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.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.