Leakeys Join Geographic's Explorers-in-

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2002
Mother and daughter paleontologists Meave and Louise Leakey have been named the National Geographic Society's newest explorers-in-residence. The announcement deepens a 43-year relationship between the National Geographic Society and the Leakey family, a dynasty of pioneering fossil hunters.

"It's a very great privilege," Meave Leakey told National Geographic News. "It makes sense in light of the long, long relationship between the Leakeys and National Geographic."

Throughout her career, Meave Leakey has delved into the mysteries of human origins. Expeditions under her leadership have made several important discoveries about early human ancestors and other ancient mammals.

Last year, on the western shore of Kenya's Lake Turkana, a Leakey-led team unearthed a 3.5-million-year-old fossil skull and partial jaw that may belong to a previously unknown branch of early humans. The fossil remains were named Kenyanthropus platyops, because platyops means "flat face." The facial shape of the remains clearly differentiates them from Australopithicus afarensis, the species of hominin represented by the famous fossil "Lucy."

Meave Leakey's work at Kanapoi, Kenya, in 1994 uncovered some of the earliest hominids ever discovered, dated at more than four million years old. Meave and Richard Leakey were married in 1970 after they met and worked together on a paleontological expedition to the eastern shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana that Meave had joined the year before.

For Meave, being initiated into the Leakey family and its paleontological tradition meant meeting some lofty expectations. "It's quite a challenge," she said. "I'm not born a Leakey, so for me it's an enormous challenge to keep up with their standards. The work we take on is so stimulating in its own right, but that's an additional concern."

Louise Leakey was only six weeks old when she first joined her parents at the family research camp in the Turkana Basin. She spent much of her youth on field expeditions, inheriting the family's passion for paleontology.

Louise now represents the next generation of Leakeys, committed to carrying on the fossil research begun by Louis Leakey in 1924.

"I'm working with Louise," Meave told National Geographic News. "She's really moving into the driver's seat, and I'm stepping back a bit."

Louise is reestablishing the family's research presence at a site where they have not been for a quarter-century, with plans to set up camp on the east side of Lake Turkana, where her parents met.

Meave Leakey thinks the area is fertile for future discoveries.

"We've moved to the east side of the lake for the first time in 25 years," she said. "Lots of fossils have eroded out. We find them by wandering over the surface and looking carefully. So, having not been there in 25 years, a lot of new fossils have appeared on the surface."

The focus of her team's investigations will be the time interval between one and 2.5 million years ago. "That is really the time of the emergence of Homo, and in particular the emergence of Homo erectus, the first human ancestor to move outside of Africa."

Explorers-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society are highly accomplished scientists, explorers, and scholars who contribute to the Society's mission through research, conservation initiatives, and the compelling stories that are the hallmark of the National Geographic Society.

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