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The Legacy of Louis Leakey

The Leakey family is synonymous with the search for the origins of humankind. The late Louis Leakey, born 100 years ago today, started a dynasty of fossil hunters who still explore the sediments of East Africa. For National Geographic Radio Expeditions, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the legacy of the Leakey family patriarch.

Louis Leakey was born in Kenya and educated in England. He raised eyebrows among British academics in the late 1920s by insisting that humans evolved in Africa -- contradicting the conventional wisdom that they emerged from Asia or Europe.

Interviews with Richard and Louise Leakey

To prove it, he went to the Olduvai Gorge in southern Tanzania. There, in 1959, Louis and his wife Mary found human bones dating back almost 2 million years. A year later, they discovered Homo habilis, or "handy man." It was by far the earliest known human ancestor, and Louis Leakey believed it to be the first true toolmaker.

"Olduvai Gorge gives us one of the most remarkable stories of the past -- the last chapter of the Earth's history, starting at the present day, right away back 2 million years," Louis Leakey told a National Geographic Society film crew on a visit to the site in 1966.

Richard Leakey, the son of Louis and Mary, explains the excitement that surrounded the find: "I think it was the association of the dates and the implements that fired public imagination. Prior to that there had been no age for these creatures."

As Richard Leakey adopted the family profession, his father left it. Louis grew interested in the great apes, and launched the careers of primatologists such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. He wrote about African culture. By the time Louis died in 1972, his wife Mary and his son were doing the digging.

Mary found fossil footprints three-and-a-half-million years old. Richard found the Turkana boy, the most complete skeleton of an early human. The human family tree was redrawn. "There was no single trunk rising from apes to modern humans, but a thicket of branches, each one an experiment in evolution," Joyce reports.

Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley, who worked in Africa with the Leakeys, says Louis will always be "larger than life in this field... I think he would be delighted if he were alive today to see how this has led to sort of an avalanche of new data on human origins in this part of the world he loved so much."

Louis' son Richard continued to popularize human evolution in numerous books. But by the end of the 1980s, he grew weary of the hustle for money, as well as the criticism that he never earned a proper academic degree. So he went on to became a conservationist and ran the Kenya Wildlife Service. His wife Meave discovered important new fossils, but no Leakey heir had stepped forward. Richard's daughter Louise was studying in England, and hesitant about taking up the family trade. But when her father lost both legs in a plane crash, Louise returned to Kenya to take over the running of a Leakey expedition.

A decade later, she's still running expeditions with her mother. That doesn't surprise Richard. "I see a lot of Louis in Louise, a lot of what's referred to in the family as the Leakey genes in her. She's vivacious, outgoing. She's very courageous, she's brave but she's got a very good mind."

Louise says her grandfather "would be probably surprised to know I was doing this work today, and I think he'd be happy to know that I was trying to make sure that this continues into the future, not necessarily being held by a Leakey, but for Kenyans and for East Africans."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce
Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.