A Conversation with Meave Leakey
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University, and Explorer In Residence, National Geographic Society
Meave Leakey obtained her B.S. and Ph.D. from the University of North Wales. First interested in following a career in marine zoology, Meave initially undertook a joint-honors in Zoology and Marine Zoology. However, her career would soon take another path. In 1965, while studying for her Ph.D., she took a position at the Tigoni Primate Research Centre, a small facility under the auspices of Louis Leakey and located just outside of Nairobi. In 1968, she finished her Ph.D. and a year later was invited by Richard Leakey to join his field expedition investigating the newly discovered palaeontological site at Koobi Fora on the eastern shore of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. This would mark the beginning of her long-term involvement with the highly successful Turkana Basin Koobi Fora Research Project.
In 1970, Meave and Richard Leakey were married. They have two children: Louise, born in 1972, and Samira, born in 1974. In addition to her field work at Turkana, Meave’s research has focused on the evolution of East African fossil mammals and mammalian faunas as documented in the Turkana Basin. Her special interests include monkeys, apes and hominids. The richly fossiliferous Turkana Basin sites cover a time interval dating from 27 Ma until the recent past.
In 1989, Richard Leakey left his job as Director of the National Museum to take over management of Kenya’s wildlife, and Meave became the coordinator of the palaeontological field research in the Turkana Basin. She initially focused her field research at Turkana on finding evidence of the very earliest human ancestors, concentrating on sites between eight and four million-years-old. Currently the field project, which is co-directed by Meave and her daughter Louise, is searching for clues about the origins of our own genus Homo and the emergence of Homo erectus, the first human ancestor to move out of Africa.
In 1994, remains of some of the earliest hominids known were discovered at Kanapoi, a 4.1 Ma site to the south west of the present lake. Not only do these finds represent a new species — Australopithecus anamensis, (a likely ancestor to Australopithecus afarensis, the earliest hominid species previously recognized), but these finds also provide the earliest secure evidence of bipedality.
In 1999, Dr. Leakey’s research team found a 3.5 million-year-old skull and partial jaw said to belong to a new branch of our early human family. Dr. Leakey named the new genusKenyanthropus platyops, or flat-faced man of Kenya. This amazing discovery, announced in the journal Nature, has profound implications in understanding the origins of mankind. In its front page story on March 22, 2001, the New York Times wrote that the discovery “threatens to overturn the prevailing view that a single line of descent stretched through the early stages of human ancestry.”
Meave Leakey has worked at the National Museums of Kenya since 1969. She is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Paleontology.
Who Owns the Bones? Pondering the Ethical Issues Surrounding the Recovery and Display of Ancient Human Remains
The discovery, recovery and study of the fossilized remains of our ancestors takes time, money and dedication. It involves the expertise of scientists from many disciplines who often work for long stretches of time in remote and difficult parts of the world. These fossils are primarily research objects – without the research they would be meaningless. Should they be allowed to travel overseas for display or should they be kept exclusively for study in the safety of museum vaults? Who should make these decisions? Who owns the bones?
April 3, 2008
The Nittany Lion Inn, Ballroom C
A Conversation with Meave Leakey
WPSU presents "A Conversation with Meave Leakey" as part of the Common Ground Lobby Talks series. Common Ground Lobby Talks bring together the academy, the community, and the power of public media in the pursuit of increasing public discourse and providing a public forum for nuanced discussion. Common Ground Lobby Talks are a production of WPSU in partnership with the Public Service Media Study Group.
To view this Lobby Talk, please go to: http://wpsu.org/tv/episodes/lobbytalk