For more than 50 years, Born in Britain paleoanthropologist Leave Leakey has discovered fossils of our early ancestors in Kenya Turkana Pool. Her discoveries have changed the way we think about our origins. Instead of an orderly progression of the ape towards man, its work presupposes different pre-human species living simultaneously. Leakey̵
Leakey is part of the famous family of paleoanthropologists. Her husband, Richard Leakey and his parents,, Louis and Mary, are known for their discoveries of early hominins.
Meeve, 78, is a professor c Stony Brook University, New York and director of field research at noprofit Pool Institute Turkana, a collaboration between the Leakey family and Stony Brook.
You graduated in the 60s with a degree in zoology and marine zoology at the University of Bangor and envisioned a career as a marine biologist. How it turned out fossil hunting in Africa?
I had written to many marine centers around the world and received the same answer: they did not have the amenities for a woman on a boat. Exhausted, I decided I would have to try something else. At that time, a boyfriend found an ad on the back of on Times for a research position at the Tigoni Primate Research Center in Kenya. I called the number and Louis Leakey picked it up. Weeks later I was on the plane.
I met Richard when I was running the center. I just got a doctorate in zoology studying monkey skeletons. Richard contacted me to talk about how the center spends too much money and we need to save. We hit him and I started to see him a lot. He asked if I would like to come and work with him at his fossil site. That’s how I got to Turkana and fossils.
You and Richard were married in 1970, and your daughters Louisa and Samira were born in 1972 and 1974.. How did you balance research and motherhood?
I didn’t want to miss the excitement of working in the field, so both children were taken to Turkana within weeks of their birth. They would stay in base camp with someone to take care of them while we went out and worked. As they got older, they sometimes went out with us.
There is a certain skull that remains one of my favorite fossils because of the happy memories I have of its reconstruction, with a baby hippo playing in the pond and baby Louisa playing at my feet in a cool pool of water. It was a really special time.
In the late 1980s, Richard headed Kenya Wildlife Service and you took over the management of the field work. IN 1999 your team found the skull of an early hominin that was about the same age as the famous one Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), 3.2m-annual fossil skeleton discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia. You called him Keniatropus platops: the flat-faced man from Kenya. How has this changed our understanding of evolution?
Lucy got a lot of publicity. It has always been designed as on common ancestor of humans. I’ve always felt that it doesn’t make sense, because if you look at another animal line, there are always so many species. I thought: there must be diversity [in the early hominins].
When we found this specimen, it was crushed and broken, so it took a long time to figure it out. But you can say that this is something completely new and different from Lucy. He lived with Lucy at the same time, but he had this really flat face. The significance was far away: it showed Lucy is not necessarily the ancestor of all later hominins.
Your book does not include a family tree of our origin. Was this intentional?
Yes. I tend not to try to draw straight lines between things. Much remains to be seen. I worry that instead of contributing to our understanding, building lineages can only be preliminary and can actually be misleading.
Attempts are periodically made to expose Africa as the “birthplace of humanity.” How have things changed during your career? And we need East Africa or South Africa, where early hominin fomin have been found in caves, do you understand?
Early paleontologists did not believe that humans could come from Africa. There was a biased insistence that people must have come from Europe. The work of convincing the scientific community and the world otherwise was started by my parents-in-law and continued by my husband, me and my daughter Louise. As I went through my career, she became more and more accepted. Africa is definitely where it all began. The climate and vegetation were right. And for me, it’s most likely East Africa, because if you look at where nonhuman primates are distributed today, they’re concentrated around the tropics and the equator.
How we developed our tremendous brain power and ability to walk on two legs?
Evolution occurs due to changing habitats driven by a changing climate. Driven by a tendency to dry out, to a more open savannah, I suspect that our ancestors began to descend from the trees to the ground. They found that if they stood on two legs, they could reach food – such as fruit and berries in the bushes – better and could travel farther.
The big brains came later, after bipedalism and increased dexterity. Brains are expensive in terms of calories. To develop a big brain, you need to have a good food source. When our ancestors began to find a way to hunt and catch a lot of meat, they were able to develop larger brains.
You donated a kidney to Richard helped him lose both legs in a plane crash. Do you think that our ancestors formed such social ties?
I’m sure. We found a femur 1.6 million years old [thigh bone] it was very clearly broken and repaired, and it could only mean the person being cared for. Otherwise they would not be able to cope. The degree of social cohesion must have been significant.
Are you still digging and what would be your best discovery?
I’m still going to the field, but not so much. Louise and I have an amazing crew, so we don’t have to be there all the time. We work mainly on the western side of Lake Turkana, we visit 4-year-old sites that we worked on decades ago. The fossils weather all the time, so you can find a lot more. Finding the complete skeleton of every early hominin is my dream. We can learn much more than just a skull.
Are we still evolving?
I don’t think we’re still developing physically because we control our environment so much. And although there is climate change now – which will mean that we cannot live in the places we live in today – it is difficult to imagine that this will affect our physical evolution because of this control. However, our technology is developing fantastically. Our evolution is now technological rather than morphological.
• The Sludge of Time: My Search for the Past Throughout Life by Meave Leakey is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (£ 23.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may apply