Richard Leakey’s Legacy in Science, Conservation and Politics

Richard Leakey, paleoanthropologist, conservationist and Kenyan political leader, died January 2 at his home near Nairobi. His expeditions discovered hundreds of hominin fossils, leading Fred Spoor, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London to tell me his findings were “a most extensive and diverse fossil record of early human evolution.” Other scientists, conservationists, writers, artists and filmmakers have tried to get people to pay attention to current existential crises, including climate change and the sixth extinction (the predicted mass extinction of much of Earth’s life). They’ve tried to get us to change behaviors, such as our reliance on fossil fuels, that they say will lead to our demise. Leakey believed our ancestral fossils showed us our shared humanity and carried a blunt message: Like all other past species that once called Earth home, we, too would likely go extinct.

But he also wanted us to see that we could delay this unhappy event if we would acknowledge and address these crises. He shared this message in the museums and research institutions he built in Kenya, in his writings and television appearances, and through the many young people he helped educate. Even at the time of his death, he was busy designing a major new international museum to celebrate—and caution—humankind.

Leakey was the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, famous paleoanthropologists who discovered numerous fossilized bones of early humans in East Africa. Their findings proved beyond question that Africa was the cradle of humankind. Richard Leakey added to their legacy, unearthing a bounty of fossils, nearly all in his native Kenya and with the assistance of his team of Kenyan fossil hunters.

One of his team’s most spectacular finds was the nearly complete skull and skeleton of a 10-year-old Homo erectus boy at a site called Nariokotome on the western shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. The Turkana or Nariokotome Boy, as scientists affectionately dubbed the fossil, died 1.6 million years ago and is the most complete early human skeleton ever discovered.

The skeleton is also beautifully preserved, revealing previously unknown aspects of his species’ anatomy and life history. Based on his five-foot tall frame, for example, scientists calculated that the boy would have been six feet tall at maturity and with a lanky build adapted to a hot climate. He lived at a time when his species was discovering fire and inventing new stone technologies. Homo erectus was venturing out of Africa and would ultimately become us, Homo sapiens.

By the time Leakey made this discovery, he’d been fossil hunting for four decades. He was six years old when he made his first important fossil find: a jawbone of an extinct giant pig that lived near Lake Victoria some two million years ago.  

I was fortunate to join Leakey at his camp at Nariokotome, where his team was unearthing the Turkana Boy’s bones in the mid-1980s. Some nights we sat side-by-side in canvas camp chairs beneath the dazzling star-lit sky. Leakey liked to take such moments to point out that he wasn’t always mucking about “in the sediments.”

Peering back through the layers of the fossil record, seeing new species emerge while others went extinct, gave Leakey a perspective few of us have. He knew that many of these “long-extinct species thrived far longer” on Earth than we modern humans may ever do.

We’re the newcomers, our ancestors having stepped onto the African savannah perhaps no more than three million years ago; our own species, Homo sapiens, likely arrived a mere 300,000 years ago. The fossil record is a reminder “of our mortality as a species,” he said in Origins, a book he co-authored in 1977 about what was then known about the human fossil record.

By the time his team was unearthing the Turkana Boy, Leakey had already made his mark as a builder of world-class museums and research institutions in Kenya, ones that served as models for museums in Tanzania and Ethiopia, says Carol Ward, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. But he was increasingly restless, Leakey told me, and confessed that he was looking for “a new challenge.” A few years later, he abandoned the fossil hunt to become the director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) at a time when Kenya’s elephant population was being poached to extinction.

Outraged by the commercialization of ivory, he persuaded the then-president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, to burn the country’s stockpile of 12 metric tons of tusks. The dramatic inferno helped end (for a time) the ivory trade. Subsequently, he co-founded one of Kenya’s first political parties, Safina, and served as a member of Parliament and as head of the country’s civil service.

Leakey had spent little time with living elephants, and his experience watching them with elephant researcher Joyce Poole affected him deeply. He realized he and KWS were “protecting sentient creatures,” animals with families, babies, sisters and aunts, he wrote in Wildlife Wars, a book he co-authored about his efforts to save East Africa’s wildlife and wild lands.

But as climate scientists revealed their long-term fears for Earth’s future, Leakey came to a new realization: likely in the 21st century, the elephants’ habitat was certain to change to such a degree they would go extinct. From his life in the sediments, Leakey knew that all animal species have a beginning and an end. But it was especially distressing that elephants and all other animals, including humans, could face extinction, not because of an asteroid, but because of human action, or inaction.

Leakey thought a lively museum that overlooked the valley of our origins and protected a boy’s skeleton would allow people to see their shared humanity and snap out of their complacency about the future.

“If we can make the science of the origins of humanity accessible and exciting to everyone, and show people the amazing journey of humanity, we can shift paradigms and change the world,” Leakey wrote in February 2021 in the strategic plan for the new museum.

Leakey “had two great passions: paleoanthropology and Kenya,” says Ward, who credits Leakey with helping to shape her career.

Leakey was buried January 3 beneath a majestic acacia tree not far from the site intended for N’garen. His grave overlooks the Rift Valley, where he spent a good part of his life exploring the past. It’s a simple mound of earth with a scattering of rocks. His family hopes other people passing by will stop to add a stone to the pile, as is the practice in Kenya for “a true African chief,” says Mwangi Njagi, an African historian at the American University’s Nairobi Center and a close Kenyan friend of Leakey’s.

Those passions come together in N’garen. The groundbreaking ceremony is expected to take place later this year, and the museum is scheduled to open in 2026.