Leakey, Richard Erskine Frere (1944–)
Kenyan Anthropologist, Paleontologist
A member of the famous Leakey family of paleoanthro-pologists, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey is known for his extensive discoveries of ancient human remains in East Africa. Continuing his parents' work, Leakey proposed that humans were much older than had been formerly proposed; Leakey's findings led him to conclude that humans existed about 3 million years ago: nearly double the time span of previous estimates. Leakey also adopted his father's controversial idea that there were at least two parallel lines of human evolution, with one leading to modern humans.
Richard Leakey was the son of the Kenyan-born British anthropologist LOUIS SEYMOUR BAZETT LEAKEY and the British anthropologist MARY DOUGLAS NICOL LEAKEY. Born on December 19, 1944, in Nairobi, Kenya, Leakey made his first fossil discovery at the age of six, when he accompanied his parents on an excavation near Lake Victoria. The remains he found belonged to an extinct giant pig. Leakey was still determined, however, not to follow in his parents' footsteps. In the early 1960s, when Leakey was a teenager, he dropped out of high school to lead photographic safaris in Kenya. At this time he also found a talent for trapping animals. During a safari in 1963 Leakey took a group of paleontologists to an area in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) that had fossil beds. The discovery of an australopithecine jaw, the first of a complete lower jaw and the only skull fragment found since his mother's discovery in 1959, spurred him to pursue a career in anthropology. In 1964 Leakey married Margaret Cropper, who had worked on his father's research team. The couple had a daughter, Anna, in 1969 and then divorced that same year. In 1970 Leakey married Meave Gillian Epps, a zoologist who specialized in primates. They had two daughters, Louise in 1972 and Samira in 1974.
Intending to pursue studies in anthropology, Leakey traveled to London and entered school. Though Leakey Page 434 | Top of Articlecompleted a two-year program in just six months, his money and his interest in classroom work ran out, and he returned to Kenya without a degree. In 1967 Leakey led an expedition to the Omo Delta region in southern Ethiopia, where the excavation site was estimated to have fossils from about 150,000 years ago. The remains of two human skulls, believed to be of modern humans, were found, providing evidence contradictory to the commonly accepted view that modern humans came into being about 60,000 years ago.
Though his parents spent a great deal of time excavating in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Leakey focused on regions in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, most notably the Koobi Fora area, located on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya. There his team unearthed more than 400 hominid fossils, at one point at the rate of nearly 2 fossils per week, and a large amount of stone tools. In 1972 the team discovered a skull that seemed to resemble one identified by Leakey's father, which his father had named Homo habilis. The skull, called “Skull 1470,” had about double the cranial capacity of Australopithecus boisei (then Zinjanthropus) and more than half that of modern humans. Leakey believed the skull was 2.9 million years old; that idea led him to theorize that early hominids may have been present about 2.5 to 3.5 million years ago. This supported the theory that Homo habilis was not a descendant of the australopithecines but coexisted with them. In 1975 the skull of a Homo erectus, the ancestor of modern humans, was found at Koobi Fora. The skull dated back about 1.5 million years and represented the earliest known remains of Homo erectus in Africa.
Leakey continued to make significant anthropological findings, including the discovery in 1984 of a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton. Leakey's findings did much to corroborate the theories of his parents and significantly advanced the field of physical anthropology. In 1979 Leakey suffered kidney failure and survived with the donation of a kidney from his brother Philip. Leakey lost both legs as a result of an airplane crash in 1993 but continued his activities. Since the 1990s, he has become increasingly active in conservation issues and Kenyan politics. In 1997 he was elected to an opposition seat in the Kenyan parliament.