Richard Erskine Frere Leakey (born 1944), a leading Kenyan researcher in human prehistory and wildlife conservationist, was responsible for many of the most important discoveries pertaining to early human evolution.
Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, the second son of Louis and Mary Leakey, was born in Nairobi on December 19, 1944. His father, Louis Leakey, was born in Kenya of British missionary parents. Louis grew up among the Kikuyu and differed from most British colonists in considering himself an African, as opposed to a European living in Africa. Likewise, Richard was a Kenyan; he mastered Kiswahili earlier than English and became a Kenyan citizen. As a child, he frequently accompanied his famous parents on their archaeological and paleontological expeditions. In the late 1940s, they were working at Miocene ape sites on Lake Victoria, and by the age of six Richard learned to help collect skeletal material. He was educated through secondary school in Nairobi. After leaving school, he briefly made a living trapping and selling animals and acting as a safari guide for visitors to Olduvai Gorge, his parents' site. He began a safari business in 1962 that lasted under different partners until 1974. However, he continued to work for his parents at Olduvai and soon organized expeditions of his own.
Feeling the need for formal training in anthropology and paleontology, Leakey prepared for university work, passing A level examinations in London. However, he eventually declined a British university education, not wishing to spend the time away from field work in East Africa. He married Margaret Cropper in 1966 and they had one daughter, Anna. Later divorced, he married Meave Epps in 1970. They had two daughters, Louise and Samira.
Although initially vowing never to work with fossils, Leakey is associated with the recovery of some of the most important specimens in human evolutionary studies. He gained his knowledge of paleoanthropology from working for his parents and later from colleagues he had brought together to study the remains recovered by his Kenyan research team. Leakey organized his first expedition in 1964 to Lake Natron in Tanzania, north of Olduvai Gorge. This work resulted in the discovery of the Peninj mandible, the lower jaw of a robust australopithecine, Austral-opithecus boisei, an extinct side branch of the human lineage. The Lake Natron work was soon followed by excavations at Lake Baringo, Kenya, in 1966, and major involvement in the multinational Omo expedition in Ethiopia, both of which yielded hominid and other fossils.
Leakey's most famous contributions to paleoanthropology derived from his work at Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, particularly at the site of Koobi Fora on its eastern shore, where many Plio-Pleistocene hominids have been discovered. Leakey and his team began working at East Turkana in 1968 and within weeks found their first hominid specimen, an A. boisei mandible. The wealth of hominid fossils that were later found on both shores of Lake Turkana by Leakey's team revolutionized human evolutionary studies. Among the most famous of the finds are ER 1470, a large-brained member of the genus Homo dated to 1.8 million years; several of the earliest known members of the taxon Homo erectus (modern human's immediate ancestor) dated to between 1.6 and 1 million years; and the "Black Skull," dated to 2.6 million years, a robust australopithecine that has forced recent revisions of the human family tree. Among the most impressive of the Homo erectus fossils is the Nariokotome specimen, found in 1984 by Leakey's team on the west shore of Lake Turkana. It is the virtually complete skeleton of a 12-year-old boy who was close to six feet tall. Despite its height, the boy had a small brain, providing evidence that human cranial expansion is not simply an artifact of increases in body size. Work continued into the 1990s at Lake Turkana, which became a permanent research facility.
Although renowned as a paleoanthropologist, Leakey's greatest contributions to African prehistory derived from his skill as an administrator and organizer who combined international involvement with the training of native Kenyans. Leakey formed international, multidisciplinary teams to recover early human fossil remains and artifacts, properly analyze them, determine their age, and ascertain the environmental circumstances surrounding their lives and deaths. Moreover, he trained many other Kenyans and made them instrumental to the research efforts in both the field and the laboratory. He became administrative director of the National Museums of Kenya in 1968 and director in 1974. Along with the trustees of the National Museums of Kenya, he established and obtained funding for the International Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory. Through books, lectures, and his television series for the BBC (British Broadcasting Channel), he played an important role in popularizing research in African paleoanthropology and in explaining its significance to the public.
Leakey also emphasized wildlife conservation and applied his organizational ability to conservation efforts both in Kenya and abroad. He was politically involved and held positions in the Kenyan government, including director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, in which he tried to curb the poaching activities that threatened many African species with extinction. He was particularly concerned with the problem of elephant poaching and was instrumental in efforts to eliminate this activity. In spite of periods of poor health, in particular kidney failure and a transplant in 1980 and a devastating plane crash in 1993 that resulted in the partial loss of his lower limbs, Leakey continued to pursue his scientific interests and his commitments to the environment and the Kenyan nation.
In the spring of 1994, Leakey resigned from his post as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service after being accused by the government of favoring wildlife conservation over the interests of local farmers, and confirmed his place in the Kenyan political arena by starting a political party called Safina—Swahili for Noah's Ark—that was opposed to the ruling party. Safina, which united Kenya's half-dozen smaller opposition groups, favored a democratic Kenya over the present, one-party system ruled by Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi. The party began work to support a single presidential candidate for the 1997 elections. Leakey, in his new and strong political role, was a likely presidential candidate.
Richard Leakey wrote several popular books that provide excellent introductions to human evolution and African prehistory. In addition to scientific papers, Leakey's publications include Origins (with Roger Lewin, 1977), People of the Lake (with Roger Lewin, 1977), The Making of Mankind (1981), One Life: An Autobiography (1984), and Origins Revisited (with Roger Lewin, 1992). The latter book, subtitled "In Search of What Makes Us Human," was reviewed as a vivid, generally evenhanded presentation in a contentious field. Most recently, Leakey published Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind (with Roger Lewin, 1995), reviewed as a lucid, knowlegeable account of chance and extinction as necessary parts of life. □