for Richard, so in 1995 he founded the political party Safina (Swahili for “Ark”) and swore to fight corruption in Kenya. Two years later, he became a member of the Kenyan Parliament, then was drawn back to the Kenya Wildlife Service, and finally was appointed cabinet secretary and head of the Public Service. Effectively, Richard was the second-most powerful person in Kenya.
The Leakeys Join Forces With Stony Brook
Around this time, Stony Brook was offering its next round of honorary degrees and Richard was top of the list. Being a world-famous anthropologist, he received many honorary degree offers from prestigious universities. His inclination was always to decline respectfully, and Stony Brook’s offer almost shared the same fate, until Meave saw the stationery.“ Meave recognized the Stony Brook name when they opened their mail,” said Martin.
“She encouraged Richard to accept the degree, recognizing such faculty as primatologist and Distinguished Professor John Fleagle,” he added.
Only Stony Brook offered me shelter when I needed it,” said Richard Leakey, “and unlike many other universities, Stony Brook was excited about getting into an African country and doing something brand-new.
Richard’s political activity was drawing both positive and negative attention, leading to his resignation from the Kenyan government in 2001. The time was right for him to shift gears yet again, and Stony Brook was ready to help.
When former Stony Brook University President Shirley Strum Kenny learned that Richard had resigned during a turbulent time in Kenyan history, she feared for his safety, so she offered him the role of visiting professor of anthropology. He accepted the position in 2002, living in Kenya but lecturing at Stony Brook.
Richard was occupied and out of harm’s way, but when he left the Kenyan government, his wife Meave and daughter Louise struggled to continue work at Koobi Fora. Without Richard’s involvement, fundraising slowed and funds were diverted from paleoanthropology.
So Richard shared with Stony Brook an idea he’d had for a long time: to build a permanent research facility in the Turkana Basin to assist scientists with the logistics of working in such a challenging, yet rewarding place.
“Only Stony Brook offered me shelter when I needed it,” said Richard, “and unlike many other universities, Stony Brook was excited about getting into an African country and doing something brand-new.”In 2005, Stony Brook became the founding university partner of the Turkana Basin Institute, and construction in Kenya began.
“The Leakeys continue to be at the forefront of some of the most important paleoanthropological discoveries of our time,” said President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. “The family’s partnership with Stony Brook has created a truly unique center of global excellence that is grounded in research and teaching, creating joint mission-driven projects in the developing world with the potential to be scaled globally.”
President Stanley’s advocacy has been key in helping the Turkana Basin Institute grow. In 2013, he joined Richard in establishing the TBI International Advisory Board, which brings together several of the world’s most prominent philanthropists and scientists to ensure the success of the Turkana Basin Institute.
Richard and President Stanley also collaborated on an operating agreement that clearly defines the TBI as an independent institute, favoring a more accessible international facility for the sake of research and discovery.
President Stanley recently agreed to establish five new faculty positions to be deployed by the TBI in fields of study that will influence future anthropological discovery, such as geochemistry, geological dating and hominid morphology.
“President Stanley’s willingness to take a leap of faith with this enterprise and invest significant resources in our research efforts in Kenya as part of Stony Brook’s international strategy is visionary,” said Martin. “Without his invariable support of every effort to achieve excellence and broaden participation, the TBI would not have developed so far or so strongly.”
The TBI: Today and Tomorrow
The Turkana Basin Institute is now in its third phase of development, focused on enhancing connective infrastructure. The first two phases involved building facilities on the east and west sides of Lake Turkana, named TBI-Ileret and TBI-Turkwel, respectively. Each phase is supported entirely though private philanthropy.
The Turkana Basin Institute provides the facilities and infrastructure needed for research projects not only in paleoanthropology, but also archaeology, zoology and biology, as well as interdisciplinary projects in areas such as water conservation and energy production.
“We started the Turkana Basin Institute to take care of infrastructure issues so that scientists can come and do science, rather than logistics,” said Martin. “Ironically, the best analogy for what we do in the hot Kenyan climate relates to early Antarctic research facilities. Once permanent infrastructure was built there, all kinds of interesting science began.”
Several major discoveries have been made at the Turkana Basin Institute, most recently by Stony Brook faculty Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis, who in 2015 published in Nature their 2011 discovery of humankind’s earliest stone tools, dated 3.3 million years old. Named after their discovery site, the Lomekwi 3 tools pre-date what were once considered the oldest stone tools by about 700,000 years — a gap long enough to challenge our interpretation of human evolution.
Also in 2011, the Turkana Basin Institute kicked off Origins Field School, a semester-long program through which students earn either 15 upper-division undergraduate credits or 15 master’s credits from Stony Brook University.
“With the Origins Field School program, we attempt to re-create for students the way Richard Leakey’s interdisciplinary understanding of the natural world developed,” said Martin. “This isn’t a human evolution program. It’s about how humans fit in the natural world, how they came to occupy their position, and perhaps most importantly, what the evidence base is for those claims.”
Students learn ecology, geology, paleontology, human evolution and finally archaeology—the same diverse disciplines of science Richard learned at an early age and still employs in the field with great success today at age 72.
“Training students to be scientists who can step back from being experts in one area and see how different aspects of science influence each other is at the core of what we do,” said Martin.
Stony Brook undergraduates who study abroad with Origins Field School seem to learn as much about life as they do about science.
“There’s absolutely no question about their intellectual competence and curiosity,” said Richard. “Many are shaken when they arrive because it’s such a different world, but we haven’t had a student who hasn’t admitted they had no idea their life could be so totally changed by three months in Kenya. There’s a very deep impact.”
One unique student is Lawrence Nzuve, a Kenyan who as a young man was recruited by the Leakeys in 2002 as a fossil hunter. Nzuve became a collection manager for the Turkana Basin Institute, while at the same time earning his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the United States International University Africa in Nairobi.
Despite being an asset to the Turkana Basin Institute, Nzuve was inspired to blaze his own trail by his mentor, Meave, who was recently the fourth Leakey family member to be awarded the Hubbard Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given by the National Geographic Society.
“Meave’s encouragement breathed life into me,” said Nzuve. “If you’re valued, it’s rare for your employer to encourage you to seek out something bigger or better. I realized not only is she an employer and a teacher, but also a mother, and she cares about me like family. Nothing is more profound than that.”
Nzuve became a Leakey Fellow, recruited by the Leakeys to be part of a group of young intellectual Kenyans who want to build Kenya as a country. Enabled by the fellowship, Nzuve left Kenya for the first time in 2015 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at Stony Brook University. He intends to be Kenya’s first science journalist, with a wealth of Leakey family knowledge in his back pocket.
But Nzuve’s not the only one to benefit from the Leakeys and their impact on science. By teaching Stony Brook students techniques and principles of paleoanthropology in the field, and enabling Stony Brook faculty and researchers from around the globe to explore and study what is arguably the most important repository of fossil evidence for human evolution, the Turkana Basin Institute is making sure that the Leakey legacy is passed down for generations.
Learn more about and contribute to the Turkana Basin Institute at turkanabasin.org.