Fossil Hunters and Climber Among Winning Explorers

Meet this year's winners of the Hubbard, Buffett, Explorer of the Year, and Adventurer of the Year awards.

View Images

Paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey is among the explorers recognized this week, for her pioneering work on human origins.

This story was updated at 12:30 pm ET June 17 with info from the awards ceremony.

The National Geographic Society honored six intrepid explorers this week, including two Hubbard Medal winners, an Explorer of the Year, Adventurer of the Year, and two Buffett Award winners. The awards were presented at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., over the course of the nonprofit society's event-filled Explorers Week (meet the newest explorers).

The Hubbard Medal, named for the first president of the National Geographic Society, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, is often called National Geographic’s highest honor. It is given for lifetime achievement in the fields of research, discovery, and exploration. (Find out more about our explorers and Explorers Week here.)

Winning this year is Meave Leakey, a paleoanthropologist and Nat Geo explorer-in-residence who currently oversees research in the Turkana Basin in Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

On a National Geographic-sponsored expedition in 1999, she discovered the “Flat-Faced Man of Kenya,” a skull and partial jaw of a 3.5-million-year-old man belonging to a previously undiscovered branch of hominid. Leakey and her team have discovered several important remains, including those of Australopithecus anamensis, a four-million-year-old hominid that demonstrated that bipedalism had evolved half a million years earlier than previously thought.

View Images

Charles Nainoa Thompson has helped revive the Polynesian art of wayfinding.

“You cannot do these things on your own,” said Leakey during the awards ceremony. “But you have this amazing support system of scientists."

Charles Nainoa Thompson, another Hubbard Medal winner this week, has dedicated his life to teaching native Hawaiians the ancient art of wayfinding, to restore and preserve cultural heritage and pride. Wayfinding is the art of using swells, stars, and natural elements to navigate the oceans, without compasses or other instruments.

“Everything you need to navigate is already out there, is in nature,” Thompson said during a panel after the award ceremony. “The question is, can you see it?”

Thompson was the first native Hawaiian to practice the art since the 14th century. In 1980, he used this technique to sail solo on a voyaging canoe 2,500 nautical miles (about 4,000 kilometers) from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Another award given this week was the National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award, presented by Rolex. The awardee is someone who is dedicated to making scientific discoveries and sharing them with the world. Winner Lee Berger, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, leads paleontological expeditions, including one that led to Africa’s largest fossil hominid discovery, in 2013.

View Images

Lee Berger has been recognized for his work studying ancient human ancestors in South Africa.

“This is a team effort,” said Berger, acknowledging the contributions of his expedition team. “It’s a shame that the award has to go to an individual.”

A new fossil found on that dig in a South African cave, Homo naledi, has significant implications for our understanding of human origins, diversity, and behavior.

National Geographic also honored 2016’s Adventurer of the Year, an annual award given to someone who is dedicated to exploration, conservation, adventure sports, or humanitarianism. This year, the winner was Everest mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita.

View Images

Mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita has inspired a generation of climbers.

In addition to scaling many of the highest mountains in the world, Pasang Lhamu is dedicated to humanitarian relief efforts in Nepal. After a devastating earthquake, she raised money to buy and distribute supplies, including more than 11,000 blankets.

“It was very hard for us,” Akita said during her acceptance speech. “But we all stood up together.”

Watch: Meet National Geographic's newest group of explorers, who work across a variety of exciting disciplines.

She also advocates for girls in disadvantaged Nepalese communities.

The National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation was established by NGS and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 2002. It includes a $25,000 grant to help the awardees continue their efforts.

One of this year's Buffett Awards went to Makala Jasper, who started the Tanzanian nonprofit Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative.

The focus of MCDI is community-based forest management, to help local people secure rights to forest land and to sell timber in a way that is not overly damaging to the forest. Communities have used the profit from their timber to build schools and a marketplace, to support expectant mothers, to buy school uniforms, and to provide health insurance to the elderly.

Victor Zambrano, a native of the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon, was given a Buffett Award this week in recognition of his efforts to protect the forest in that region. He started by single-handedly planting more than 19,000 trees, and since then he has created several organizations for helping people maintain sound agricultural practices.

Zambrano created the Alliance to Protect the Tambopata National Reserve, bringing together indigenous people, agrarian societies, and conservation groups, to protect the area from habitat destruction by illegal gold mining.

Follow Kristin Hugo on Tumblr.

Comment on This Story