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Louise Leakey

Above, a photo of Turkana taken from a single engine plane shows the Koobi Fora spit and Lake Turkana alongside a time map. Photo from Bob Raynolds

By Daniel Dunaief

In a wide-ranging interview, Louise Leakey, Director of Public Education and Outreach for the Turkana Basin Institute and a Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University shared her thoughts on numerous topics in the field of paleontology.

Louise Leakey at the Richard Leakey Memorial Conference on June 5. Photo by John Griffin/SBU

Leakey, who earned her PhD at the University College London, suggested that the process of finding fossils hasn’t changed that much, although other options beyond scouring a landscape for fragments of the world’s former occupants may be forthcoming.

“It may very well change if we can implement machine learning with high resolution imagery, using drones,” she said. “That’s one of the things we’re looking at the moment.”

What’s really changed, however, is the accuracy field scientists have in marking where, and, importantly, when new discoveries originated, she said.

Geologists like Bob Raynolds, Research Associate at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, have created time maps that indicate the approximate age of sediments around a fossil in some select areas of the Turkana Basin.

These maps “can be uploaded onto an iPad app for use in the field that shows you in real time where you are on the geological map,” Leakey explained. “This is a game changer for field work in the basin.”

A time map created by Bob Raynolds in collaboration with Geologic Data Systems, a Littleton, Colorado company.

The maps represent the work of many people, Raynolds explained.  Originally, teams of Master’s students used air photographs, tracing paper and ink to make a map. These students spent many weeks walking systematically on the ground and tracing the patterns on the photos.

The rugged and isolated nature of the ground in Northern Kenya makes the work done on foot difficult, Raynolds explained.

The original maps, which were made in the 1970’s, took months to make and were presented as paper copies in unpublished Master’s theses. After numerous enhancements, Raynolds, working with companies including Geologic Data Systems in Littleton, Colorado, created time maps.

The internal GPS on an iPhone enables a blue dot to indicate a person’s location on the map.

“I have worked on the maps to make a new set of derived products that are maps of the age of the rocks,” said Raynolds who created these time maps earlier this year. “The resolution of the time maps is 100,000 years” which is an “astonishingly detailed resolution for us who are accustomed to million year packages of time.”

The maps cover the entire Turkana Basin at various scales, Raynolds added.

More broadly, Bernard Wood, University Professor of Human Origins in the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleontology at George Washington University and the first speaker at a recent Stony Brook University conference to honor Richard Leakey, explained that dating fossils has become increasingly accurate.

The first dates of fossils in the KBS Tuff, which is an ash layer in the Koobi Fora Formation east of Lake Turkana, was estimated within 260,000 years of a specific date. Using improved methods, a study published this year has reduced that range to 600 years.

Publishing pace

In the meantime, the pace of publishing has slowed considerably.

“There’s so much more material” that can serve as a frame of reference for new discoveries, Leakey said. “The rate of publication is frustratingly slow for some of these specimens.” This contrasts dramatically with the experience of Leakey’s father Richard.

When the elder Leakey submitted his letters or paper to the prestigious journal Nature, the late editor John Maddox never sent them out for review. “[Maddox] explained that he couldn’t see the point, because they concerned fossils so recently discovered” that few had seen them, Wood explained in his presentation.

Louise Leakey also differed from Richard in earning her bachelor’s degree and PhD, while her father dropped out of high school and never received any additional formal education.

Wood suggested that, next to marrying Meave, the elder Leakey described leaving school as one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

For his daughter, though, Leakey “encouraged me to go and do that,” Louise Leakey said. The education helped “in terms of being able to be [principal investigator] on grant applications,” she said.

Leakey suggested it was a “real privilege to be able to spend time” earning her PhD. She also found that the educational experience gave her the opportunity to “stand on my own two feet” in her research.

Like her father, Louise Leakey is concerned about conservation and declining biodiversity. When she was younger, she saw areas that were teeming with wildlife. On a recent three-hour drive, she only saw a golden jackal and a dik-dik, which is a type of small antelope, compared with the much wider variety of creatures she would have seen decades ago, such as Grévy’s zebra, Burchell zebra, lesser kudu, ostriches, warthogs, topi, gerenuk, oryx and, possibly lions and cheetah. 

She attributes this decline to hunting as some have exterminated these species as result of competition for grazing areas and hunting the animals for meat. Record droughts are also threatening their survival.

Leakey is working with the next generation to get “kids to care about nature” so they can “think about what they’re doing and the real impact it has.”

In addition to preserving biodiversity, Leakey remains passionate about studying the past, which could help the current and future generations tackle climate change. “We might be able to learn lessons” from those who survived during such challenging conditions, she said.

Leakey is able to maintain her involvement and commitment to numerous efforts by working with talented collaborators.

“If you don’t have teams to really hold it together, you can’t do any of it,” she said.

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.