Thank You for Your Support!

Louis Leakey wearing his iconic coveralls over his tuxedo at a Leakey Foundation fundraising event. Photo from The Leakey Foundation Archive.

The Leakey Foundation launched a fundraising campaign in honor of Louis Leakey’s 116th birthday on August 7, 2019. All donations up to $5,000 were quadruple-matched thanks to Leakey Foundation Fellow Mike Smith and two anonymous supporters.

We are thrilled to report that thanks to your generous donations we have raised a total of $29,552 for research and educational outreach!

If you haven’t yet donated but would still like to support Louis Leakey’s legacy of funding multidisciplinary human origins research and outreach, it’s not too late! All gifts will be matched dollar-for-dollar, so your impact will be doubled!

Early Hominins Grew Their Spinal Columns Like Modern Humans

Thierra K. Nalley is an assistant professor at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant in our spring 2015 cycle for her project “Ontogeny of the Thoracolumbar Transition in Extant Hominoids and Australopithecus.”

The spinal column and vertebrae of Selam, a 3.3 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil discovered by Leakey Foundation grantee Zeresenay Alemseged in 2000. Photo: Zeresenay Alemseged

The spinal column is a critical region for understanding the evolution of bipedal walking because the joints between the vertebrae are involved in back movements and the formation of the lumbar lordosis, a curve in the lower back that allows humans to walk upright. Differences in vertebral anatomy between apes and humans have long provided an important framework for inferring postural and locomotor behaviors of fossil human relatives, but little is known about how and when these differences appear during growth. “To investigate vertebral development, we measured skeletal variation in the joints of lower vertebral column of juvenile and adult great apes, humans, and fossils attributed to Australopithecus and Homo erectus,” says Thierra Nalley, first author of the new study published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The authors found that adult chimpanzees and humans experience more change in vertebral shape during development in comparison to gorillas and orangutans. This means that the joints of adult chimpanzees and human vertebrae differ from those of younger individuals, while gorillas and orangutans are more similar across age groups. Even though humans and chimpanzees have similar joint configurations as adults, humans are distinct because they reach adultlike shapes much earlier in development, usually by the time the first adult teeth begin erupting. Chimpanzees do not reach adult vertebral shape until later, only after all baby teeth are replaced.

Dr. Nalley with juvenile chimpanzee specimens on loan from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County at Western University of Health Sciences. Credit: Thierra Nalley.

Insight into the evolution of bipedality

“The fossil specimens indicate that early hominins also achieved adult vertebral shape early in development, like modern humans. This study highlights the importance of using developmental data to understand the transition to bipedality, including the possibility of gaining novel insights that are not apparent from adult comparisons,” says Zeresenay Alemseged, senior author of the study.

“These findings support a number of studies linking skeletal growth and developmental shifts in locomotor and postural behaviors in apes and humans,” says Nalley. “Our work suggests that the early acquisition of adultlike joint shapes in the vertebrae of fossil hominins may be an evolutionary innovation related to establishing stability and balance of the upper body as young individuals are learning to walk upright.”

Thierra K. Nalley examines a digital reconstruction of the fossil hominin DIK 1-1, representing a juvenile specimen of Australopithecus afarensis.

The paper is published in the September issue of the Journal of Human Evolution with co-authors Jeremiah Scott at Western University of Health Sciences, Carol V. Ward at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Zeresenay Alemseged at the University of Chicago.

From the Archive: Louis S.B. Leakey

In the final installment of our “From the Archive” series, Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis S.B. Leakey shares the story of his life and work in a never-before-released interview recorded in 1969.

Louis Leakey (b. 1903, d. 1972) had a tremendous impact on the world’s understanding of human origins. He and Mary Leakey made many important fossil and stone tool discoveries, and he wrote 20 books and more than 150 scientific articles in his lifetime. He was also a great popularizer of human origins research whose storytelling inspired people to learn more about human evolution.

Louis Leakey was largely responsible for convincing other scientists that Africa was the key location in which to search for evidence of human origins. His early, controversial, yet unwavering position that Africa was the cradle of humanity has held up against modern scientific scrutiny and is now universally accepted.

Listen to his story:

Click here for more podcast episodes and links to subscribe.

Celebrating Louis S.B. Leakey

Louis S.B. Leakey was born on this day in 1903. To celebrate him and his legacy, we invite you to learn a little more about the charismatic scientist who devoted his life to uncovering our shared past.

Louis Leakey wearing his iconic coveralls over his tuxedo at a Leakey Foundation fundraising event. Photo from The Leakey Foundation Archive.

“People frequently ask me why I devote so much time to seeking out facts about man’s past…the past shows clearly that we all have a common origin and that our differences in race, color, and creed are only superficial.”

-Louis Leakey

Louis Leakey (b. 1903, d. 1972) had a tremendous impact on the world’s understanding of human origins. He and Mary Leakey made many important fossil and stone tool discoveries, and he wrote 20 books and more than 150 scientific articles in his lifetime. He was also a great popularizer of human origins research. His storytelling inspired people around the world to learn more about human evolution.

Louis, Mary, and Philip Leakey excavating a nearly two-million-year-old habitation site at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. Photo by Robert Sisson for National Geographic, from The Leakey Foundation Archives.

Louis Leakey was largely responsible for convincing other scientists that Africa was the key location in which to search for evidence of human origins. His early, controversial, yet unwavering position that Africa was the cradle of humanity has held up against modern scientific scrutiny and is now universally accepted.

He was born on August 7, 1903, at Kabete Mission near Nairobi, Kenya, where his parents, Harry and Mary (Bazett) Leakey, were English missionaries to the Kikuyu tribe. Louis grew up speaking Kikuyu as fluently as English, and at age thirteen he was initiated as a member of the Kikuyu tribe. In 1937, he wrote a definitive study of the Kikuyu culture.

Leakey began his university career at Cambridge University in 1922, but a rugby injury caused him to postpone his studies. He then left to help manage a paleontological expedition to Africa. He graduated with degrees in both anthropology and archaeology in 1926. After completing his degrees, Leakey began leading expeditions to Olduvai, a river gorge in Tanzania, where he found important fossils and stone tools. In 1948, he reported finding a 20-million-year-old skull, which he named Proconsul africanus. Now considered to be too specialized to have been a direct ancestor of current ape and human populations, Proconsul is still considered scientifically valuable as a model for early human ancestors.

Mary Leakey holding the jaw of “Zinj” as Louis Leakey points out a feature of the fossil. Photo from The Leakey Foundation Archive.

The first significant hominid fossil attributed to Leakey (a robust skull with huge teeth dated to 1.8 million-years-ago) was found by his collaborator and second wife, Mary Leakey. It was found in deposits that also contained stone tools. Louis claimed it was a human ancestor and called it Zinjanthropus boisei (it is now considered to be a form of Australopithecus and it has been renamed Paranthropus boisei).

Another important discovery was the 1964 reporting of Homo habilis (named by Louis, along with Phillip Tobias and John Napier), which Leakey believed was the first member of the actual human genus as well as the first true toolmaker. While the interpretations of Leakey’s fossil finds are still controversial, their significance to the field of human origins is universally acknowledged.

Joan Travis, a founding member of The Leakey Foundation, (left) with “Trimates” Birutė Galdikas, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey.

Louis Leakey was also influential in other areas, such as the emerging field of primatology. He believed there were some things about human evolution that could only be understood through studies of our closest living relatives. He was responsible for initiating Jane Goodall’s long-term field study of chimpanzees in the wild. He helped obtain and coordinate funding for Dian Fossey’s work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Birutė Galdikas’ work with orangutans in Indonesia. These three women have shaped our understanding of primate behavior, and all three projects continue to this day.

Louis Leakey giving a lecture to a capacity crowd in California in 1969. Photo from The Leakey Foundation Archive.

Always a dynamic and energetic man, Leakey kept up a rigorous schedule of lecturing and fundraising. These lectures helped him raise small amounts of money to support his own research and the research of other scientists. In 1968, a group of supporters banded together to form “The L.S.B Leakey Foundation for Research Related to Man’s Origins,” now known as The Leakey Foundation, to help secure funding for vital human origins research projects.

In 1972, Louis Leakey suffered a heart attack and died while traveling to present a lecture.

Louis Leakey contributed immeasurably to the understanding of our origins, and his work radically changed the way we now view early humans and our living primate relatives.

The Leakey Foundation is proud to carry on Louis Leakey’s legacy as we work to fulfill his dream of increasing scientific research and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival.

With your support, we have given more than 2,500 grants to conduct research in 110 countries. We have helped share our common human story through thousands of public lectures, our free educational outreach program, our website, and our Origin Stories podcast. We have provided seed money to start new projects, and bridge money to keep long-term projects going, and we have made it possible for scholars from countries around the world to earn advanced degrees and study the prehistory and living primates of their home regions.

Discoveries by Leakey Foundation grantees have taught us so much about our human story. We know Louis Leakey would be thrilled to see how human origins research has thrived thanks to generous support from people like you!

When you make a gift in honor of Louis Leakey’s birthday, all donations up to a total of $5,000 will be matched 4:1 thanks to Leakey Foundation Fellow Mike Smith and two anonymous sponsors.

Give today, and quadruple your impact!

From the Field: Stephanie Musgrave, Goualougo Triangle, Republic of the Congo

Stephanie Musgrave of the Washington University in Saint Louis was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant in 2016 for her project entitled “Ontogeny of complex tool use among Goualougo Triangle chimpanzees.” Click here to read an introduction to her research.

By Stephanie Musgrave

The sun rises over the Sangha River, which bisects the Sangha Tri-National Forest. This landscape spans the Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Cameroon, and includes the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, where the Goualougo Triangle is located. Photo GTAP/Morgan/Sanz.

It’s early morning, and the forest of the Goualougo Triangle is already filled with activity. This is to be expected here, given the spectacular biodiversity within this enclave of pristine rainforest. My attention at this moment is captured by a forceful rustling at my feet, the bustle of countless termites foraging among the thick, dry leaf litter. This is a welcome sound, and a promising sign, too. As we walk, primarily looking and listening for signs of chimpanzees, we also have a second goal: find underground termite nests. These subterranean labyrinths can be cryptic, but they are no secret to the chimpanzees.

A remote camera trap records footage of a visit by seven chimpanzees to a subterranean termite nest. An adult female uses a puncturing stick to create a tunnel into the nest; she is also holding in her mouth a fishing probe, the end of which she has frayed into a brush tip. This feature is an intentional modification that improves the efficiency of these probes at gathering termites.

For two decades, scientists of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project have studied how these apes make and use tools to gather termites and other resources such as ants, honey, seeds, and marrow. These research efforts rely on direct observations of chimpanzees, as well as an array of camera traps stationed at termite mounds across four chimpanzee communities. My research focuses on the acquisition of tool-using skills in this population, as well as the social processes supporting the transmission of tool skills over generations. Every termite mound has a different story to tell – what chimpanzees visit, how youngsters learn to use the different tool types involved in termite gathering, who shares tools and with whom. This morning, we are searching for new termite mounds to install remote cameras, which will undoubtedly expand our knowledge of one of the most complex tool-repertoires in the animal kingdom.

The forests here in the Congo Basin have the richest diversity of termites in the world, and the chimpanzees most often prey on a type of termites called Macrotermes. Termite species from this group build a network of nest chambers below the ground; some species also build large, free-standing, castle-like mounds that can reach several meters in height. A termite nest is a true feat of architecture, a protective fortress (from the elements like rain and wind as well as predation) for its inhabitants and a place to store food. Worker termites leave the nest to forage on plant material such as wood or fallen leaves; when they return, this material passes through their bodies and aids in the formation of fungus gardens that nourish colony members that can number in the hundreds of thousands. Termite nests are also temperature controlled. The above-ground towers have a central air shaft, with ventilation passages leading from the interior to the mound walls. To gather termites from the above-ground mounds, chimpanzees use a twig or their fingers to re-open the exit holes recently sealed by termites traveling to and from the nest. Then, the chimpanzees insert a modified flexible herb stem down these passages to gather termites.

Getting termites from the underground nests can be trickier. Chimpanzees first have to decipher the location of the hidden nest galleries, which are an average of 50 centimeters beneath the ground surface. Termites construct and maintain tunnels that facilitate their above-ground foraging expeditions; these can be several meters, or farther, from their nests, so finding these underground chambers is no easy task. Once a promising location is deduced, the chimpanzees must drill down through the earth to access the chambers. In the Goualougo Triangle, chimpanzees use the smooth, stout branches of a particular tree species to puncture into subterranean nests. They may make hundreds of attempts, and expend substantial energy to tunnel into these nest chambers; only then can they insert an herb stem and extract termites.

Why go through all this trouble? Termites can provide protein and fat, as well as other valuable nutrients, such as manganese, vitamin B12, and sodium that may not be acquired as readily from fruit or leaves, which are staples of their diet. Other animals share chimpanzees’ enthusiasm for termites, but chimpanzees are unique in using such a diversity of tools to gather them – with the exception of humans. Around the world, humans have developed sophisticated strategies to harvest these insects, and humans and their ancestors may have done so for millions of years. Wear patterns on bone tools used by hominin populations in southern Africa between 1 and 1.8 million years ago suggest these tools were used to dig into termite nests.

The field team finds 17 puncturing sticks at the subterranean nest. Bark has been stripped from the end of the tools by chimpanzees repeatedly inserting them through the soil. This species of small tree, Thomandersia hensii, is also widely used by humans for preparing of food (manioc) and shelter construction. Photo: Crickette Sanz

Chimpanzee tools also show evidence of use. A particular puncturing stick can be reused by multiple individuals over a period of weeks or months, and puncturing sticks with the bark worn away are likely to have been reused over and over again to drill down into the earth and eventually the nest. Conserving puncturing sticks at a termite nest saves chimpanzees from having to locate tool material and manufacture these tools anew for each visit; indeed, chimpanzees often arrive at favored subterranean termite nests carrying fish probes, but no puncturing sticks, as the latter will likely be present at the nest already. With the exception of humans, this type of tool reuse is rare across the animal kingdom.

We are on the lookout for such tools this morning, and we approach an area where we see a concentration of used puncturing sticks. Tools in this kind of abundance (>10) indicate a rare but very active termite fishing mound. Round holes dot the surface of the earth where chimpanzees have recently punctured the soil.

The surface of the subterranean termite nest is covered by holes where chimpanzees have inserted puncturing sticks through the soil. One stick remains partially inserted. Photo: Crickette Sanz

We know certain individuals prefer particular mounds within the core areas of their home range, but today we are working in a border area between two chimpanzee communities, making it uncertain who might be visiting the mound we just found. As we prepare our remote camera for set up, I am already looking forward to next month, when we will return to refresh the camera batteries and retrieve the footage, each batch of which provides a new glimpse into the lives and technological traditions of chimpanzees in this region.