Richard Leakey’s Legacy in Science, Conservation and Politics

Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist and political leader, died on January 2 at his home near Nairobi. His expeditions discovered hundreds of hominin fossils, prompting Fred Spohr, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, to tell me that his findings were “the most comprehensive and diverse fossil record of early human evolution”. Other scientists, environmentalists, writers, artists, and filmmakers have tried to draw people’s attention to current existential crises, including climate change and the Sixth Extinction (the expected mass extinction of a large portion of Earth’s life). They have tried to persuade us to change behaviours, such as our dependence on fossil fuels, which they say will lead to our demise. Leakey believed that our ancestors’ fossils showed us our common humanity and carried an explicit message: Like all previous species that called Earth home, we too are likely to become extinct.

But he also wanted to see that we could delay this unfortunate event if we recognized and addressed these crises. He shared this message in the museums and research institutions he built in Kenya, in his writing and television appearances, and through the many young people he helped educate. Until the time of his death, he was busy designing a major new international museum to celebrate – and warn – humanity.

Leakey was the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologists who discovered many fossilized bones of early humans in East Africa. Their findings proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Africa was the cradle of the human race. Richard Leakey added to their legacy, unearthing a bounty of fossils, almost all in his native Kenya and with the help of his team of Kenyan fossil hunters.

One of his team’s most exciting discoveries was the nearly complete skull and skeleton of a 10-year-old child standing man A boy at a site called Nariokotome on the western shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. Turkana or Nariokotomi Boy, as scientists called him the fossil, died 1.6 million years ago and is the most complete skeleton ever discovered.

The skeleton has also been beautifully preserved, revealing previously unknown aspects of his sex anatomy and life history. Based on his five-foot-high skeleton, for example, scientists have calculated that the boy would have been six feet tall at maturity and a slender build adapted to the hot climate. He lived at a time when his species was discovering fire and inventing new stone technologies. standing man We were venturing out of Africa and eventually became, sane man.

By the time Leakey made this discovery, he had been hunting fossils for four decades. He was six years old when he made his first significant fossil discovery: the jawbone of an extinct giant pig that lived near Lake Victoria about two million years ago.

I was fortunate to join Leakey at his camp in Nariokotome, where his team was extracting the bones of a Turkana boy in the mid-1980s. Some nights we sat side by side on canvas camp chairs under a dazzling starlit sky. Leakey liked to take moments like this to point out that he wasn’t always fiddling with “the sediments.”

Looking back through the layers of the fossil record, seeing new species emerge while others became extinct, gave Leakey a perspective few of us had. He knew that many of these “long-extinct species” had thrived on Earth for much longer than we modern humans might do.

We are the newcomers, and our ancestors stepped on the African savannah probably at least three million years ago; our gender, A wise man It likely only arrived 300,000 years ago. He said the fossil record is a reminder of our “death as a species.” assets, a book he co-authored in 1977 on what was then known about the human fossil record.

By the time his team discovered Turkana Boy, Leakey had already made his mark as a builder of world-class museums and research institutions in Kenya, those that served as models for museums in Tanzania and Ethiopia, says Carol Ward, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Leakey told me he was increasingly anxious, and admitted he was looking for a “new challenge.” A few years later, he gave up fossil hunting to become director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) at a time when Kenya’s elephants were being hunted to extinction.

Outraged by the marketing of ivory, he persuaded then-President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, to burn the country’s stockpile of 12 metric tons of tusks. Dramatic Hell helped end (for a time) the ivory trade. Subsequently, he co-founded one of Kenya’s first political parties, the “Safina”, and served as a Member of Parliament and Head of the country’s civil service.

Leakey spent little time with live elephants, and his experience watching them with elephant researcher Joyce Ball deeply influenced him. He realized that he and the KWS were “protecting living beings,” animals with families, children, sisters, and aunts, as he wrote in Wildlife wars A book he co-authored about his efforts to save the wildlife and wild lands of East Africa.

But when climate scientists revealed their long-term concerns about Earth’s future, Leakey came to a new realization: The habitat of elephants in the 21st century will likely change to the point that they will become extinct. From his life in the sediments, Leakey knew that all animal species had a beginning and an end. But it was especially sad that elephants and all other animals, including humans, could go extinct, not because of an asteroid, but because of human action, or inaction.

Leakey believed that a vibrant museum that overlooks the Valley of Our Origins and protects a boy’s skeleton would allow people to see their common humanity and come out satisfied with the future.

“If we can make the origins of humanity accessible and exciting to all, and show people the amazing journey of humanity, we can change paradigms and change the world,” Leakey wrote in February 2021 in the new museum’s strategic plan. .

“Leakey had two great passions: paleoanthropology and kenya,” Ward says, who credits Leakey with helping to shape her career.

Lekki was buried on January 3 under a majestic acacia tree not far from the site dedicated to Ngaren. His grave overlooks the Rift Valley, where he spent a large part of his life exploring the past. It is a simple mound of earth strewn with rocks. His family hopes that other people who pass by will stop by to add a stone to the pile, as in Kenya for a “true African leader,” says Mwangi Ngaji, an African historian at the American University of Nairobi Center and a close Kenyan friend of Leakey.

These feelings meet in carpenters. A groundbreaking ceremony is expected later this year, and the museum is scheduled to open in 2026.


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