Palaeontologist Meave Leakey has spent a lifetime in the hot, arid sands of northern Kenya uncovering the story of human evolution. Her new memoir, The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past takes us through years of pain-staking work and incredible discoveries.
Written together with her daughter, Samira, the memoir is both a biography and scientific treatise playing out mostly in Koobi Fora, Ileret, Turkwell and other territories of the Lake Turkana Basin.
Meave Epps was born in 1942 during the London blitz of World War II, which likely contributed to her anxious and tearful nature as a young child. She graduated with degrees in marine biology and zoology from the University of Bangor in North Wales, but could not get employment because of her gender. According to the men running the marine expeditions, there were no facilities on board ships for women.
A job advert in 1965 in The Times listed a research position at the Tigoni Primate Research Centre in Kenya. One of the interviewers turned out to be palaeo-anthropologist Louis Leakey. Meave took over running the centre in 1969, the same year she met her future husband Richard Leakey. They married quietly in 1970 and among her fondest memories are field research excursions with Richard before his varied interests took him into other endeavours.
The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past strikes a careful balance between pure science and a palatable account of our past. She describes the shifting earth patterns and volcanic eruptions that preceded our primate ancestors’ journey from tree-dwelling to savanna trekking. Leakey narrates a fascinating tale of the many prehistoric treasures her team uncovered in Turkana from skulls, femurs, tibias, flat faces, brow ridges and dentition.
Working in withering heat and battling flies, dust storms, and staticky radios, Leakey’s adventurous life is not for the faint of heart. But, her excitement at new discoveries is palpable even when they raise more conundrums, such as which came first — bipedalism or bigger brains?
An endless number of international researchers accompanied her expeditions, expounding our knowledge about prehistoric life. The absence of elite African scientists is quite noticeable, although a large number of the diggers and fossil collectors were locals. In the end, Leakey leaves us in no doubt that modern man rose out of Africa before migrating to Asia and Europe.
In between digging and research, we get some insight into her personal life. Her mother-in-law was the no-nonsense Mary Leakey, a trailblazer in East African palaeontology work. Her eldest daughter, Louise, joined the family trade in more recent years. There is the tumultuous period following Richard’s airplane crash in 1993 when he lost both legs below the knee. Foul play was suspected because he was heading the Kenya Wildlife Service where his strong anti-corruption drive and campaign against elephant poaching "earned him any number of enemies."
The memoir is a wonderful mother-daughter collaboration. Not trained in palaeontology, Samira transcribes technical aspects with great detail and intuition, a skill she attributes to the "personal university degree" acquired while working on this project. Her mother’s voice is captured in beautiful first-person language making it hard to imagine this is not Meave’s script.
Leakey has several academic publications to her name but this is her first popular science book. After a lifetime of fact-finding, remarkable discoveries and influencing the way the world views evolution, she felt it was time to write these things down. “Then people understand the process of how you get to where you are and understand the whole subject better.”
The book has taken over 10 years to write, delayed as life events got in the way and grandchildren came along.