Meave and Louise Leakey
Photograph by Mike Hettwer
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett
Paleontologists and mother-daughter team Meave and Louise Leakey have made significant contributions to our understanding of human origins, continuing the legacy begun in 1931 by Louis S. B. Leakey with his discoveries of ancient fossils in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. Over the years the Leakey family members—Louis, Mary, Richard, Meave, and Louise—have received numerous National Geographic research grants.
After completing her first degree at the University of North Wales, Meave came to Kenya to work for Dr. Louis Leakey at his primate research center near Nairobi. At the same time she collected data for her doctoral dissertation, which she completed in 1968.
In 1969, at the invitation of Richard Leakey, Meave joined a field expedition to the paleontological site of Koobi Fora on the eastern shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana. This launched her long-term work on the Turkana Basin research project. Meave has worked at the National Museums of Kenya since 1969 and was head of the division of paleontology from 1982 to 2001. In 1989 she became coordinator of the museums' field research in the Turkana Basin. Her work at nearby Kanapoi in 1994 yielded some of the earliest hominids known, dated at more than four million years.
Louise Leakey was only six weeks old when she joined her parents at the family research camp in the Turkana Basin. She spent much of her youth on field expeditions, developing a passion for paleontology. Louise went on to receive a B.S. in geology and biology at the University of Bristol, and a Ph.D. at University College, London.
The Leakeys currently run a research station at Lake Turkana to facilitate data collection and the study of new specimens. Their ongoing annual expeditions to this area continue to recover important hominid and faunal remains. In 1999, on a National Geographic-sponsored expedition to the Turkana Basin, Meave and Louise uncovered a 3.5-million-year-old skull and partial jaw believed to belong to a new branch of early human named Kenyanthropus platyops. This remarkable discovery, announced in the journal Nature, has profound implications in understanding the origins of mankind.
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A pair of fossils recently discovered in Kenya is challenging the straight-line story of human evolution. Traditional evolutionary theories of the genus Homo suggest a successive progression: Homo habilis gave rise to Homo erectus, which then begat modern humans, Homo sapiens.
What are the Leakeys and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
If you have differences of opinion it stimulates others to do more research and come up with an answer in the end. It's not a bad thing at all. It's a very good thing.
Three early human species lived side-by-side in the same region of Western Africa.
Adding understanding to human origins, Leakey continues uncovering fossils of ancient ancestors in East Africa.
View photos from years of Leakey family research and discoveries.
Listen to Meave Leakey
Here an interview with Leakey on National Geographic Weekend.
00:09:00 Meave Leakey
Meave Leakey held onto the skull, even though she didn't know exactly how it fit. The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence found the two million year old cranium near Kenya's Lake Turkana in 1972. If the skull wasn't an "aberrant specimen," she knew that it didn't belong to a member of homo erectus or homo habilis, who lived in the same area at that time. But Leakey finally found other specimen like that of skull 1470. She tells Boyd that the species doesn't necessarily represent a human forbear, but is certainly a related species.
00:06:45 Meave Leakey
00:09:00 John Heminway
Richard Leakey lives in the presence of man's early ancestors. John Heminway, who directed and produced the documentary Bones of Turkana which premiered at the recent Environmental Film Fest, tells Boyd about Leakey's drive to discover the roots of humanity. He tells Boyd about his time in Kenya with the Leakey family and highlights all they have accomplished over the last 40 years.
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