Fossil hunter Richard Leakey who showed humans evolved in Africa dies at 77 | Fossils
Renowned Kenyan environmentalist and fossil hunter Richard Leakey, whose groundbreaking findings helped prove that humanity evolved in Africa, has died at the age of 77.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced Leakey’s death with “deep sorrow”.
The famous paleoanthropologist remained energetic until he was 70, despite episodes of skin cancer and kidney and liver disease.
Assignment on Twitter, The Leakey Foundation wrote of his “deep sorrow” at his death, adding: “He was a visionary whose great contributions to human origins and to the conservation of wildlife will never be forgotten.”
Leakey was born in Nairobi on December 19, 1944 – and it was perhaps inevitable that he would become a fossil hunter given that his parents were Louis and Mary Leakey, perhaps the world’s most famous discoverers of ancestral hominids. .
Although Leakey first tried his hand at guiding safari, at the age of 23 – and without any formal archaeological training – he won a research grant to dig on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. .
During the 1970s he led expeditions that shed new light on the scientific understanding of human evolution, with the discovery of the skulls of Homo habilis (1.9 million years old) in 1972 and of Homo erectus (1.6 million years old) in 1975.
He made the cover of Time magazine posing with a model of Homo habilis, under the title How Man Became Man.
But it was in 1981, when he directed the BBC’s seven-part television series The Making of Mankind, that he gained greater fame.
A few years later, in 1984, he would benefit from his most famous fossil discovery: the discovery of an almost complete skeleton of Homo erectus during one of his excavations. Nicknamed Turkana Boy, it is around 1.5 million years old and is the most complete fossil skeleton of a human ancestor ever found.
During this decade, Leakey became one of the leading global voices against the then legal global ivory trade. In 1989 Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed him to head the National Wildlife Agency, which later became the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
Softly spoken and seemingly devoid of personal vanity, Leakey’s campaign methods could nonetheless be eye-catching.
He staged a spectacular publicity stunt of burning an ivory pyre by setting 12 tons of tusks on fire, arguing that once removed from the elephants they were of no value.
He also kept his cool when implementing a shoot-to-kill order against armed poachers.
Leakey’s illustrious career, however, has been beset with health problems. In 1969, he was diagnosed with end stage kidney disease.
Ten years later and gravely ill, he received a kidney transplant from his brother, Philip, and returned to full health.
Then, in 1993, his small plane Cessna crashed in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both of his legs. Sabotage has been suspected but never proven.
He told the Financial Times he had endured “Regular threats” and lived with armed guards, adding, “But I made the decision not to be a playwright and to say, ‘They tried to kill me.’ I chose to continue living.
Leakey was eventually kicked out of KWS and began a career as a leading opposition politician, joining voices against Moi’s corrupt regime.
His political career was less successful, and in 1998 he was appointed by Moi as head of the Kenyan civil service responsible for combating official corruption. The task proved impossible, however, and he resigned after just two years.
In 2015, as another elephant poaching crisis raged in Africa, Kenyatta invited Leakey to return to KWS, this time as chairman of the board, a post he would hold for three years.
Dr Paula Kahumbu, chief of Wildlife Direct, a conservation group founded by Leakey, paid tribute on Twitter, declaring: “Richard was a very good friend and a true loyal Kenyan. May he rest in peace.”