Anthropologist Louise Leakey Carries "Family Banner"

Ryan Mitchell
National Geographic News
November 4, 2003
Asked recently about her role in continuing her famous family's tradition of groundbreaking research in paleoanthropology, Louise Leakey's answer was simple enough: "'Big shoes to wear' is another way of putting it."

Leakey has no intention of letting that tradition end. In fact, she has ambitious plans. She is currently organizing the Turkana Basin Research Initiative, a five-year study for which National Geographic is helping to secure funding. A continuous presence at Lake Turkana in Kenya, where her family has worked for decades, will allow scientists to conduct uninterrupted, intensive fieldwork that may help answer some of the more intriguing questions about human origins.

Still in her early 30s, Louise has already hammered out her space in the field of paleoanthropology. Together with her mother, Meave (both are National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence whose ongoing paleontology research is supported by a grant from the Society's Committee for Research and Exploration), she unearthed the 3.5-million-year old fossil skull of what is considered to be a new addition to the hominid family tree—Kenyanthropus platyops. (See sidebar.)

National Geographic News recently spoke with Louise about her family legacy and planned research project during a recent visit to the United States.

Do you find the expectations placed on you as a Leakey to be intimidating?

To a certain extent, I've been handed the family banner. But there are different roads to take in doing what you have to do in this field. I think, really, my role is more to work with a whole team of people—not just on my own in carrying this, but a whole team of Kenyans—and actually try to take the science forward so that it's there for the next generation, in terms of establishing long-term research projects and finding the funding to give [other Kenyans] the opportunity to really carry this forward and on from here.

What are your particular research interests?

[They] are really concentrating on the east side of Lake Turkana, which has a whole range of sediments. Basically, Turkana Basin sediments date from seven million years through to [700,000 years ago]. The east side of Lake Turkana has a concentration of sediments that are two million years through to [700,000] years. That's a very interesting time in terms of the story of human evolution—in terms of actually resolving some of the major questions. We'll hope to hit on those, but concentrating also on what the fossil fauna—the mammals—are doing at that time as well.

Why do you believe there are fossils to be found there?

Well there's about 1,200 square kilometers [463 square miles] of fossil exposure that need to be revisited because 25 years have passed since they were last looked in. We started working there in the year 2000 and came up with seven hominid specimens—not all of them were as impressive as some of the ones that we know today. But we did recover a very complete cranium of what actually happens to be the smallest known Homo erectus from east Africa. Last year, we recovered another skull—another cranium that was also incredibly complete… So there are plenty of fossils that are still coming out of the ground. Of any site in the world, to answer the questions from that timeframe, that area is undoubtedly the best place to go and explore.

What is the specific focus of your work on the Turkana Basin Research Initiative?

There are several research questions that we really want to approach. One of them is relating to the sudden emergence of Homo erectus , or our genus Homo, around about two million years ago. Where does it suddenly appear from? Does that tie into Homo habilis. Then the other question is, "What is Homo habilis ?" because there's still a lot of disagreement or controversy surrounding Homo habilis.

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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