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Meave Leakey Discusses Skull Find Suggesting New Human Ancestor

In Kenya, a team headed by Meave Leakey and supported by the National Geographic Society recently discovered the remains of a 3.5 million-year-old skull of what appears to be a completely new species of early human ancestor. In an interview aired on the television news show National Geographic Today, anchor Tom Foreman talks with Leakey about the discovery.

Tell me, in laymen's terms, why your discovery is so important?

Leakey: I think…for a long time people have expected to see diversity going back in time—further than we had seen before. And this is the first evidence that Australopithecus afarensis such as "Lucy," the skeleton that was found in Ethiopia, actually lived contemporaneously with another species. Previously, it had been one such line evolving from probably as far back as 6 million years until 2.5 million years.

Why do you think so many people have wanted to believe that man came from one ancestor? You feel the evidence suggests there would be more than one ancestor.

Leakey: I think historically it's partly human arrogance. It took a long time for humans to accept that we ever had a common ancestor with apes. Having accepted that, they still like to see us as a single lineage. But now I think more and more people are accepting that we had a past first like other mammals and other animals…as diverse, [with] many species, some becoming extinct, some living. But we're the one remaining out of this diverse past.

How does it complicate things that there aren't many, many, many specimens to choose from, but only a handful of specimens of ancient man or hominids?

Leakey: That's a problem. There are very, very few fossils, and the chance of something first of all being fossilized and then being found by somebody today, because it's been exposed, is very rare and remote. So we're seeing little windows into the past, and we're also seeing a fraction of what actually happened. So we have to be very careful when we interpret what we have that we're really looking as closely as we can for the truth.

Do you think there is a chance that other things will be found that will radically shake existing theories?

Leakey: I don't think "radically shake" the existing theories. I think the story fills out, and as you fill out the story, you have to make adjustments here and there. But I think the basic, basic theory of evolution is…not going to change. And I think we have evolved from a diverse past to one species living today, we have a common origin from Africa. I don't think that will change.

Your family has been so dedicated to this for so long. How much have the tools of your work changed? How much easier or complicated is it now to find these specimens, to analyze them? To know something about them?

Leakey: Well, the finding hasn't changed except that we can use [Global Positioning System] and get better fixes where we are. But the sort of crowding around the surface and looking and that long, slow process of finding something hasn't changed at all. The way you analyze what you find has changed enormously. We now have so many ways we can look at our specimens and so many ways we can interpret our specimens that we find we have to work with a large number of colleagues and scientists from all over, having different approaches, so that we build up a picture from a much more interdisciplinary team and therefore get a much better picture.

Do you think it's providing more answers or more questions by being able to do that?

Leakey: The more answers we have, the more questions we have, and the more you find, the more questions you have. So certainly, we have many more questions now than when it was a simple picture of one single lineage with just a few species. Now we have many questions.

You and your family have spent so much time doing this, it is such a passion for you. Why do you care about this so very much that you go through the hardship, the time in the field and all this work over all these years?

Leakey: I think it's the curiosity, really. One is basically really curious, and if you have questions you want answers. That's what makes the human race what we are. If you know there's a way to find an answer, you go out and find it. You have to keep doing that.

Is this to you the elemental question of man, where we came from?

Leakey: To me it's something I find enormously curious, and I just really want to know the answer. So, yes, I think I want to know. I'm never going to know all the answers, but at least I can add a little bit of information.

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