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“Africa: The Human Cradle: An International Conference Paying Tribute to Richard E. Leakey”

Speakers at the “Africa: The Human Cradle" International Conference paying Tribute to Richard E. Leakey” on June 5. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Combative, loyal, determined, consequential, energetic and courageous. These are just a few of the many traits paleoanthropologists and others shared to describe the late Richard Leakey at the “Africa: The Human Cradle” memorial conference at Stony Brook University this week.

The founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, Leakey, who partnered with SBU and received 34 grants from National Geographic over the course of his decades in science, was a part of nearly every presentation and discussion on the first day of the week-long event which closes tomorrow, June 9.

From left, Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis with Louise Leakey on June 5. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

Held at the Charles B. Wang Center on the main campus, the conference brought together luminaries in the field who interlaced stories about their science in Africa with anecdotes — many of them humorous — about Leakey. Marilyn and Jim Simons, whose Simons Foundation announced last week that it was donating $500 million to the university, attended the entire slate of speakers on the first day.

Leakey was “one of the most important paleoanthropologists of our time,” Maurie McInnis, President of Stony Brook, said in opening remarks. His impact “can be felt across our campus and across the world.”

In an interview, former Stony Brook President Shirley Kenney, who helped bring Leakey to the university, suggested that he “put us into the elite of that whole research field.”

Leakey stubbornly entered his parents Mary and Louis’s chosen fields when he dropped out of high school, eager to make discoveries on his own and to contribute to his native Kenya.

In 1968, during a meeting at the National Geographic headquarters, Leakey “lobbied the committee to divert funding from his father’s money” to his own research, Jill Tiefenthaler, National Geographic CEO, said during her presentation.

‘Sitting on a knife edge’

Like Leakey, however, these scientists looked deep into the past to understand the lives of early humans, our distant ancestors and other organisms while looking for lessons that might help with the present and the future.

Dino Martins, Chief Executive Officer of the Turkana Basin Institute and Lecturer in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, suggested that Leakey was driven by a sense of “childlike wonder” and a need to know “where we are, where we’re coming from and where we’re going.”

Leakey suggested that the extremely hot climate in Kenya was a potential model to understand how ancestral humans survived in hotter conditions, which are becoming increasingly prevalent amid global warming.

“There are many parallels in the past” in terms of extreme environments, Louise Leakey, director of public education and outreach for the Turkana Basin Institute and Richard and Meave Leakey’s daughter, said in an interview. “We’re sitting on this knife edge of really dramatic change now.” 

In addition to encouraging science in Africa, Leakey also believed in engaging with students and researchers from a range of backgrounds and experiences. He wanted to ensure that people from every continent had an opportunity to join the ranks of scientists.

When presenting his research on Homo naledi, an extinct human with a brain a third the size of modern humans from South Africa who created burial sites and left behind etchings on a cave wall, Lee Berger, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, explained that he wished Leakey “had seen this and I think he would have been really angry with me.”

Words from a devoted daughter

In the final presentation of the first day, Louise Leakey shared memories of her upbringing and her father.

Among many pictures of her father and his discoveries over the years, Louise shared one in which she highlighted a pipe in the corner of the photo.  She believed her father “rarely smoked it” but liked to pose with it in photos.

Louise Leakey speaks at the memorial conference for her father on June 5. Photo by John Griffin/Stony Brook University

Louise Leakey recalled how one of her father’s partners, Kamoya Kimeu, proved a valuable partner in the search for fossils. When Kimeu died soon after Richard Leakey, Kimeu’s daughter Jennifer reached out to Louise to raise money for his funeral.

Louise Leakey has since learned that Jennifer never saw her father searching for fossils in the field. Rather, she learned all about his exploits when her mother read his letters each night to her before she went to bed.

A second generation of the two families is working together, as Jennifer has joined Louise in some of her fossil hunting work. The two daughters are also creating a comic strip, in many languages, that depicts the two of them hunting for fossils.

Leakey believes Jennifer Kimeu will serve as an inspiration to other Kenyans.

On the east side of Lake Turkana, Leakey and her team recently discovered the new head of a fossil. Before his death, her father said it was “time you found new skull.” Richard Leakey was right.

Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

From June 5 to 9, Stony Brook University will host a conference titled “Africa: The Human Cradle: An International Conference Paying Tribute to Richard E. Leakey” at the Charles B. Wang Center, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook.

The University, which has 15 speakers among the 40 scientists delivering lectures, will celebrate the achievements of famed and late scientist and conservationist Richard Leakey and will bring together researchers from all over the world to celebrate the research in Africa that has revealed important information about early human history.

Stony Brook will host the conference in connection with the Turkana Basin Institute, which Leakey founded and is located in his native Kenya. The National Geographic Society, which provided financial support for Leakey’s seminal research for decades, is serving as a partner for the gathering.

Scientists from seven countries will discuss the latest developments in fossil research, archaeological and paleoecological records, as well as advances in geology, geochronology and genomic research.

Leakey inspired scores of scientists and made important discoveries that helped highlight Kenya’s central role in the narrative of human evolution. He died in early January 2022 at the age of 77.

Lawrence Martin, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook and Director of the Turkana Basin Institute, organized the meeting, along with Professor Frederick Grine. Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis and Jill Tiefenthaler, CEO of the National Geographic Society will provide opening remarks.

Martin, who called Leakey a “close friend” and a “mentor,” said the idea for the conference started in the days after Leakey’s death. The Stony Brook president “wanted Stony Brook to be the place that celebrates Richard Leakey as a scientist” and to recognize his “impact on the world.”

Organizers for the conference, which involved nine months of planning, wanted to focus on the “human story in Africa as it’s emerged” since Leakey’s ground breaking research, Martin explained. He expects the conference will involve an emotional outpouring, reflecting the personal and scientific impact Leakey had on so many other researchers and anticipates the meeting will be “state of the art” and will “pull things together in a way that’s never been done before.”

Leakey, who made his first major hominin discovery in 1964 at Lake Natron in Tanzania, worked with Stony Brook University for 20 years. SBU will share a National Geographic video tribute to Leakey on June 5 that will include pictures of his parents Louis and Mary Leakey, who made important fossil discoveries and were involved in numerous important scientific projects, through the last few years of Leakey’s life. 

Scientific talks

Martin suggested that the multi-disciplinary nature of the power-packed line up reflected Richard Leakey’s scientific views and bigger picture understanding of discoveries across a range of fields.

Leakey didn’t see geology, biology, paleobiology and other fields as separate, Martin explained. He saw all those disciplines as different sources of how humans adapted and evolved, which reflects the “integrated view” the conference is “looking to encourage.”

Richard Leakey examines fossils at the Turkana Basin Institute

Bernard Wood, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University, joined Leakey on his first expedition to Lake Turkana. Wood will deliver the first talk, on June 5 at 2:15 p.m. He will focus on how Leakey inspired many scientists from a range of disciplines, with his intellectual curiosity leading to numerous research projects.

Lee Berger, explorer and scientist with the National Geographic Society, will deliver a talk on June 5 at 3:50 pm that will discuss recent discoveries of human origins. Martin said Berger’s talk would be “global news” and will likely be “covered all over the world.”

The first day will conclude with a free public lecture at 5 p.m. in the Staller Center’s Recital Hall by Richard Leakey’s daughter Louise, who will provide an overview of the discoveries and expeditions of the Koobi Fora Research Project in the Turkana Basin.

While Louise Leakey’s talk is free, attendees need to pre-register. The cost to attend the entire conference is $100.

Carrie Mongle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, will be giving a talk on June 7 at 1:15 pm. She plans to attend all of the talks, as she sees this as an “incredible opportunity to see some of the world’s top paleoanthropologists come together and present the latest research in the field.”

In her lecture, Mongle will present new data related to the reconstruction of the hominin family tree.

“One of Richard’s scientific legacies is the extraordinary number of hominin fossils he was able to add to our collective understanding of human evolution,” she said. “Phylogenetic inference is a critical step in figuring out how all of these fossils come together to form the human family tree.”

On June 6 at 2:15 p.m., SBU Assistant Professor Marine Frouin will give a talk about the contribution of luminescence dating to the chronology of Pleistocene deposits in Turkana. Frouin uses luminescence dating techniques to study human evolution.

Turkana Basin Institute: Richard Leakey
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On June 7 at 9 a.m., Stony Brook Associate Professor Sonia Harmand, who worked closely in her career with Leakey and whose family developed a close relationship with the late researcher and conservationist, will describe research in the early Stone Age. Harmand and Directrice de Recherche Emerite at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) Hélène Roche will discuss evidence in light of biological and environmental changes in East Africa and will present future research directions.

Also on June 7at 2:40 p.m., Jason E. Lewis, lecturer at Stony Brook, will discuss the implications of a new Early Pliocene hominin mandible from Ileret, Kenya on the origins of Australopithecus.

Stony Brook Associate Professor Krishna Veeramah, will conclude the talks on June 7 at 4:10 p.m. with a discussion of how the analysis of modern and ancient DNA has helped understand African prehistory.

Martin, who will wrap up the talks on June 9 at 12:20 p.m., said he thinks Leakey would appreciate what people say and how much impact he had on the field.

“He was quite a self-effacing person,” Martin said. “He wouldn’t have liked too much fuss about him.” He would, however, have appreciated that people recognized that he made “significant contributions in the area of the human evolutionary story,” among so many others fields.

For a full schedule of events and lectures, visit www.stonybrook.edu/richard-leakey/