Anthropologist Louise Leakey Carries "Family Banner"

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In addition, there's the…robust Australopithecines, Australopithecus boisei—which suddenly goes extinct at about 1.2 million years. Why did that happen? Were there other extinctions at that same time that you can pick up in some of the other fossil mammal lineages at that time, too?

Your dissertation research focused on the role of climate in faunal evolution. Did climate play a role in the evolution of humans and their dispersal from Africa?

I think it must have played an important role, for sure. There must have been something that changed to enable Homo erectus to actually walk out of Africa 1.8 million years ago. I think 1.8 million is a very interesting time. Certainly, evidence in my investigations for my Ph.D. showed an opening up of habitat and a drying affect at that time in the Turkana basin and to the north. So there are these issues that could possibly have influenced what our own genus was actually doing. Those are some of the issues that hopefully we can throw more light on from working the deposits on the east side of Turkana in years to come.

The classification of Kenyanthropus platyops and its distinction from Australopithecus is based on facial features—the shape of the face. Is there still some uncertainty about that classification?

The interesting thing about the Kenyanthropus platyops skull is that it's very flat in its facial features.

A great sample of Australopithecus afarensis comes from Ethiopia as we all know—Lucy being one of them. We hadn't found evidence of afarensis in Kenya , say from the Turkana basin. So we went specifically to the west side, to deposits at the same age—3.5 million years—to see what we could find there. Platyops is the most complete of these specimens that we recovered from there, but we do have other material, a whole range of isolated teeth, a temporomandibular joint (the place where mandible joins the skull near the ear bone). Several of these lead us to believe that is a different species—certainly a different species to afarensis. We also felt it was so different, as to give it its own genus—a new genus. That remains to be decided. Once we find more material, we'll be able to say that with more conviction.

The biggest problem with the find is that it was very distorted. It was expanded in clay. So it has received some criticism from some of the specialists in the field, saying it's too distorted to be able to convincingly say it's something different to afarensis. … Ideally, if we could find another complete skull or more material that was less distorted, then I think it would actually lay those arguments to rest.

Why do you believe such work important?

If you look at the state of the world today and the conflicts and the ethnic divisions, we've got to remember that we all came from a common ancestor. That common ancestor was African. Africa is a very neglected part of the world. I think we all need to remember where we came [from]. It is exciting to know about our past and how that came to be. That's really why I work in the field I work in. It's also our heritage, our global heritage. Working towards recovering it and also protecting it for the future is a very worthwhile cause.

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