March for Science

On April 22nd, The Leakey Foundation staff will be joining the March For Science in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and New Orleans. Want to join us? You can meet up with our Leakey Foundation group in San Francisco , or download our sign and march with us virtually!

The March for Science website says the march “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” The Leakey Foundation has stood for these values for nearly 50 years.

We actively support scientific discovery and its dissemination to advance our understanding of life, from its origins to our survival. We’ll be at the March for Science on Saturday – we hope to see you there!

Download and print our signs and we will see you on the streets!

If you use our signs, please take a photo and tag us on social media. We will share your message on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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18″ x 24″


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From the Field: Jason Lewis

Last year we introduced you to Leakey Foundation grantee Jason Lewis who was awarded during our spring 2016 cycle. To read a short summary of his work, click here. Here he updates us on his team’s progress. 

Left to Right: Unknown, Ray Inskeep, Adi Inskeep, Louis Leakey

The Kondoa region in central Tanzania is a UNESCO World Heritage Center and home to dozens of rock shelters painted with dazzling and diverse ancient paintings. One of these shelters, Kisese II, is unusual for its deeply stratified artifact- and fossil-rich deposits, which span the Late Pleistocene to Holocene. Kisese II was excavated by Louis and Mary Leakey in 1951 and by Ray Inskeep in 1956, but the results were published only as preliminary notes. And the faunal and lithic materials have been moved to several museums over the past 60 years.  What we know from these preliminary notes, however, is that the Kisese II record is special; rich in ochre, it contains thousands of ostrich eggshell beads, lithic artifacts, diverse and well-preserved fossil fauna, and six human burials.

Together with Christian Tryon, Kathryn Ranhorn, Audax Mabulla, Amandus Kwekason and other collaborators, we’ve put together a new project to fully analyze the material from this important site and reveal their implications for understanding the interplay between changes in the environment, human population growth, and stone tool technology in this important period of Africa’s prehistory. We immediately relied upon archives to get started; thanks to Inskeep’s preliminary reports and curation efforts of the Tanzanian National Museum, we were able to obtain sixteen new radiocarbon dates across the sequence, showing that the >4 meter sequence spans the last fifty thousand years. In 2015 we visited the site to determine the current state of preservation of the rock art and the archaeological sequence and the feasibility of new excavations.

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Ray Inskeep’s personal archive

Thanks to funding from the Leakey Foundation, we’re now expanding on these results by focusing on the lithic artifacts and fossil fauna to understand changes in the environment, ecology, and foraging practices across multiple Late Pleistocene-Holocene human technological and behavioral shifts. Again, our first priority was to find more archival records, which led me to the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University in the UK in December 2016. This incredible facility enabled me to search Ray Inskeep’s personal archives for any contextual information that would help us when analyzing the Kisese II faunal and lithic material.  Hidden amongst a lifetime’s worth of records and remembrances, I was lucky enough to find correspondence between Inskeep and colleagues about the Kisese II project and photos of the site during work there, including one of Louis Leakey visiting the site. I also found Inskeep’s plans and sections from the excavation, and raw data on the lithic artifact counts by category and level.  This documentary evidence is of great importance for reconstructing a full context for the materials from the site.  While at Cambridge, I was also invited to give a lecture about this work in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Biological Anthropology Seminar Series.

Jason Lewis

With this valuable new archival information, I then traveled to Dar es Salaam to coordinate with Tanzanian project members and to collect enamel, dentin, bone, and OES samples from the Kisese II collection. I spent two weeks identifying appropriate specimens, photographing and recording them, and drilling off small amounts of bioapatite for export. These samples have been sent to Rhonda Quinn at Seton Hall University for isotopic analysis, the results of which will tell us more information about the past ecology- like what types of plants ancient animals ate around the site. A subset of mammal teeth was serially sampled up the crown to investigate changes in the degree of seasonality through time. We also exported more ostrich eggshell fragments, which Elizabeth Niespolo at UC Berkeley is analyzing to better understand the paleoenvironment. As part of our project’s outreach program, NMT staff members were trained in sample collection and preparation, a complete set of drilling equipment and supplies were donated to the museum, and we’re working together to develop an official policy on destructive sampling. A few days after I left Dar, project member Kathryn Ranhorn, a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, arrived and analyzed the lithic artifacts to discern changes in tool production behaviors.

Ray Inskeep

This work would not have been possible without the detailed record keeping of multiple parties, especially Ray Inskeep, the McDonald Institute, and the Tanzanian National Museum. Thanks to support from the Leakey Foundation, we look forward to continuing this important research started so long ago, to renewing excavations at the site, and to contributing new evidence to the archive of all humanity.

Letter from Louis Leakey to Ray Inskeep

Spring Granting Cycle Update

We are about two thirds of the way through our spring 2017 granting cycle, and I am sure many of you who have applied this time are wondering what is going on over there in the grants department at The Leakey Foundation. So, I thought I would tell you about the different stages of our spring cycle and give you an idea of where we are right now.

The spring granting cycle begins.

Immediately after the application deadline, the grants department begins the Audit Stage. This is the time when we make sure that all the pieces of the applications have been submitted and contact applicants if needed. We check to make sure all of the applications are within our purview (we do not fund projects about traveling to Mars), and we begin assigning peer reviewers and soliciting reviewer suggestions from our Scientific Executive Committee (SEC). The audit stage of our spring cycle typically lasts just over a month.

Once we have assigned peer reviewers, we begin the Peer Review Stage of the cycle.

Our goal is to receive at least two peer reviews from relevant experts in the field for each proposal. Because of this, we have to send out more requests than that to reach our goal. You are busy people! With huge workloads, prior commitments, field work, etc. many of our potential peer reviewers must decline our request. That said, we still receive numerous reviews each cycle. This spring we received over 250 reviews (for 102 applications) along with corresponding grades (we use an A,B,C… ranking system). The spring Peer Review Stage lasts about a month and a half.

We are always thankful for our peer reviewers. We could not do it without you!

Next is the SEC Review Stage, which is where we are currently.

We collate all of the peer reviews and send them to the SEC. Relevant members of our SEC then review the proposals, using the peer reviews as reference. This stage of the cycle typically lasts a few weeks.

We are a little different.

One of the main differences between the way we and other organizations that fund similar projects make granting decisions is that our Scientific Executive Committee makes the final decision. Other organizations typically use assembled panels of reviewers, but the final decision is made by the president or program director, sometimes in consultation with the panel.

For us, once the SEC Review Stage is complete, we combine all the grades into one large spreadsheet and then rank the proposals. We then have two conference calls (one for behavioral proposals and one for the paleoanthropology proposals) where the SEC decides which proposals they would like to fund. Decisions are not based solely on rank. They are also based on funding priorities of the foundation as well as discussions that ensue during these important calls.

One of our granting sessions

Once decisions are made, our SEC and Board of Trustees meet at our bi-annual Granting Session. The SEC presents each recommended proposal to our Board of enthusiastic science supporters. Once the proposals have been presented, our Board then votes to approve funding. In the spring this meeting occurs at the end of April.

Then we send out notifications.

We usually send out the spring notifications in the first week of May. One of the benefits of applying for a Leakey Foundation Research Grant is that the applicant receives feedback (the reviews) from peer reviewers and SEC members in an anonymous way. Even if we do not fund a project that cycle, it is our goal to help applicants improve or change their proposal in order to increase the chances of future funding from us or other organizations.

That is it! As I said, we are now in the SEC Review Stage. We will soon have those important conference calls and then the presentations to the board.

We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. The grants department is here to help. If you have any questions about the cycle or the application process, feel free to contact us at


H. Gregory
Program Associate

Grantee Spotlight: Meike Zemihn

Meike Zemihn was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Tracing the origins of language: Syntax in common marmosets (Brazil).”

Common marmoset adult. Photo credit: A. Souto

Language is one of the prime facets of human nature and distinguishes us from other species. Nevertheless, its evolutionary origins are still largely unknown. What makes human language unique and why are we the only species that has it? One important feature is complex syntax – rules that govern the combination of call elements, e.g. grammar. Syntax allows us to combine a limited number of meaningless speech sounds into an endless number of meaningful words and sentences.

An intriguing hypothesis is that language evolved based on a combination of the ape-like mental abilities of early humans and socio-ecological factors, specifically their cooperatively breeding social system – all family members were involved in the upbringing of offspring. Such a system may require intensive communicative exchanges among individuals, and the presence of some grammatical structure would greatly benefit the communication of multiple messages with a limited set of vocal items. Therefore, if cooperative breeding played a major role in language evolution, we would expect a greater syntactic complexity in the vocalizations of other primate species living in a similar social system. Common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) are small New World primates native to the forests of Northeast Brazil and have a high level of vocal flexibility. In contrast to apes and most other primates, they are cooperative breeders, and the whole social group helps the dominant couple to raise their offspring.

Meike Zemihn ringing an Arabian babbler nestling in the Negev desert

The aim of this project is to examine the syntactic complexity of the common marmoset’s vocal communication system. Comparing this to the complexity known for other species will help us understand the potential role of socio-ecological factors for the evolution of structural complexity. Which rules underlie the combination of calls in common marmosets? How do these rules affect meaning, and how are combinations affected by context? Do populations differ in the use of call combinations?

Data will be collected from several groups of habituated, free-roaming common marmosets at the Baracuhy Biological Field Station, situated in the semi-arid Caatinga (Brazil). Together with a field assistant, I will observe their natural behavior during individual follows and conduct audio- and video-recordings, covering the full frequency spectrum. The obtained recordings will be analyzed in the lab and be used for later experiments in the field. Later-on during the project, playback experiments of calls in different sequential orders are planned to investigate the role of syntactic structure.

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This project will provide significant insights into the complexity a primate vocal communication system can obtain. It will help us understand the biological origins and evolution of traits that gave rise to human language, a crucial step in the evolution of humankind.

The field site in the Caatinga. Photo credit: A. Souto

Common marmoset adult and offspring. Photo credit: A. Souto

Rock Art of Pachmarhi Hills in India

Guest blogger Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak (see bio below) shares her experiences exploring the rock paintings of India. 

Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak with paintings and graffiti

Nearly thirty years ago as a student I used to accompany my father Shri P. Dubey on tours to the outskirts of the towns and far-flung villages in the Madhya Pradesh State in the center of India. During one such tour we went to Adamgarh in the Hoshangabad, and there I saw rock paintings for the first time. I was impressed when my father taught me about the history and heritage associated with them. Later, in the nineteen-eighties, I got the opportunity to see the rock paintings of Pachmarhi Hills. Influenced by the wonderful work of prehistoric people, I commenced my PhD work under the National Fellowship of the University Grant Commission New Delhi in September 1986, studying various facets of the rock paintings of Pachmarhi Hills. My studies encompassed their extensive documentation, recording and analysis. My father accompanied me on numerous visits to different painted rock shelters of Pachmarhi. His company and persuasion were unparalleled. I visited Pachmarhi in all seasons except monsoon, when going into the dense forest becomes difficult and dangerous, making our entire effort futile. Trekking the hills of varying heights and deep valleys with the natural beauty in their folds was a pleasant adventure. Through the thick forest and undergrowth, combined with the risk of encountering wild animals, the search for painted shelters was even a greater adventure. Most Indian rock art sites are located in forested areas. I feel fortunate to be able to visit many rock art sites in different states of the country!

Rajat Prapat. Men holding heads.

In the summer of 1990, we decided to make a film about the paintings of head hunters in the Rajat Prapat area.  Being the summer season, these falls offer a good source of drinking water and a cool place for wild animals to rest.  The fall is located at the bottom of a 350 feet deep precipice rarely visited by people. When we got there we started climbing towards the shelters, and a minute later we heard the roar of a tiger, identified by an accompanying tribal guide, who also heard the crackling sound of dry leaves and branches of bamboo lying around. We were both scared and nervous.  We had no weapons to scare the beast away and had no choice but to retreat for the day.  We again went there after a lapse of ten days and succeeded in visiting the painted shelters.

Pachmarhi and the surrounding Mahadeo Hills hold one of the richest concentrations of rock art in Madhya Pradesh. The painted shelters are often located at considerable heights, and access to them is difficult. Some shelters bear numerous painted figures with superimpositions. While others contain very few images. Most paintings are red and white, showing up admirably on the rock surfaces. A few paintings are yellow. Many of the paintings found in the Pachmarhi Hills are faded or partially obliterated and thus incomplete. Some of them are covered with a whitish thin layer. The colors of some of the paintings have merged with those of the rock. The degree of natural preservation of these paintings varies according to the location of the shelter, its exposure to sunlight, rain, wind, and worst of all, to destructive human actions.

Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak with tribal kids, Samardha

To quote a few examples, the rock paintings at Nagdwari got very badly damaged during the annual festivals of Maha-Shivaratri and Nagapanchami, when pilgrims visit the shrines in thousands. The Nagdwari art, in fact, was nearly entirely destroyed by graffiti covering the whole surface of the wall. One can now barely see the remains of the paintings that for the most part have disappeared under modern inscriptions. The site is basically dead. At least four other sites in the same region have suffered the same fate (Neemgiri, Chitrashala and other shelters located on the same hillocks as Nagdwari). In the Bori area, an important shelter called Belkandhar 2 was also most grievously damaged in July 2011 by extensive graffiti left by pilgrims. The few images that remained little harmed testify to the previous importance of the site. The vandals, as we were told by pained foresters, are a few of the thousands of people coming in pilgrimage mostly from Nagpur in the Maharashtra state. They usually come twice a year in February  (Mahashivratri) and July (Nagapanchami) because there are two sanctuaries in the zone, one at the foot of the Belkhandar Mountain and another at its top. Those people are Hindus who obviously do not share the same beliefs as the local Gonds and Korkus about the power/sacredness of the paintings, or they would not have desecrated them by their actions.

Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak, Pachmarhi 2011

I carried out a project in 2000-2002 for the Environment and Planning department of Madhya Pradesh on the documentation and preservation of the Rock Art of Satpura Biosphere (Pachmarhi). After completion of the project, the Forest Department of Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh, protected ten painted rock art sites in the national park area. To do so, the shelters were enclosed with railings and on top of the panel a kind of channel was made to divert and clear the rainwater.

In the daytime (never at night), visitors can visit some of the sites with the permission of forest officials. Since the park is full of wildlife, forest guards are always there on duty and will accompany them.

In 2012, after witnessing the damage done at Belkhandar 2, we immediately advised the authorities of the national park for Madhya Pradesh of the impending danger to the other two most important sites of Belkandhar (1 and 3) and also of two other sites that fully deserve to be better protected, Nishan Garh and Churna. We advised them to take immediate measures of protection.

About Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak

Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak is an independent rock art researcher and artist. She is an international expert on rock art for ICOMOS and UNESCO. She discovered and explored many painted rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, Pachmarhi, and Chhattisgarh area of India. Meenakshi has published approximately 50 research papers and reports in various international and national journals, collective books and newspapers. She has also published two books:  Rock Art of Pachmarhi Biosphere with Dr Jean Clottes and Images for the Gods. Rock art and Tribal art of Central India. She is currently involved in projects on the Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh rock art.

Further Reading

Stupas in Petroglyphs: A Living Heritage of Ladakh

Handprints in the Rock Art and Tribal Art of Central India

Pseudo Aliens’ Representations in Chhattisgarh Rock Art (India)

Ceremonies When Reaching Rock Art Sites in Chhattisgarh (India)

Rock Art Sites at Bhimlat in the Bundi Area of Rajasthan