Leakey, Richard 1944-
Born into a family with a legacy of seeking out the origins of humankind, Richard Erskine Leakey was the second of the three sons of Louis Leakey (1903–1972) and Mary Leakey (1913–1996). Both of Leakey’s parents were renowned for their archaeological finds and influenced future generations of Leakeys toward the study of human origin. Louis Leakey had been born in Nairobi, Kenya, to missionary parents. Young Louis learned the culture, language, and traditions of the Kikuyu people and was even initiated as a member of the Kikuyu tribe at the age of thirteen. Louis later completed studies at Cambridge University in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. Louis and his wife Mary were both instrumental in shaping the fields of archaeology, paleoanthropology, and primatology due to their many discoveries.
Young Richard was often in the field with his parents on digs, and found his first fossil, of an ancient pig, at the age of six. During his youth, he had a horrible time with bullying in school and eventually left school to pursue his interest in observing and tracking animals. He initially resisted the idea of following the career path of his parents and decided to start a safari business. His business was fairly successful until his curiosity about paleontology led him in a different direction. Leakey began to go on fossil hunting expeditions in East Africa with colleagues of his parents. In 1967 he became part of an expedition funded through one of his father’s research projects: Richard served as the field leader for a trip to the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia. In this area, the team found many early hominid fossils that were at least 130,000 years old.
Around this time, Leakey married Margaret Cropper, who traveled with him on the Omo Valley expedition. He faced difficulty early in his career because he lacked the credentials that many anthropologists and archaeologists possessed. Thus, he returned to school and completed the requirements to gain entry into a university. After he completed his entrance exam, he aimed to pursue higher education, but was soon distracted by his curiosity about a particular archaeological site and his desire to obtain a position with the National Museums of Kenya. He chose not to attend college.
Leakey’s interest in further excavating Kenya was inspired by a flight from Omo to Nairobi. The aerial view provided him with a glimpse of what appeared to be fossil-bearing sedimentary rock. He determined that he would obtain funding to go back to that area and find fossils on Kenyan land. His excavations in the area around Kenya’s Lake Turkana would yield many significant finds and result in his distinguished career in the field of paleoanthropology. In 1968 he began the first of many excavations at this site. He also began to lobby for a position with the National Museums of Kenya. He was named administrative director of the museums in May of 1968 and remained in this position until 1989.
Leakey and his wife Margaret had one daughter named Anna, who was born in 1969, but they were divorced soon after this time. Richard then met and fell in love with Meave Epps, a zoologist who had recently completed her PhD at the University of North Wales. They married and had two children: Louise born in 1972, and Samira born in 1974. Leakey established a camp in Koobi, which became the site of one of his best-known discoveries, called skull 1470. This discovery helped him mend a long-standing rift with his father that was instigated by conflicts between Richard’s role as the director of the National Museum and his father’s center, which had been in existence for many years. Richard was able to show skull 1470 to his father just before Louis died on a trip to London in October 1972.
The discoveries by Leakey’s team of the Homo habilis skull in 1972 and the Homo erectus skull in 1975 were significant findings. Leakey’s health began to suffer thereafter due to kidney disease, and he had to receive a kidney from his brother Phillip in 1979. Leakey is most well-known for the discovery in 1984 of what would become known as Turkana Boy, a Homo erectus skeleton roughly 1.6 million years old. Two members of his team have been credited with working with him on this find: Alan Walker and Kamoya Kimeu. It is one of the most complete Homo erectus skeletons ever found, and it has brought Leakey and Kenya worldwide acclaim in the field of paleoanthropology.
Leakey resigned his post as director of the National Museums of Kenya amidst a wave of controversy in 1989. Leakey had been appointed director of the Kenya Wildlife Service by President Daniel Arap Moi. In this capacity, he spoke out against the rampant practice of elephant poaching and created many enemies because of the confrontational methods of his antipoaching campaign. In 1993 Leakey lost both of his legs in a suspicious plane crash, although within a few months he was walking again on artificial limbs.
Accusations of corruption and fraud led to his resignation from his post with the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1994. In 1995 Leakey created a political party, called Safina, which stood in opposition to the Kenyan African National Union. Leakey was subjected to a public beating and humiliation in the streets by opponents. His tense relationship with political leaders and poachers in the country was a primary cause of this attack. Leakey was reappointed to a position with the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1999, but resigned again in 2001. His daughter Louise completed a PhD in paleontology at the University of London and has followed in the footsteps of her parents. She and her mother, Meave, continue to lead annual expeditions to the Turkana Basin. Leakey remains active, lecturing and writing books on the preservation of wildlife and the environment. He has authored seven books related to his life and work, including Origins Reconsidered (1992) and The Origin of Humankind (1994).
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Anthropology, Biological; Archaeology; Primates
Harris, Scott. 1996. Richard Leakey: Africa’s Passionate Voice for Nature. E: The Environmental Magazine 7 (4): 10.
Johanson, Donald. 1999. The Leakey Family. TIME (March 29). http://www.time.com/time/time100/scientist/profile/leakey.html.
Leakey, Richard. 1984. One Life: An Autobiography. Salem, NH: Salem House.
Leakey Foundation. http://www.leakeyfoundation.org.
Lewin, Roger. 1989. Leakey Leaves Kenya Museums. Science (New Series) 243 (4890): 473.