One of the world’s most renowned paleoanthropologists, Richard Leakey has appeared on the cover of Time magazine and on a television debate on the origins of mankind hosted by Walter Cronkite. In 2002, Leakey joined the faculty of Stony Brook University, where he is an anthropology professor and chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute, a research organization he launched three years ago. A son of famed researchers Louis and Mary Leakey, he was born in Kenya in 1944. His wife Meave and their daughter Louise are anthropologists, too, and also affiliated with Stony Brook. Besides leading important fossil-hunting expeditions, Leakey has led an adventurous life in many arenas: He has headed Kenya’s National Museum and its wildlife conservation department, where he battled elephant poachers. He survived two kidney transplants and, in 1993, after losing both legs in an airplane crash, learned to walk on artificial limbs. Later, he helped found a dissident political party and was elected to Kenya’s parliament. Five years ago, he started WildLifeDirect, a conservation group that uses bloggers to raise funds. He’s an advocate for the disabled, for racial tolerance and for the environment. He spoke with me in his bright Stony Brook office a day before leaving for Kenya to oversee construction of new buildings at his institute.
How did you come to be at Stony Brook? I first came about eight years ago to give a guest lecture here. I was then invited back to receive an honorary degree. This is a school with one of the biggest and most important anthropology departments in the country. President Shirley Strum Kenny asked me, now that I’ve left government in Kenya, would I like to get a position over here, to keep my foot in with anthropology and be useful to the school. And I was delighted. I work in both Kenya and the United States. My work in Kenya for this university is in developing a research institute, the Turkana Basin Institute. // So students and faculty from here go to Kenya to do work there? Yes, as well as students from other universities. It’s started, and we have some post-docs and some graduate students, and we are hoping to expand it beyond archeology and anthropology. We are already starting to collaborate on a program on public health in Kenya, and we are developing programs with other departments. // How long do you spend here? I make two or three visits a year, usually four to six weeks each. // Does your wife come with you? Not every time. She has work in Kenya. Here, she teaches some classes and supervises some PhD students. // She’s made quite a number of discoveries, too? Many, many discoveries. // I heard that there’s an important discovery…I can’t talk about it, nor will my wife.
In the next 12 months, there will be some interesting news out of Kenya. Her expedition discovered it, she and my daughter Louise. I think it will lead the media. // Front page news? Probably. // I want to ask about the recent news about Ardi [a 4.4 million year old skeleton of the species Ardipithecus ramidus, said by its discoverers to be the oldest human ancestor ever found]. It brought anthropology back into the public consciousness again. I think the specimen, the skeleton they found, is one of the most interesting fossils we’ve ever seen. I don’t think it was a human ancestor. That makes it to me even more interesting, because we’re learning things about an ape that’s more than four and a half million years old, and there’s never been other apes of that age found. There have been apes back at 15 million years and human ancestors at three and a half to four, but we’ve never had a fossil ape before overlapping in time with what must on theoretical grounds be the first appearance of a biped. But I don’t think they’ve found it. They found an ape in the sense that it spent most of its time in the trees, and I don’t think they are in any line to us. So I and a number of people disagree with their conclusions. But in no way does it alter the value of the specimen. For fossils, they get a straight A. For their paper and their conclusions, I would give them a D. // How does this compare to the other famous fossil, Lucy [3.2 million years old, formerly known as the earliest human ancestor]? They’re linking it directly to Lucy. // Do you think Lucy was an early ancestor? One of several early ancestors. There’s no disputing Lucy’s a hominid. When they discovered Lucy, they presented her as the common ancestor of all later fossil humans and us. Twenty-five years ago, I said I did not agree with that. I thought it was not necessarily the only ancestor that we had to consider. // Is that what you had your debate about on Walter Cronkite’s show? I was debating Donald Johanson, the man who discovered Lucy. I said Lucy was not necessarily our only ancestor. And that’s been established now. I think everyone accepts that. I turned out to be right on that one. // Do you miss doing research?
Yes, but I do other things. With my legs, I can’t go into the field. // Why do you think most people are so mesmerized by these finds of old bones? It’s really intriguing to know what made us what we are and how we came into existence. I think that’s the fascination. // You’ve made many important discoveries. Which is the most significant? I think the establishment of Homo erectus and the knowledge we’ve gotten about the species, which precedes our own through the Turkana skeleton, Turkana Boy [a 1.6 million year old skeleton his expedition found in 1984]. It’s of huge scientific interest. // Can you tell me why? We had some skulls, but no one had seen a complete skeleton before. There was little known about him in terms of proportions or stature or likely body weight before. If he had survived his prepuberty years, he probably would have been nearly 6 feet tall. // Why does prehistory matter? People often look at anthropology as an esoteric, somewhat unnecessary field. But I think in the 21st century we’re going to have to do more to persuade people that they share this planet, and that we’re all interconnected, in a very real sense. There’s no going it alone. And I think anthropology can make people understand that.