Part 2: The Leakey Legacy

Jane Goodall’s early work on chimpanzees was solicited by paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey (pictured with her below), who believed the study of primates to be pivotal to an understanding of the early evolution of humans. Having facilitated Goodall’s scientific blossoming (see Part 1: Jane Goodall), in his own right Louis Leakey is an enduring, iconic figure in paleoanthropology. 

 

Goodall and Leakey
Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall in 1970. From the Leakey Foundation archives. Source https://leakeyfoundation.org/about/history/

 

Here enters the Leakey family.

Born in 1903, Louis Leakey spent most of his life married to and working in collaboration with his second wife, Mary Leakey (paleontologist). Together, they raised three sons, including the paleoanthropologist to-be Richard Leakey.

“Louis Leakey led what can only be described as a life fit for fiction. Think Indiana Jones, and you’re on the right track.”

Throughout their long careers, all three paleo-inclined members of the Leakey family uncovered anthropological artefacts that have continued to serve as essential, illustrative pieces in the narrative we now tell on the evolution of our species. These artefacts, stone stools and pre-human and Homo fossil remains, were essential to the scientific epiphany that early humans evolved in Africa.

 

 

 

First man to the family, Louis Leakey was also the first in his science to prescribe multiple, concurrent lines of evolution within our ancestral history (rather than a single evolutionary chain of a -> b -> c -type transitions). He was also the first to argue fiercely for Africa as the ‘cradle of humanity’, an assertion further evidenced by the work of Mary and Richard Leakey, and one that has truly stood the test of time.

Amongst Louis Leakey’s academic acclaim–the publication of some 20 books and over 150 scientific articles in his time–Louis Leakey led what can only be described as a life fit for fiction. Think Indiana Jones, and you’re on the right track.

Time for the ‘adventure highlights tour’ of father and son.

Having grown up speaking Kukuyu (the language and name of the largest ethnic group in Kenya) as fluently as English, Louis Leakey was initiated as a tribe member in his teenage years. As a grown man, dispute over the veracity of some of Louis’s research claims led to his being ousted from Cambridge in 1935, and living in veritable poverty for some 18 months thereafter. This was due to some serious academic misfortunes, including compromised photographic film and the removal of research site markers by local tribesman for use as harpoons. In 1939,  he was drafted by the Kenyan government as an intelligence policeman.

Louis also involved himself, carefully, in the politics of the country; namely between the Kukuyu and white colonialists. At one stage between 1949-52, he was placed under 24-hr government guard against the Mau Mau, a guerrilla organisation of Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, which was striking out against the resident European settlers, but he also wrote extensively in defence of the Kukuyu’s rights. He also famously debated the ethics of female genital cutting with Jomo Kenyatta, who later became a president of Kenya, and he conducted the first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory. 

Richard Leakey, son to Louis Leakey, lived a similarly adventure-ridden life. Growing up in Nairobi, his major endeavour as a teenager was in trapping and skeleton supply; utilising his skills on horseback and as a Land Rover mechanic. As a young adult in 1967, on an expedition to excavate fossils along the Omo river, his boat was attacked by crocodiles. The contingent of onboard workers barely escaped with their lives. In 1993, Richard had his legs crushed in a plane crash wherein sabotage was suspected, but never proven. And, as the first chairman of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, he created armed anti-poaching units that were authorised to kill poachers on site.

These guys were 20th century badass.

And their legacy continues today, in a big way. See Part 3: First Humans (soon to come), and check out the Leakey Foundation’s Origin Stories podcast to find out how.

 

Sources

The Leakey Foundation website, accessed 13/07/17. https://leakeyfoundation.org/about/the-leakey-family/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Leakey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Leakey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Leakey

Full family tree available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leakey_family

Part 1: Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is an incredible woman. A force to be reckoned with. She has a rare tenacity and a fierce sense of personal responsibility for her impact on the planet. In her own words:

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

This year, Think Inc. delivered an Australia wide tour in collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute; a ‘fire side’ chat with the woman herself, fronted up by a casual talk from Jane. I attended the Melbourne event at the Plenary on June 16th, where Jane Goodall told of her childhood fascinations with animals, the unfolding of her dream to work with animals in Africa, and spoke on her now long history of global activism.

This is a woman who worked crappy secretarial and hospitality jobs to scrape together enough pennies for the boat ride from England, around the Cape of Africa, on to Nairobi. A woman who essentially pioneered the field of animal behavioural science, in spite of being badly ridiculed by much of the scientific community. And a passionate activist that admits she has not been in the same place for more than two or three consecutive weeks for some 30 years.

Jane Goodall’s personal story brings together true anthropological discovery, which is still unfolding today (see Part 3: First Humans)–but which had more of a wild west-type twang through the course of the C20th (see Part 2: The Leakey Legacy)–with pressing modern day issues: environmental degradation, overconsumption and human desperation in the developing world.

In writing this three-piece blog series I came to realise that, in truth, there is little I can say to elucidate Jane Goodall’s work, insight and ferocity that she does not immediately demonstrate herself. Just watch her.

 

 

To end on a moral note as Goodall did herself, the crux of Jane’s fear for the world seems to be this; in spite of the undeniable evidence for human-induced climate change, in spite of the devastating degradation of natural habitats carried out by our species, so many of us continue to do nothing. And as she emphasises, our time to make a difference is already on the clock.

“The greatest danger to our future is apathy,” she says.

Since attending Jane’s Think Inc. talk, I have started to realise how often the children and teenagers I meet through my education and science communication work have already adopted, at their fledgling age, a wholly hopeless outlook on our planets future.

I, myself, am wholeheartedly committed to realism but, as Jane clearly indicates herself, we need, absolutely, to remain optimistic. In fact, our future depends on it.

“You would be amazed at what inspired children can do.” – Goodall

 

Information on the Roots & Shoots program referred to at the end of this video can be found here, with some 23 schools participating in Victoria alone at the time of writing.

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