Paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, whose discoveries helped show that humankind evolved in Africa, died on January 2, 2022, at age 77.
Leakey was a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University and the founder and director of the Turkana Basin Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides multidisciplinary research facilities to support scientific work in Kenya’s remote Turkana Basin. He served his home country of Kenya in several official capacities, including as director of the National Museums of Kenya and director of the Kenyan National Wildlife Service. He started Wildlife Direct, a wildlife conservation organization. He was also a Life Trustee of The Leakey Foundation.
Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said on Sunday, “Today, the world lost a pillar of the paleoanthropological community in Dr. Richard Leakey, who for decades blessed us with groundbreaking discoveries. Together with his father, Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey, and his mother, Dr. Mary Leakey, the family pushed the boundaries of human knowledge and forever altered our understanding of human evolution. He was also a legendary conservationist who led the charge to save the African elephant from extinction and helped preserve Kenya’s natural environment. And, as Head of Public Service, he helped combat corruption and strengthen government institutions.
“Officially, it was my great privilege to serve on the Board of The Leakey Foundation, which for more than five decades has advanced the bold vision of scientific leadership that Richard shared with his pioneering parents and his accomplished wife, Meave. Personally, Richard was a dear friend, and my family had the thrill of seeing this work firsthand when we accompanied Meave and him on a dig in the Lake Turkana area of Kenya.
“May it be a comfort to Richard’s wife and partner in science Meave, his three dear daughters, Anna, Louise and Samira, and all of his loved ones that so many in America and around the world mourn with them during this sad time.”
For most of Richard Leakey’s life, science was a family endeavor. Leakey was involved in his parents’ human origins research from an early age, and he found his first fossil when he was only six years old. As a young man, he wanted to do something different than paleoanthropology, but he eventually found his way back to the field.
During the 1960s and 70s, Leakey made discoveries that shed new light on human origins and made him a household name. At 23, he led the Kenyan contingent of an international expedition to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, where his team found two early Homo sapiens fossil skulls that they named Omo I and Omo II. In 1968, Richard Leakey became director of the National Museums of Kenya. In 1972, he found a 1.9 million-year-old Homo skull that came to be known as “1470.” This skull showed that early members of the genus Homo had developed large brains much earlier than previously known.
In 1984, Leakey and his team, nicknamed “the Hominid Gang,” made their most monumental discovery–the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus youth. The 1.6 million-year-old fossil was nicknamed “Turkana Boy” or “Nariokotome Boy.” It is one of the most significant paleoanthropological discoveries of all time.
Throughout his career, Leakey was a skilled and inspirational communicator. He gave lectures, wrote bestselling books, and hosted television shows that opened the world of human evolution research.
Leakey believed that it was vital for African scientists to be leaders in human origins research. He mentored and supported many Kenyan students and helped them pursue careers in science. He was an advocate of The Leakey Foundation’s Baldwin Fellowship program, and he helped dozens of Baldwin Fellows launch their careers.
“Richard Leakey was a pioneering scientist, a champion of wildlife conservation, and a great humanist,” Leakey Foundation president Jeanne Newman said. “We at The Leakey Foundation, originally begun by his father, Louis Leakey, have always admired Richard Leakey for his important contributions to human origins research and his lifelong dedication to conservation and education. On behalf of The Leakey Foundation, I send heartfelt condolences to Richard’s family, colleagues, and friends.”
“We are saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. Richard Leakey, one of the great scientists of his time,” wrote Leakey Foundation trustees Erica Brown Gaddis and Elise Brown Ersoy. “Our father, Dr. Francis Harold Brown, began collaborating with Richard and the Leakey family in the late 1960s and considered him a dear friend at the time of his passing in 2017. Dr. Brown especially enjoyed his time in the field with Dr. Leakey, both for the tremendous scientific discoveries they shared and the many adventures of field life in Northern Kenya. Dr. Leakey’s legacy in human origins and wildlife conservation remains an inspiration, and we are pleased that The Leakey Foundation can support advancing Dr. Leakey’s life work. Our hearts go out to his family.”
The Leakey family, through Richard Leakey’s daughter, Samira, released a statement on his passing:
“On Sunday 2 January, we lost a true warrior, an individual so large in presence that he left a void that can never be filled. He has been described as iconic, and a force of nature, but to us he was Richard, Dad, and Babu. As a family, we are enormously grateful for the outpouring of warmth and support that we have received from so many friends here in Kenya and across the world. It brings us great comfort to know how much his life meant to so many.”
The family noted that in keeping with his wishes, Leakey’s body was interred on his favorite ridge, “overlooking the majestic Rift Valley that he so loved.”
Tributes to Richard Leakey may be left online at the ForeverMissed memorial site.