Anthropologist Richard Leakey Tracks the Grandfather of Man in An African Boneyard
Leakey came upon his prize almost by accident and in part because of the stubbornness of a tired camel named George. The son of the famed anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, Richard was flying back to Nairobi from a 1967 fossiling expedition organized by his father when bad weather forced him to detour around the eastern shore of Lake Turkana (then known as Lake Rudolf). "Looking down at the harsh, sun-baked patchwork of that virtually unknown volcanic terrain, with its eroded sediment layers, I felt certain that I was looking at a great anthropological adventure and a major challenge," Leakey recalls. "It was virgin ground, and that's where I wanted to be. Somewhere down there, I thought, was the key to our existence, and I would be the one to find it."
Leakey borrowed a helicopter and returned to the site. Within minutes of touchdown, he had picked up some primitive stone tools. "Luck?" he now asks. "I like to think it was more judgment than luck." But in order to make a serious exploration of the Turkana shore he needed financial backing. With typical bravado, he accompanied his father to a meeting of the trustees of the National Geographic Society in Washington, where the elder Leakey was seeking funds for his research projects. Richard made his own bid. Impressed by his "cheek and initiative," the trustees agreed to underwrite the Lake Turkana dig. "But," Richard was told, "we're taking you on trust. If it is misplaced, don't come knocking on our door for more money." Richard Leakey was 23 at the time and had no formal education as an anthropologist. "I hadn't much to go on," he admits, "but my swaggering paid off."
The Kenya site began to yield up its treasures when George, the reluctant camel, balked at working in the noonday sun. The rocky outcropping where the animal quit turned out to be a rich deposit of two-and three-million-year-old animal fossils. Ten years later it is clear that Turkana is the single greatest repository of prehuman and ancient human relics ever discovered. Leakey and his keen-eyed team of black researchers—who call themselves "the Hominid Gang"—have unearthed more than 400 identifiable fossils of early man, including 20 skulls, as well as 6,000 petrified bones of long-extinct hippos, lions, crocodiles, gazelles and rodents that shared the world of Homo habilis. The findings have enabled Leakey to reconstruct that world in eerie detail and speculate on Homo habilis' nature, habits and enemies. Among the ancient acquisitions are such minutiae as the toothmarks of a mouse that nibbled on a skull eons ago and the preserved imprint of a fig leaf. (Leakey refuses to speculate on whether the region was Eden, but he is certain it was the cradle of mankind.)
In the planning stages of the Turkana project, Richard's assistant was Meave Epps, an attractive Welsh doctor of zoology whose specialty was old bones. Leakey had been married three years earlier to Margaret Cropper, Mary Leakey's most talented assistant. Although she had willingly spent her honeymoon searching the fossil beds of Kenya's Lake Baringo, Margaret preferred a more conventional home life and resented being married to a "scientific gypsy." By the time the explorations at the lake began, their marriage was irreparably broken. After he was divorced in 1970, Richard married Meave.
She is at home in the bush. When their daughter Louise was four months old in 1972, Meave brought her to the Turkana base camp at Koobi Fora, a sandspit where crocodiles by the dozens bask. Because the baby needed constant attention, Meave stayed in camp and was responsible for assembling the project's most celebrated find. In an eroded gulley, Bernard Ngeneo, one of the Hominid Gang, had come across a fragment of skull which had obviously been part of an unusually large braincase. As more fragments were uncovered, it became evident that a major discovery was at hand. The bits of fossilized bone—more than 300 of them gathered from the sand with dentists' picks and artists' brushes—were brought back to the camp where Meave fit and glued many of them together. It was, she says, "like doing a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in which you have no idea of the size, the shape, how many pieces there should be, or indeed if any of the pieces is missing." But Meave had a talent for jigsaws—"As a child I used to turn them upside down if I found them too easy"—and for the next six weeks she painstakingly reassembled the bones. Later in Nairobi British anatomist Alan Walker helped complete the reconstruction, sometimes with the aid of a microscope. What emerged—known simply as 1470, from its museum catalogue number—was the skull (minus the lower jaw) of a Homo habilis who lived 2.2 million years ago.
The Handy Man (or Woman—the skull could be of either) had a larger brain (800 cc, which is more than half the size of modern man's), a smaller face and a less aquiline profile than other prehumans. The theory of man's evolution immediately took a new turn: Leakey announced that Homo habilis, not the other two or possibly three prehuman species who shared the Turkana habitat, was the true forefather of man, and that his origins dated at least a million years farther back than anyone had believed. Most anthropologists now acknowledge (sometimes grudgingly) that Richard Leakey was right.
From the time Leakey was a toddler he was taken with his brothers Jonathan and Philip on his parents' field trips. The boys' childhood illnesses included malaria and bilharzia, the dreaded snail fever, rather than measles and mumps. "It seems I recognized historic fossils almost as soon as I could speak," says Richard. "Between the ages of 3 and 4 I could identify them and communicate something of my finds to my parents. I wasn't a child wonder. It was just that anthropology was so much a part of my very early life."
Although his origins are European, Richard is proud to be a third-generation Kenyan (grandfather Leakey was a Church of England missionary) who rejects the pukka sahib racism and snobbery of other British colonials. His attitudes did not go down well at the all-white, English-model school in Nairobi he entered at 13. "I'd always kick up a fuss if one of the boys called a black man a nigger in my presence," Leakey recalls. "For that I was beaten up by prefects and school bullies. I regard black and white as divisive terms, but I'm sure the ancestors of man were, shall we say, dark-skinned. Like it or not, most pale-skinned Caucasians can trace their origin to a darker form of humanity in Africa." At 17, Richard quit high school without bothering to get his diploma. He dismissed the idea of a university degree. He already knew more about anthropology and paleontology than many scientists.
At 18, he became a safari operator and learned to pilot a plane ("I was terrified of flying so I made up my mind to overcome the fear"). But shepherding tourists through Kenyan wildlife parks was not exactly his cup of tea. "I was just a servant," he says. Soon Leakey was preparing scientific papers from his father's field notes. In 1967 he was allowed to join one of Louis Leakey's expeditions to the Omo Valley of Ethiopia (where a crocodile attacked his boat and nearly killed him). It was on his return from that trek that Richard first spotted the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, and the rest is history—or anthropology.
As Richard Leakey's precocious fame grew, his relations with his father worsened to the point where, for a time, the two men hardly spoke to each other. The elder Leakey, always a curmudgeon with a territorial imperative about his scientific field, was bitterly jealous. In addition to Richard's Turkana successes, he was appointed director of Kenya's National Museums—a post he still holds—at the dewy age of 23. Louis' resentment abated toward the end of his life. In 1972 the old man visited Richard at his Koobi Fora camp and the two sat up late into the night examining bones and talking about discoveries. Shortly after that Richard proudly took Skull 1470, before it had been completely restored, to his father for inspection. Louis conceded that his boy already had discovered more important fossils than he had in more than four decades of work. A week later Louis departed on a lecture tour abroad and died at 69 of a coronary occlusion in London.
"Richard is just like Father. He's very ambitious," says Jonathan Leakey, 38, who has forsaken the family profession to raise and export rare snakes to foreign zoos. (Philip, 29, participates in some family digs, but now makes a living as an occasional safari operator.) Richard agrees that he has inherited a lot of his father's genes—"Behavior doesn't fossilize," as he puts it. However, he does not resent competitors in his field, though he says, "There's nothing I like better than a good going controversy."
At 34, he spends more time presiding over the Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory and its parent organization, the National Museums of Kenya, than he does in the field. (He did, however, find the hours to write the 1977 best-seller Origins.) In his office there is a framed motto—"Never argue with a fool; people may not notice the difference." Leakey is impatient with the ignorant, but he receives visitors with boyish informality, coatless and wearing sandals. His low-slung meerschaum pipe is a trademark, much as panatela cigars are his mother's. At 65 that venerable lady is still an active anthropologist.
Richard and his family—Meave, 35, Louise, 6, and Samira, 4—live in a comfortable tiled villa, surrounded by rose beds and flame trees, in the stylish Nairobi suburb of Karen. Anna, 9, Richard's daughter by his first marriage, lives with her mother. Whenever his schedule permits, Leakey bundles the family into his single-engine Cessna to fly the 375 miles to the dusty airstrip at Koobi Fora. The girls are already enthusiastic fossil hunters: Louise specializes in three-million-year-old crocodile teeth, and both sisters prefer a game of checkers with sun-bleached baboon vertebrae to playing with dolls. But then, it's all in the bones.