For more than thirty years, Dr. Meave Leakey has been unearthing fossilized clues to the mystery of human origins.
Having married into a family of famous paleoanthropologists, Leakey might have been expected to assume certain obligations, but no one could have expected her to eventually assume leadership duties, all the while uncovering some of the most important finds in this highly competitive and male dominated profession. Dr. Leakey's most recent discovery, announced in the journal Nature, redefines our understanding of human evolution.
Meave Leakey didn't start out as a Leakey, she started out as an Epps. Born in 1942, Meave was the oldest of three children in the Epps household in Kent, England. Her interest in nature was evident early on as she spent days "collecting beetles and other insects from the back porch of the family cottage." Meave went to convent and boarding schools, with a technical college thrown in, before attending the University of North Wales, where she studied Marine zoology in which she eventually earned her PhD. And then along came intervention, divine perhaps, but intervention none-the-less. She saw an ad in The Times for an opening at a primate research center in Kenya, posted by none other than Louis Leakey. As fate would have it, the job was hers for the taking. Soon enough, Leakey's son Richard would also be hers for the taking. Overseeing finances at the time, Richard Leakey called on Meave to "scold" her for "spending too much money." Shortly afterward however, he invited her to join the paleontological fieldwork at Lake Turkana. The year was 1968 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Two years later, Richard and Meave were married. They continued to work at Koobi Fora, on the eastern shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana, but with the Leakeys, enough is never enough, so Meave began to also focus on the evolution of East African mammal fossils. But in 1989, Meave took over the annual expeditions when Richard was appointed head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. And not that it stopped anybody from doing anything, in 1993, Richard Leakey lost both legs below the knee when an aircraft he was piloting malfunctioned and crashed. So it was Meave's team, which included daughter Louise, that in 1994 unearthed hominid fossils at Kanapoi, that would be classified Australopithecus anamansis and dated at 4.1 million years. As with all hominid finds, debates raged, but this find, along with others nearby, seemed to clearly indicate evidence of upright walking, pushing earliest bipedalism back half a million years. (Recent discoveries have pushed it back even further.)
Again in 1999, mother and daughter Leakey and their research team made a discovery that put another wrinkle in the age old question of human lineage. Unearthing a skull and partial upper jaw in northern Kenya's Turkana district, Meave at first had little hope for its relevance. It was "riddled with tiny cracks" and grass and tree roots ran through the speciman. "It was a hobbible mess," Meave recalls, but after a year of cleaning and analyzing the fragments, they announced the assignment of the remnants to a new genus and species, Kenyanthropus platyops , or flat-faced man of Kenya. Indeed, it was the flat face and crested head that set it apart from Australopithecus afarensis, the species to which 4 million year old Lucy belonged. The New York Times called it a discovery that, "threatens to overturn the prevailing view that a single line of descent stretched through the early stages of human ancestry." Meave Leakey simply said, "I never thought we'd get anything looking as good as this out of it."
For what surely won't be the last time, a Leakey find has upset the apple cart, but for 70 years, since Louis and Mary leakey strolled onto the East African plains, scholars have been tripping over themselves to debate and revise long-held ideas. Thanks to the Leakeys for what might certainly be called job security.
- 2001-Lothagam: The Dawn of Humanity in Eastern Africa; John Harris and Meave Leakey, Eds.
- 1988-Stratigraphy and Paleontology of Pliocene and Pleistocene Localities West of Lake Turkana, Kenya; John Harris and Meave Leakey, Eds. et al.
- 1978-The Fossil Hominids and an Introduction th Their Context, 1968-1974; Meave Leakey and Richard Leakey, Eds.
- (Out of Print)-Koobi Fora Research Projest; Meave Leakey