Richard Leakey, Kenyan Fossil Hunter and Conservationist, Dies at 77
Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist and fossil hunter whose discoveries of ancient human skulls and skeletons helped cement Africa’s place as the cradle of humanity, died on Sunday in Kenya. He was 77.
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya announced Mr. Leakey’s death in a statement, but did not specify the cause of death. Mr. Leakey died at his home outside Nairobi, said Prof. Lawrence Martin, director of Stony Brook University’s Turkana Basin Institute, which Mr. Leakey founded.
Mr. Leakey’s parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, were towering figures in paleontology, but Mr. Leakey was determined to avoid his parents’ field. He found work as a safari guide, but he eventually succumbed to fossil fever.
He might have changed his mind on a 1967 flight, when he looked down over the rocky shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya and had a feeling the area could yield a trove of fossils.
The fossils that Mr. Leakey and his “Hominid Gang” found there would change the world’s understanding of human evolution.
One of his most celebrated finds came in 1984 when he helped unearth “Turkana Boy,” a 1.6-million-year-old skeleton of a young male Homo erectus. The other was a skull called “1470,” found in 1972, that extended the world’s knowledge of the Homo erectus species several million years deeper into the past.
“He was a mentor to dozens of Africans in diverse fields and had played a key role in shaping the world’s view on Africa’s place in the human evolution story,” WildlifeDirect, the organization he founded, said in a statement on Sunday.
He wasn’t just important for exploring new ground and finding fossils, said Prof. John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but also for “creating an entire scientific, interdisciplinary infrastructure that enabled discoveries” and established a new model for scientific research.
His discoveries landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1977. He starred in a 1981 BBC show, “The Making of Mankind,” which was also the title of one of his many books.
Mr. Leakey parlayed his fossil hunter fame into a political career. Among his roles were Kenya’s head of public service, the director of the National Museums of Kenya and the chairman of the board for the Kenya Wildlife Service, Mr. Kenyatta said in his statement.
“He had equally impactful careers in so many different areas,” Professor Martin said, adding that Mr. Leakey “has probably been responsible for producing close to half of the world’s evidence for human evolution.”
Mr. Leakey was also a passionate conservationist with a fiery personality. In 1989, he drew international attention when he took a stand against the ivory trade by helping to burn the country’s stockpile of 12 tons of ivory. The process was repeated in 2016.
His discoveries were almost as remarkable as his ability to evade death. He fractured his skull as a boy, almost died after receiving a kidney transplant from his brother Philip in 1979, lost both legs in a 1993 plane crash and was once treated for skin cancer.
Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born in Nairobi on Dec. 19, 1944, the second of Louis and Mary’s three sons. “I would never describe it as a close family,” he once said. Anthropology always took precedence over a conventional family life, he recalled.
Though he was determined not to be an anthropologist, the field found him anyway. Obviously heir to what has been called Leakey’s Luck, he found fossil after fossil as a child, including the jaw of an extinct pig, he said in an interview with Stony Brook University.
“I was angry to this day that they took the bone away from me because it was too important for a 4-year-old to be digging up,” he said.
After he decided to pursue fossil hunting, he first sought a degree in anthropology in London but ran out of money before starting and returned to Kenya to learn the subject firsthand. He had, of course, already had more experience in the field than most graduate anthropologists.
Mr. Leakey eventually found his way back into the classroom when he found fame as a fossil hunter and became a sought-after lecturer. His talks drew huge paying crowds of both eager students and established scholars.
He had never been to a university, he liked to say, except to lecture.
His survivors include his wife Meave, herself a renowned paleoanthropologist, and his daughters Louise and Samira, according to WildlifeDirect. He also has three grandchildren, Professor Martin said.
Mr. Leakey believed strongly in a message his father had written long ago, that the past was the “key to our future.” For him, paleoanthropology and conservation were “deeply entwined,” said Paige Madison, a paleoanthropology historian based in Copenhagen.
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Leakey dreamed of building a museum of humankind, to be called Ngaren. It would be situated in the Rift Valley of Kenya, the site of one of his most famous discoveries, the Turkana Boy.
“Ngaren is not just another museum, but a call to action,” Mr. Leakey said in a 2019 statement announcing its opening, scheduled for 2024. “As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long extinct species, many of which thrived far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species.”