Leakey: 'The only thing I knew was bones'

Monday January 10 2022
Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey sets rhino horns on fire at a zoo in the Czech Republic in 2017.

Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey (right) sets rhino horns on fire at a zoo in the Czech Republic in 2017. PHOTO | AFP


Born in Kenya in 1944, Richard Leakey was the second son of renowned palaeoanthropologists, Louis and Mary Leakey. Richard described his family as relatively poor, with school holidays spent in the desolate Olduvai region of Tanzania where his parents worked.

“We didn’t have toys, so as children we learned to pick up bits of bone and see if we could identify what they were,” said Leakey. “We didn’t have a refrigerator until I was 12 years old.”

Richard disliked school and was expelled at 16. That marked the end of his formal education. He was a safari guide briefly, learned how to pilot small aircraft, and did odd jobs before joining the family profession.

“I couldn’t go back to school as my parents couldn’t afford it, so I decided that the only thing I knew was bones,” he said.

He discovered his first fossil, the jawbone of an ancient pig, at just six years old.

In 1967, Leakey led the Kenya team of Omo Expedition in southern Ethiopia, jointly with French and American scientists. By then, he was working with his father at the Nairobi Museum. Flying over the eastern side of Lake Turkana one time, he noticed large exposures of sedimentary rocks that stimulated his interest.


A return trip the following year revealed numerous fossils and prehistoric artefacts, confirming his suspicions of the rich archaeological potential of the region.

It was the start of many decades of research in the Turkana Basin. If Richard’s parents swung the global pendulum in favour of Africa as the cradle of humankind, he and his paleoanthropologist wife, Meave, would provide copious evidence of human ancestry.

In the Basin, he made significant finds such as the skulls of a 1.9 million-year-old Homo habilis, a 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus and, the most famous of all, a 1.5 million-year-old skeleton called Turkana Boy or Nariokotome. It is the most complete prehistoric human skeleton ever found.

Discoveries' credit

Although Leakey was credited with Turkana Boy, the relics were unearthed by Kamoya Kimeu, a long-time member of his team who discovered many of the fossils. In later years, Leakey endeavoured to correct the record, acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Kimeu and other African field specialists.

In 1968, Leakey was appointed Director of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), a position he held for 21 years. During his time, the museum advanced into a modern research facility, a repository for large collections of extinct mammals and early humans, and a focal point of studies in palaeoanthropology and archaeology.

Emma Mbua, palaeoanthropologist and principal research scientist at NMK, says Leakey was instrumental in the discoveries of early humans.

“The collection is unparalleled elsewhere in the world and has enabled scientists to work out the evolutionary trajectories of Homo sapiens and other mammalian species,” she said.

Dr Mbua joined the National Museums during Leakey’s tenure, when many of the staff were western expatriates. Growing local talent and enabling indigenous Africans to become key members of field research was an important objective of Leakey’s work, sometimes putting him at odds with overseas experts who wished to have more control.

In 1989, Kenya’s then president Daniel Moi appointed Leakey director of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, which was later reformed into the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). This was at the height of the elephant poaching crisis.

Leakey launched a vigorous campaign, arming rangers.

Outspoken and unafraid of dissent, Leakey dismissed KWS staff he believed culpable of wildlife mismanagement, a move which earned him enemies.

He arranged for the public burning of 12 tonnes of ivory valued at over $3 million, an event that drew world attention and money to support conservation. He repeated the ivory burning in 2016 during another poaching crisis while he was chair of the KWS board.

In 1993, the Cessna aeroplane he was flying crashed in the Rift Valley, causing damage to both his legs and necessitating double amputation below the knees. Though it was never proved, foul play was suspected. Frustrated in his efforts to reform the agency, Leakey resigned from KWS in 1994.

No tolerance for corruption

According to Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of WildlifeDirect, a conservation NGO that Leakey founded in 2004, Richard had “no tolerance for mediocrity or corruption which, sadly, many people held against him”.

In 1995, Leakey turned to politics, co-founding the Safina political party to oppose Moi’s regime. Ironically, Moi named him head of public service in 1999, ostensibly to tackle government corruption. However, Leakey resigned just two years later.

Returning to the sciences, in 2005 he established the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), in partnership with Stony Brook University in the US.

TBI is now a leading research institute with two field stations on the eastern and western shores of Lake Turkana, and thousands of specimens of early humans, extinct animals and ancient plants.

Leakey’s organisation supported the French and Kenyan scientists who, in 2011, discovered the Lomekwi stone tools, the world’s oldest man-made implements, aged 3.3 million years.

Due to health challenges, Leakey gave up fieldwork in his later years but remained involved with TBI and giving lectures abroad. At the start of his career over 50 years ago, Leakey is reported to have said that most physical evidence for the African origins of humankind could be laid on a card table.

“Today we need several rooms to accommodate the thousands of fossils accumulated from eastern and southern Africa alone, all of which have tremendously boosted our understanding of changes through time.”

While acknowledging the limitations of a national museum, he was disappointed that Kenya lost its place on the global table of hard sciences.

“I’m firmly of the opinion that with the increasingly large number of young Kenyans studying abroad and here, and if we get equipment and facilities, we can get back on the table rather quickly.”

There is international excitement about new sciences, he added, “and we just have to reach out and get our people leading some of this work”.

He talked about the sciences that Kenya can explore, in partnership with overseas support. Using Micro CT imaging technology to study the interior of skulls, bones and other fossils; a genetics lab to research the human genome, especially of contemporary Africans; and an astronomical observatory by Lake Turkana for collaborative space research.

Perhaps his grandest idea was a world-class science museum he envisioned called Ngaren, meaning “beginning” in the Turkana language. It grew out of his desire to present the story of evolution and our common ancestry to the greater public. Richard and Meave planned to donate 200 acres of land in Kona Baridi, on the edge of the Rift Valley.

TBI’s director of research and science Isaiah Nengo would like to see Leakey’s vision of Kenya becoming a major pilgrimage destination for people to trace their origins. The museum requires around $100 million to start the project. Leakey was a master at getting international donors to finance his ideas. He intended Ngaren to be his swansong.

The “father of palaeoanthropology in Kenya” passed away on January 2 at his home on the outskirts of Nairobi. He was 77.