Louise Leakey delivers keynote, “Six Decades — The Search for Fossils at Lake Turkana”
Richard Leakey dedicated his life to unraveling the mysteries of our ancient past. Through his extensive research, archeological discoveries and advocacy efforts, he has shaped our understanding of human origins and inspired a new generation of scientists.
Kicking off the week-long Richard Leakey Memorial Conference “AFRICA: The Human Cradle,” Louise Leakey, third-generation Kenyan paleoanthropologist and daughter of Richard Leakey, delivered the keynote lecture entitled “Six Decades — The Search for Fossils at Lake Turkana” on June 5.
Louise Leakey is a research professor in the Department of Anthropology in Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences, chair of the international advisory board of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) in Kenya and director of the Koobi Fora Research Project.
Her mother, Meave Leakey, is also a research professor in the Department of Anthropology and serves as TBI director of field research. Meave was awarded the National Geographic’s 2016 Hubbard Medal, its highest honor, in recognition of her groundbreaking anthropological finds and continued dedication and inspiration to her field of research.
Richard Leakey was a global leader in both paleoanthropology and conservation and a Stony Brook University professor for the last two decades of his life. Richard joined the Stony Brook faculty in 2002 and shortly after began the foundational plans for TBI, a partnership co-founded by the Leakey family and Stony Brook, to create a permanent infrastructure for research in the Turkana Basin. TBI now operates two field research stations around Lake Turkana and facilitates anthropological fieldwork and trains and employs African scientists. It is the preeminent archive of fossil evidence for human evolution. He died in January 2022.
President Maurie McInnis introduced Louise before the keynote lecture and described her unconventional upbringing. “She was often in the field with her parents in rough conditions learning on the job valuable skills, such as how to drive off road in Kenya when you can’t even see over the steering wheel,” McInnis said. “But mostly I think she learned the thrill of discovery. She was only 12 when Richard and Meave made the groundbreaking discovery of the ‘Turkana Boy,’ the almost complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus dated about 1.6 million years old.”
Like her parents, Louise’s passion is field research. In the lecture, she presented the findings of the past six decades of fieldwork at Lake Turkana, interspersed with anecdotes from her family and colleagues. Speaking to a full house of conference attendees, university staff and faculty and community members in the Staller Center, Louise first recognized the importance of grants and funding research in the Turkana Basin. This continued support of fieldwork enabled researchers to explore the Turkana Basin nearly every year since 1968.
Lake Turkana lies in a dry, desert environment, but two million years ago the lake was larger, and the surrounding area was lush and fertile. During these times, the area was ideal for early humans to settle, and when they died their remains were fossilized and preserved.
Richard Leakey began excavating at the lake in 1968 on the eastern side, known as the Koobi Fora. In 1972, his team discovered the skull and limb bones of a 1.9-million-year-old Homo rudolfensis, known as “skull 1470,” indicating that there were multiple lines of early humans, not one line as previously thought. The “Turkana Boy” skeleton in 1984 remains the most complete early human fossil ever discovered and is an example of Homo erectus, thought to be our direct ancestors.
Louise described how her father was living on borrowed time during his years in the field, first receiving a kidney transplant from his brother (during which time he wrote his memoirs while on dialysis since he thought he might not survive the transplant), a second kidney transplant from his wife, Meave, and in 1993, survived a crash while piloting a small propeller-driven plane. Both lower legs were amputated after having been crushed in the accident, but this did not stop Richard from continuing his work in the field, and he learned to walk (and even drive a gear stick and pilot planes) on artificial limbs.
It was during the time when Meave left the field to assist Richard after the plane crash that Louise was asked to step in and take over a scheduled expedition, and the teams continue to find significant discoveries under her leadership.
The weeklong Leakey Conference was held June 5-9 on behalf of the Turkana Basin Institute and Stony Brook University, and in partnership with the National Geographic Society. The international conference celebrated the immeasurable, life-long contributions by Richard Leakey to furthering our appreciation of Africa’s centrality in the narrative of human evolution.
On the first day of the conference, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and world-renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger made a historic announcement that he and his team unearthed new evidence suggesting Homo naledi — an extinct hominin species — buried their dead and used symbols for meaning-making.
“Richard Leakey’s discovery of fossil sediments at Koobi Fora has probably been responsible for producing close to half of the world’s evidence for human evolution,” said Lawrence Martin, director of the Turkana Basin Institute and professor in the Department of Anthropology. “He influenced so much in so many different ways including the impactful careers he pursued. Scientists and researchers were inspired by him to enter this field of study. That he chose to spend the last twenty years of his academic career affiliated with Stony Brook University is such an honor and we want to celebrate his legacy, vision and venerate the extraordinary life he led.”
“It is a privilege for Stony Brook to host this conference honoring the life and achievements of Richard Leakey,” McInnis said. “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. To bring together this caliber of scientists at this conference will give us innumerable insights into the origins and evolution of humanity. We celebrate this transformational scholar, a man who changed the way we think about ourselves and, for us, contributed so much to Stony Brook University. Richard’s impact as a mentor — and inspiration to the next generation of paleontologists and anthropologists — can be felt across our campus, and across the world.”
— Beth Squire