World-renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard E. Leakey, a professor in the Stony Brook University Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), died Jan. 2 at the age of 77.
Leakey devoted the majority of his life to research on human origins, conservation of wildlife and public service, and his archeological discoveries helped prove how humankind evolved in Africa.
Leakey’s family, through his daughter, Samira, released a statement Jan. 3 on his passing:
“On Sunday 2 January, we lost a true warrior, an individual so large in presence that he left a void that can never be filled. He has been described as iconic, and a force of nature, but to us he was Richard, Dad, and Babu. As a family, we are enormously grateful for the outpouring of warmth and support that we have received from so many friends here in Kenya and across the world. It brings us great comfort to know how much his life meant to so many.”
The family noted that in keeping with his wishes, Leakey’s body was interred “at a place of his choosing, on his favourite ridge overlooking the majestic Rift Valley that he so loved.”
“It’s a tragic loss for humankind,” said TBI Director Lawrence Martin in a televised interview with the BBC. “Richard was a visionary. His advocacy for the environment and his role in raising scientific awareness about the African origins of humankind was quite an extraordinary contribution. He was also the most wonderful, loyal friend you could ever hope to meet.”
“I am deeply saddened by the news of Dr. Leakey’s passing, and send my condolences to his loving family, friends, colleagues, and the many people he inspired,” said Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. “I cannot think of a scholar more reverent of life, dedicated as he was both to the understanding of the origins of humans and the conservation of wildlife. His groundbreaking discoveries and his establishment of the Turkana Basin Institute, of which Stony Brook is the proud academic affiliate, have given us innumerable insights into the origins and evolution of humanity. We have lost a transformational scholar — a man who changed the way we think about ourselves. Stony Brook was honored to be his academic home.”
Leakey was born Dec. 19, 1944, in Nairobi, Kenya, to a family of renowned archeologists. His mother, Mary Leakey, discovered evidence in 1978 that man walked upright much earlier than had been thought. She and her husband, Louis Leakey, unearthed skulls of ape-like early humans.
By age 23, 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, Omo I and Omo II. Confirmed by 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.
Between 1968 and 1989, Leakey coordinated the National Museums of Kenya field expeditions to the eastern and western shores of Lake Turkana, and was appointed as the first director of Kenya’s National Museums.
Initially gaining worldwide fame for the 1972 discovery of “1470,” a complete skull of early Homo erectus, Leakey was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1977. His groundbreaking discoveries in northern Kenya continued, and in 1984, Leakey and his team recovered the nearly complete 1.6-million-year-old skeleton of a Homo erectus youth — known as “Nariokotome Boy” or “Turkana Boy” — a major contribution to the study of evolutionary biology.
Leakey was also dedicated to the conservation of elephants and rhinoceri. In 1989, he became director of the Kenyan Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, which later became known as the Kenya Wildlife Service. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed him to lead the Kenya Wildlife Service in response to the national elephant poaching crisis.
As its first chairman, Leakey reorganized the country’s national park systems and dramatically reduced poaching levels. Leakey also made international headlines in 1989 after leading the initiative to burn Kenya’s stockpile of 12 tons of ivory, worth an estimated $3 million dollars, making a profound statement against the ivory trade.
In 1995, Leakey 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 and then later was head of the Public Service and secretary to the cabinet.
Leakey received an honorary degree from Stony Brook University and in 2002 accepted the position of visiting professor of anthropology, at a time when his political activity was drawing both positive and negative attention. Leakey soon shared 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.
In 2005, Leakey partnered with Stony Brook to create TBI, a collaborative, international, multi-disciplinary organization that facilitates scientific research in the Turkana Basin region of northern Kenya. At TBI, he inspired students to become the next generation of earth and natural sciences while supporting further research in the region.
“Only Stony Brook offered me shelter when I needed it,” Leakey said, “and unlike many other universities, Stony Brook was excited about getting into an African country and doing something brand-new.”
Leakey was inducted as an honorary fellow into the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) in 2020.
Leakey is survived by his wife, Meave Leakey, co-director of field research at TBI and a research professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Anthropology, and three children, including TBI research professor Louise Leakey. Tributes may left online at the ForeverMissed memorial site.