Erin Vogel at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Who doesn’t love orangutans? These highly intelligent, critically endangered great apes that live in the tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo have faces with such character, such personality, they always make for great, powerful pictures. We are always excited when The Leakey Foundation funds another orangutan project, as we know amazing shots are forthcoming for our blog and social media.

A wild Bornean orangutan. Photo: Erin Vogel

If you love orangutans as much as we do and would like to hear about some of the exciting orangutan research being funded by The Leakey Foundation, get your tickets now for our upcoming speaker series lecture on March 1st at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, featuring four time Leakey Foundation grantee Erin Vogel, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University.

Studying wild orangutans offers a unique opportunity to integrate metabolic physiology and health with foraging in an ecological context, providing a natural experiment to examine the multi-dimensional relationships of nutrition, energetics, and health. Primate dietary ecologist Dr. Erin Vogel will discuss how information from diet, behavior, and physiology can help us understand how orangutans are adapted for survival in Borneo’s forests and shed light on the current obesity epidemic in modern day humans.

You can get your tickets here. There are sure to be many wonderful pictures of these amazing creatures!

Photo credit: Mure Wipfli

This lecture is presented in partnership with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Houston Zoo. It is sponsored by The Brown Foundation, Inc. with additional support from Ann and Gordon Getty and Camilla and George Smith.

Visit Erin Vogel’s blog by clicking here.

Grantee Spotlight: Emma Mbua

Emma Mbua was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Further fieldwork research at Kantis Fossil Site.”

For the last seven years I have been involved in research at Kantis Fossil Site (KFS), a new paleontological site on the outskirts of Nairobi city in Kenya. KFS is dated to 3.5 million years and lies on banks of a seasonal river known as Kantis river, situated on privately owned farm. The site is located on eastern arm of the Rift Valley (01.39077 S, 36.72365 E), with an elevation of 1746 meters above sea level.  Although the presence of bone bed was noted in the geological survey of the Nairobi area in 1991, no systematic research had been conducted in this area prior to 2009. At the time of reporting the site, the farm owner noted his family first saw fossilized bones on dry Kantis valley in mid 70’s, but at that time the importance of the fossils as a paleontological heritage was not appreciated in Kenya. It was not until the media in Kenya initiated television programs related to paleontological research that local Kenyans began to acquire knowledge on the importance of fossils. As a result, KFS and several other sites have since been identified through notifications from the local populace.

Up till now, the site has yielded abundant fossils, which include twenty nine groups of extinct animals including an early human species classified as Australopithecus afarensis. This species was previously known from sites in Ethiopia and Tanzania and believed to be adapted to a wide variety of habitats ranging from open grasslands to woodland. However, the Kantis extinct fauna indicates an environment with well balanced moisture and less wood cover. The discovery of A. afarensis at KFS is the first undisputed evidence in Kenya and an indication that early humans extended their home ranges to the Rift Valley escarpments. Importantly, this time period is also poorly represented in the Kenyan fossil record. As a result, the new information from KFS will expand our knowledge of Kenyan early humans and faunal evolution. In addition, KFS will provide a much needed datum for comparison with early human sites in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Although Kenya is endowed with many paleontological and archeological sites, the ordinary people do not fully accept and appreciate the importance of this heritage. KFS presents a site in close proximity to Nairobi city and offers potential for introduction of prehistory information to Kenyan populace particularly the students. Such information would stir interests into preservation and conservation of Kenyan sites and fossil heritage. In addition, students would be exposed to excavation techniques and skills into recovery of fossils. This would further stimulate interest among young Kenyans to venture into prehistory studies, a discipline poorly understood in Kenyan despite the existence of world-renowned fossil sites. The proximity of the KFS to Nairobi city coupled with recent discovery of early humans is envisaged to attract both local and international tourists to the site, hence promoting the country’s tourism.




Grantee Spotlight: Piotr Fedurek

Piotr Fedurek is a PhD candidate from the University of Roehampton. He was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2016 cycle for his project entitled “The effect of social integration on physiological stress levels in a small-scale society.”

Piotr Fedurek

My research on the effect of social integration on physiological stress in a small-scale society is conducted in a hunter–gatherer society, the Hadza (Tanzania). Working with the Hadza is of particular interest for the project as it allows me to control for the potential confounding factors common in studies conducted on Western, industrialized societies, such as material wealth and institutionalized social hierarchy.

Piotr Fedurek and members of the Hadza

In order to measure a level of social integration of the Hadza, I use interviews to assess self-perceived integration (the method usually used in studies with humans), and I apply Social Network Analysis on observed social interactions (the method usually used in non-human primate studies). Levels of chronic stress of the study participant will be extracted from the hormone cortisol from hair samples. This method, which is minimally invasive, will allow me to measure long-term indices of stress over a period of weeks as opposed to other commonly used methods, such as salivary cortisol, which only allows for the evaluation of acute stress responses over a period of hours. Other health measures used in this study include percentage of body fat and Body Mass Index. The results of this study will not only allow me to assess how well self-reported social networks link to actual observed social interactions but also the extent to which social integration affects human health, thereby significantly furthering our understanding of social bonds in individual well-being. Similarly, by looking at the adaptive values of social integration, potential findings of this study will shed light on the role of social bonds in human evolution.

The Survival Symposium Videos Are Now Online!

In September 2016 The Leakey Foundation brought together seven world-renowned speakers and researchers for a series of short talks focusing on evolution and the challenges of building a better, safer and more survivable future. The Survival Symposium was held at WGBH in Boston and was moderated by Emmy Award-winning journalist Miles O’Brien. The speakers were Ruth DeFries, Daniel Lieberman, Stuart Pimm, Steven Pinker, Pardis Sabeti, Daniel Schrag and Richard Wrangham.

We are pleased to announce that the videos of this important symposium are now available on our website as well as on our YouTube channel. To get you started here we have the video from Session 1: Humans in a Changing World, featuring Stuart Pimm, Ruth DeFries and Daniel Schrag. They address a variety of issues from biodiversity and extinction to climate change.

To continue watching the Survival Symposium, please visit our video gallery or our YouTube channel.

Stuart Pimm

Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and four books. Stuart Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups restoring degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity.

Ruth DeFries

Ruth DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York. She uses satellite imagery and field surveys to examine how humanity’s demands for food and other resources are affecting climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services. She is committed to linking science with policy and public communication, most recently through her book “The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.”

Daniel Schrag

Daniel Schrag is the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University, and director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. He also directs the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Daniel’s interests include climate change, energy technology, and energy policy. He has studied climate change over the broadest range of Earth’s history, including how climate change and the chemical evolution of the atmosphere influenced the evolution of life in the past and what steps might be taken to prepare for impacts of climate change in the future.


Survival is presented by The Leakey Foundation in partnership with Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolutionary BiologyNOVA, NOVALabs, SMASH, and WGBH.



Grantee Spotlight: Hilary Duke

Hilary Duke is a PhD candidate from Stony Brook University. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Taking shape: Investigating the earliest Acheulean at Kokiselei, Kenya (1.8-1.76Ma).”

Hilary Duke

Humans and some non-human primate species share a versatile capacity to shape tools. Only hominins intentionally shaped stone tools, which are the longest preserved record of technological behavior. About two million years ago in eastern Africa, there was a crucial period of change for the evolution of the genus Homo, including the emergence of Homo erectus and shifts in the ways hominins made stone tools.

Archaeologists distinguish two main goals of stone tool production: 1) Shaping: creating a single stone tool with specific form and 2) Flaking: creating multiple stone flake tools. Hominins started manufacturing Large Cutting Tools (LCTs), such as handaxes and picks, at least 1.76 Ma in eastern Africa, and these artifacts are assumed to be the earliest evidence of stone tool shaping. The earliest LCT technology occurred within a critical time of change in human evolution across several domains, including hominin environments, species diversity, anatomy, and behavior. However, variation in LCT shapes, knapping methods (large flake vs. elongated cobble), and techniques (hard vs. soft hammer) in combination with the generally idiosyncratic nature of shaping behavior, pose challenges for determining the origins of these behaviors in the archaeological record.

Archaeologists usually use LCTs to identify and define the Acheulean, which is a geographically and chronologically expansive archaeological industry containing a broad range of variability, but the evolutionary processes underlying this technological change remain poorly understood. Before we can hypothesize about the emergence of LCT technology and early shaping behavior, we need to test whether these early LCTs could have also been products of flaking.

Sediments around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya preserve one of the longest and richest records of stone tool technology. On Lake Turkana’s western shore, the Kokiselei Site Complex contains stone tool assemblages from three sites dating to the earliest known emergence of LCTs between 1.76 and 1.8 million years ago. Kokiselei sites include stone tool assemblages with and without LCTs. Thus, Kokiselei is the ideal context for investigating questions about the nature of technological change during the emergence of LCT production.

My research investigates the degree of differences between LCTs and other artifacts from Kokiselei and experimentally generated flaking products. This summer, I will be collecting technological data from the Kokiselei stone tools curated at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. I will then compare this archaeological dataset to data that I am collecting from experimental stone tool assemblages made from stone raw materials analogous to those found in Early Pleistocene archaeological sites in Turkana, including those specific to Kokiselei.

This research fills a critical empirical gap by considering alternative flaking strategies and testing the assumption that all LCTs were products of shaping. If the results of this work indicate that Kokiselei stone tools are different to experimental flaking products, it will have implications for how we can investigate the possible role of shaping behavior during this critical period of change in the Early Pleistocene.