Paleontology; Paleoanthropology; Leakey family
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
8 Jul 2003
- -1.2833333 36.8166667
Split-Track tape sync recording
Show: Leakey Hundredth Anniversary
Log of DAT #: 1
Date: July 8, 2003
CHRIS JOYCE INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD LEAKEY
LEAKEY IN NAIROBI
CHRIS IN STUDIO 3A
CJ: How do you think paleoanthropology would have faired if Louis had not come back to Africa?
RL: I have often thought what the situation would have been had Louis not come back to Africa. And I think there is no question many discoveries would have been made. But whether they would have been made in the timetable that they were made, whether the public interest in paleoanthropology would have been quite what it was, had it not been for Louis coming back here ¿ it is very hard to say. I honestly find that a very difficult question, but I don't think that there is any doubt that he had a huge impact on awakening public interest, initially in England, and later in the United States.
CJ: I was thinking, reading back reminding myself of the discoveries of the earlier part of the twentieth century, that Robert Broom had done some amazing things and Raymond Dart in 1924. There was established that there was human origins in Africa as well as Asia and Europe. What do you think Louis Leakey added to the foundation that Broom and Dart started?
RL: Well I think that the Dart and Broom work in South Africa certainly attracted a lot of interest before the 2nd World War. I think as a result of the 2nd World War, public attention was sort of lost, and it hadn't really come back in terms of the subject by the time we get to the end of the 50s ¿ I mean yes, Africa was known to be a place where ape men come from, but I think the Olduvai find that my mother in fact made, but which Louis made so much publicity from, was the fact that we had ¿ and it turned out not to be correct initially, but an association, of an early human life fossil, with stone artifacts, in deposits that w/in a year were dated. And for the first time we have an absolute age of human ancestors at one and three quarter million years, associated with certain implements. And I think it was the association of the dates and the implements that fired public imagination, particularly in the United States, but also in Europe. Prior to that there have been no age for these creatures and we were lead to believe that fossil ancestors were probably half a million years old at the most, and there was no way of knowing. So I think that the dating of the Olduvai fossils was probably the most exciting consequence of his work.
CJ: Was that the '59 Zinjanthropus, or the Homo habilis of '64?
RL: Well, as it turned out, his excitement that led to the team coming in to do the dating was on Zinjanthropus. By the time the dating for Zinjanthropus had been established, they had discovered Homo habilis, and so it was all the fossils thereafter could be tied to a common chronological scale, which made them quite different from any previous discoveries in China or in South Africa.
CJ: And that took place some 30 years after your father had already been working in paleoanthropology in Africa, if I got the numbers right, and that is an awful long time before a significant pay-off. Do you think he ever ¿ or Mary Leakey ¿ every doubted what a fool's errand we are on here?
RL: No, I think if you view the site, if you look at what they were working with ¿ the certainty that something would be found, I don't think was ever in question. There were masses and masses of stone tools, masses and masses of broken animal bones and the association of the two was beyond dispute, it is just a question of finding it, and I think their frustration was that they never had enough money to spend more than a few weeks of the year looking in these remote places. That is where the patience ¿ there is a determination really pays off.
CJ: Louis Leakey was also famous, from what I read anyway, for his enthusiasm, and his exuberance is often mentioned as a great raconteur and a storyteller. In the world of science, which is a conservative endeavor, that sort of enthusiasm can cause problems. It's not always welcomed. Did it ever cause problems with your father?
RL: Yes, I think he was often accused of taking short cuts and perhaps in arriving ahead of the field and drawing conclusions that other people would have taken a lot more time to come to and I think he WAS criticized for that, but I believe in the sciences that he was involved with and I think in science generally, science grows because of the popularity of the subject, the public interest of the subject, and I think those scientists that sit in their benches saying we can't talk to the public until everything absolutely certain, until everything is 150% guaranteed, are not doing a service to human kind and I think given that we are all operating on public opinion in one way or another, I think the popularization as done by my father was particularly relevant and important when it was done.
CJ: And as for yourself, again, I think, from what I read, there was a time when you were a teenage you decided perhaps you were not going to follow in the family profession and then decided that you would. What changed your mind?
RL: Well, it's very difficult ever to know what causes one to do different things. I guess I had had no formal training in any areas and the one area I've I'd had informal training was paleoanthropology. I was in a country where there were opportunities to do this relatively easily. I had the potential skills from having worked with and alongside my parents and I think it just seemed to me at the time a better way to go, having gotten over my sort of teenage bruise of wanting to be independent.
CJ: Did it ever occur to you or did you wonder, my god, my father and mother are so famous and well known at this, how could I ever live up to that? I could only fail.
RL: I don't think so because I don't think that one was, well at least in my case¿it wasn't to be famous that was important, it was to be successful. And having seen how much they had done with such little opportunity, it was quite clear with a little more opportunity, we could be equally successful. I mean, at that time East Africa was hardly capped in terms of the paleoanthropological record and the opportunity for discovery. So, fame, I don't think one sets out in the beginning to become famous and to compare ones potential for fame with the existing fame of ones parents. I think that was not an issue. The issue was, could one go into the field and do something that was similar, but different, work in a different area. And I think the decision I made forty years ago was that yes, I could.
CJ: And obviously, and history, as history bears witness, you've discovered some quite astonishing fossils yourself. Among them such as the ER1470 and the Turkana Boy, working with Alan Walker a lot. When you look back at what happened to your career, what would you say are the high points and also if you wouldn't mind talking about what skills in accomplishing these things you might have picked up from your father and mother.
RL: Well, the Turkana Boy, the skeleton of the Homo erectus that was found in 1984 by Kamoya in which we excavated and presented with Alan Walker. I think that in many ways that was the most perfect (??) fossils because it was so complete and it did answer so many different questions. I think the work at Turkana generally was very rewarding. It was rewarding because there was so much material, there were so many opportunities to make contributions, not just in terms of the human story, but in all of that (???) that we had¿just hundreds of thousands of specimens that were available for studies to be done by a wide range of people and I think it was a total job satisfaction, having the material to work with, the funds, the ?? of the National Geographic Society to do that work and the sort of high level of public interest had been to past generations by my parents work, certainly ???, in which we were able to foster and continue and you know, through the National Geographic articles and television, we always had a lot of public interest and were able to develop public support. **This whole section is difficult to understand**
CJ: Let me ask you about some of the logistics, not the logistics, but the practical aspects of doing what you do when you're looking for hominid fossils. Obviously difficult, sometimes dangerous work. Lonely work. The conditions are very difficult. In terms of being a scientist, do you think of yourself more as someone who enjoys sort of daily life in the field, the tactile sense of working in the dirt, as opposed to being a theorist and someone who thinks big about evolutionary history?
RL: Certainly from my point of view, the pleasure that I've had is the field work, going out into remote areas, living in camp, a fellowship with ones colleagues, the sense of adventure that each day brings, the sense of extraordinary achievement when major finds are made. That was the fun part for me. The theoretical side, the conferences and papers the meeting, are far less satisfactory to me, but it takes several ingredients to bake the cake and we have a team work, my wife and various ?? colleagues, but certainly from my point of view, the field side, the adventure, the rough and tumble of that was my satisfaction and I'm sure the appreciation of the bush, the appreciation of the field, I learned from my parents.
CJ: So you think your father had the same possible preference sort of for the day-to-day rough and tumble as opposed to theorizing?
RL: Well, I certainly think he did initially. I think towards the end of his life I think he was finding, he had a very bad hip, he should have had a hip replacement, but he didn't he was really lame and in a lot of pain. I think at that stage it becomes very difficult, same way now I wouldn't go back into the field, not because I have a lot of pain, but I don't have any legs. Being a double amputee doesn't lend itself to that sort of life anymore, but in his early days he lived for the field, he lived for the adventures, he lived for the expeditions. That was really the reward.
CJ: Although before medical problems got in the way, I think, if I got the numbers right, both of you began to drift away from the fieldwork and even paleontology and in your case got involved in the wildlife conservation part of your career and Louis Leakey got involved in writing and mentoring the famous primate researches, Diane Fossey and the rest. Why was it, do you think, that your father and then you decided to move on to different things?
RL: I think very different reasons. I think in the case of my father he generally found the work around the great apes fascinating. I think he become very concerned with the difficulties these people had raising money and the only site that they'd been working on, the archeological, paleontological was Olduvai. And Mary had settled in and was doing the day to day work very satisfactorily and I think he go bored and wanted to do some other things, I'm not sure. In my case, I drifted away because by 1989 I had seen enough to be satisfied. I was very disappointed by the infighting and the venality of the personalities who, if you didn't like what you found, you didn't discuss the fossils, but discussed the personalities behind the fossil and the whole thing just became, as far as I was concerned, really very tacky and I thought I better get on and do something else and keep myself amused and positive with life and not engage myself in scandal discussions, and you know, who said what to whom and why, who raised what money from who and on what pretenses. I just found the whole thing dirty.
CJ: I was going to ask you that. It's an interesting point you make. I wonder who paleontology or paleoanthropology has changed since the days when in essence the Leakey family had, if not an exclusive domain, it was a small small community of people and it did grow to a larger number. Now a days there're a lot of people competing over the same pieces of real estate in many cases with very little money to do it and much more competition. I wonder how that's changed paleontology.
RL: I think it's changed it enormously, but it's difficult to say what the cause is. It's easy enough to look back and say it was because of this or that, but certainly what I enjoyed in the old days was that you could have some very strong disagreements like ??? in the early part of my career. Disagreements with colleagues and yet at the end of the day you were friends you were stuck with each other, it was right to disagree. There were never any questions as in questioning their intellect, their mental ability, or their training and qualifications. You'd never hear somebody say ¿Well, clearly he doesn't understand what that fossil is because he hasn't got a decent education.¿ You don't have that sort of cheep talk that so characterized the late 80s and early 90s and it was that sort of thing, maybe I was hypersensitive not having been to university, but I just found the whole thing really, very unattractive. I think today, it's probably swinging back in the right way. I think there is more congeniality between the colleagues than there was perhaps in the late 80s early 90s. I'm not sure, but certainly there are a great many people involved today, people are highly specialized, they're competing for the two sides of the business, and relatively small grants available for still some very important work.
CJ: The other thing that interests me is frankly, I cannot think of another discipline, where you've got a situation where the first family, if you will, of the scientific discipline is one where both husband and wife work on the same thing through two generations and who knows, possibly a third, I wonder if you'd talk a little bit about¿have we lost the phone? Hello?
RL: We're here
CJ: I wondered if you'd talk a little bit about the way that Mary Leakey and Louis Leakey approached the difference between them and the way they approached the work they did in the field and the way that you and Maeve Leakey approached it.
RL: I think, actually, it was quite similar. Louis was an ideas man, put together expeditions and raised the money and went off and tried to find headline grabbing stuff. Mother wasn't interested in that, was much more concerned to do detailed, careful systematic work and didn't care at all for the hype that my father loved. In the same sense, I think, I followed that. I loved to raise money and take a big expedition off to Lake Turkana each year and have the fun of being in the field for three or four months, the challenges of managing that, the excitement of major finds, but I was very happy to turn over the detailed slogging of measuring these things and describing them and working out the various analyses of them others and that's a scenario where, initially Maeve wasn't involved in the hominids, she was involved in other fossils in the collection and later become more involved in the fossils, and I think whether it's a gender difference or something I don't know, it worked out extremely well in both my parents case and ours. It was quite similar in that the male went for the powerful headlines and the female did the real work and made the real contributions.
CJ: Well, speaking of male and female, the third generation, Louise, is in the business now. What do you think of that? Does she come to you for advice or is she off on her own all the time?
RL: I wouldn't say she comes for advice. She has a genuine, heartfelt deep interest in the subject. I think it's tough, it's courageous for her to want to do this but I think she wants to do it for the right reasons. There's a lot still to be done. She loves to kind of¿I have a feeling she might have a combination of the capacity for detailed work and some of the capacity for enjoying the field side. It will be very interesting to see whether she ends up driving from the front or doing the detailed work, sort of in low profile. I can't tell you what will happen there. I'm not that closely involved in her program and we sort of have a family tradition that we don't talk about the children's work. They're independent.
CJ: Do you see, if you were to look and Louis and Mary and Meave and yourself, which among you do you think your daughters work and her interests is most closely associated with?
RL: Well, as a father, what can you say about your children? Very hard to answer that. I see a lot of Louis in Louise, a lot of what's heard in the family, the Leakey genes. She's evasive, she's a good raconteur, she's very outward looking, outgoing. She's very courageous, she's brave, but she's of a very good mind. That may not be a gene, that did not come from me, but she's a lot of fun and question is, can you do both, and I'm not sure and maybe she'll end up having to rely on other people to do the detail work, but we'll see and I certainly wouldn't want to judge her at this stage in her career.
CJ: Well, given the political situation in Kenya right now and in that region, is it more difficult to do this work now and do you think as a result Louise is going to have to become a lot more politically astute?
RL: I would have thought the political situation shouldn't impact on professional scientific work. I mean, she is a third generation Kenyan which would be considered by some to be a fourth generation Kenyan and I think the younger generations are beginning to realize now that there's no reason why you can't have white Africans like you can have black Americans. They don't take part in that silliness of racism of the past. Political astute in terms of working the ??? agencies and developing contacts who will help with a clearer view of her papers and things. Probably there is a greater need for that then when I was young and certainly a greater for that than need than when my father was young, but she's probably got that training from her PhD program and her university training.
CJ: But she did have to cancel the field season. When I say politics, I mean, I'm including the problem right with poaching and the bush meat trade that seems to have accelerated and whether this makes life or the science more difficult.
RL: I mean, my understanding is that the field season wasn't canceled, it was postponed. I mean there were a variety of reasons why it was postponed and I hadn't heard that politics was one. There's a certain amount of insecurity near the border, which has nothing to do with politics it's simply people were trying to take cattle in from an area where they were stopped and they blamed her. She's getting married shortly, maybe that's politics.
CJ: It could end up that way I suppose.
RL: We have some important guests coming out in July that I want her to be part of for a month. I don't think one could simply say politics, but I don't want to speak for her. Whatever she's told you or will tell you, that's up to her.
CJ: Um, we're also wondering if we can locate Kamoya, if I'm pronouncing his name correctly..
CJ: Kamoya. Is he in Nairobi?
RL: Yes, he retired some years ago from the museum and I think he is Nairobi, though I haven't seen him in about six months now.
CJ: Ok, well can I just ask you to identify yourself and say what you do and what your profession is?
RL: You've been talking to Richard Leakey, now retired, has previously worked in anthropology, paleontology, ran a museum, went into conservation and then ran a government for a couple of years and now happily none of those problems.
CJ: It sounds rather tiring. It leads me to ask you, when you look back on it, when you want someone, or perhaps you yourself, write you biography, would you put yourself as a paleoanthropologist or a conservationist or a politician?
RL: I've had three very very separate careers, maybe four, so far and each has been tremendous fun, very rewarding. Each I tired of at a certain point and it would be, how one would say this¿I guess if one was a polygamist one wouldn't want to be asked to compare one's positions on any of the wives.
CJ: Ok, I won't as that one. Which one did you enjoy the most? Which one was the most plain old, old-fashioned fun?
RL: You know, in a funny way, they've all been fun. Looking for fossils at Turkana was exhilarating. I was young, free, thoroughly enjoyed that. Building the museum was very challenging at a time when Kenya was going somewhere. Very exciting. Looking at the possibility of stopping poaching and establishing a wildlife authority that could control the wildlife access in this country, raised huge amounts of money very very challenging indeed. To be asked to head a civil government under a president who was fairly well known for leading a corrupt regime and to be asked to stop the corruption and bring about economic reform, bring the IMF and World Bank to the table, Wow! How many people in their life get that sort of chance to head up such a team. I had 500,000 employees. Each one of those jobs has been absolutely spectacularly exciting and rewarding. I don't miss any of them.
CJ: Would you be happy if you never went out on a dig again?
RL: I'd like to visit places where other people are digging, but I wouldn't want to dig myself again, no. I wouldn't want to run a government again; I wouldn't want to be responsible for elephants again. No, I think I'll have to do something else with my fifth career.
CJ: Ok, well, I'll await that and as soon as you establish it we'll give you a call.
CJ: I think you for taking the time to talk with us and we'll be talking with Louise in about half hour I hope.
RL: All the best.
CJ: Thank you much. Cheers.
RL: Bye, bye.
Louise Leakey Interview
LL: Aerial patrol work trying to keep livestock that have encroached into the park, out of the park. And I've been doing that through aerial patrols and the people on the ground, the local community on the northern park boundary got quite upset so we would be asking for trouble by putting a tented camp on the northern park boundary. So we've had to delay the season largely for that reason so that we could then put it forward to January, February, March when we've tried to calm things down and we're in a better position to continue with our field work and maybe Kenya is in a slightly better position too.
CJ: Ok, it seems as if, you work with the wildlife service, as your father eventually got into after a long career in paleoanthropology, but it does seem as if there's a lot more to do for you than simply good fossil hunting and analysis. I mean, you've had to take on other sort of political and other activities in your career.
LL: Yeah, there's quite a lot that needs to be done for the protection of that area which is a very very rich fossil site. That's on the east side of Lake Turkana and Sibiloi National Park was created in 1973 largely to safeguard those particularly rich fossil areas, but as a results there's been a large number of mammals or mega fauna, the topis and dry country fauna, the garanuck, orvery, etc. grevys, zebra, (???) but what we can't afford to have happen is for the large numbers of livestock that are now outside of that protected area to come through and graze over the fossil sites because that'll undo what has now become an internationally recognized area and it's protected area that must be safeguarded for the long term, for our future generations, including the generations of Dafonich (??), the community up on the northern park boundary. But it's a very touchy subject and it's hard for them to appreciate why this protected area should exist when nothing really comes back to them at the moment. I'm getting much more involved in trying to work with communities to get things going on the ground so that there's a bit of give and take in this.
CJ: Well, that area is, you're no stranger to it. You grew up out there in the desert and near Turkana. If we could go back in time a little bit and have you tell me about your first memory of being on a dig, the first time you have a recollection of actually being out there looking for fossils or watching others look for fossils.
LL: As you rightly said, yes I did grow up there and I was in fact taken up there probably at age six weeks so a lot of the time I remember sitting in a basin of cold water and I remember following my parents around when they were out on the digs or looking for fossils and feeling incredibly hot. I strongly recollect trying to excavate the fossil of a tortoise with my mother and come eleven o'clock in the morning when it was getting very miserable, we would start to complain bitterly. It was my sister Samira and myself, and she would cleverly have brought out a jerry can of cold water which we would then douse ourselves with and that would keep us quiet for another hour or two before we then headed back to the camp for lunch. There were some very hot, tedious times out there. That's probably one of the first memories I remember from the east side of Lake Turkana and another very important recollection I think was the Turkana Boy found on the west side of the lake which was the most complete skeleton of homo erectus ever recovered and that was a very very exciting excavation, partly because every time that anybody went out to the site there was usually another interesting piece of bone and one or other of us, myself my sister would run across the river with a little message and tell them what was coming in off the site. So, there were some very fun times and very challenging times too. But, I never really thought I would still be doing what I'm doing necessarily, but there you go.
CJ: Well, your sister decided, I guess, after that experience to become a banker and you've decided to go continue on in the same business. From what I've read, it actually parallels what I've read about your father, there was time when both of you, in your teens said, ¿Oh Heck, I'm not going to do this¿ and then you changed your mind. What led you to decide that you wanted to do this?
LL: I think what made me decide to really do this was more by circumstance, when I was studying at Bristol University and I decided I would do zoology there and at the end of my first year, in the middle of my exams, my father had a very unfortunate plane crash and got seriously hurt in the accident and I flew back to Kenya and then my mother, who'd just recently taken an expedition to the west side of Lake Turkana to start a three month field season like we do every year, asked me if it would be possible for me to take over the running of that season and so I readily accepted and she then had to go off to the states, or rather to England, to be with my father in the hospital so I then was up in the field for those three months and then really began to be more involved with the logistical coordination of things and obviously taking part in some of the field work and working with the team there. I think in subsequent years, found that I really just continued working with her in different sites, on different areas and she became much more of a teacher to me and eventually decided that if I was going to start be on the grants and a principal investigator, I really needed to follow and get my studies underway and completed. So then I launched into my PhD and have continued to lead, or co-lead the expeditions with my mother over the last five or six years and found myself working now on the east side of Lake Turkana with her and hopefully setting things up for the long-term research project on that side of the lake.
CJ: I also wonder, I'd love to compare your answer with your fathers, about when one thinks about the work of anthropology and determining how we all came to be, whether you find more interesting actually the field work of getting your hands dirty and being out in the field and doing logistics or do you prefer sort of the theorizing and the writing of the papers and the determining, the rewriting of the tree of life or some third thing? I don't want to box you in or¿
LL: Well, at the moment, it's more I think to be doing a little bit of everything, whether it's paper writing, trying to get my PhD studies written up, also trying to raise funds to keep the park on its feet and trying to raise funds to keep our research project running throughout the year. There's too much for one person to do on their own, which is so fortunate that I work along side my mother on this and so we compliment each other hugely. But, I like both aspect of it, but I find I'm increasingly concentrating on keeping the protected area going on the east side of Turkana because if that's lost, everything's lost and so I'm more working towards trying to raise some big funds for the future so that one can set up an endowment fund or a trust or a foundation of sorts so that for the next twenty thirty years, we know that the research can be taken forward confidently without having to worry about where your next thousand dollars is going to come from. [CJ cuts in briefly] We really don't have that set up at the moment. We find we're completely stuck and it's absolutely shocking that a world heritage site of such international significance does not have the support and does have livestock trampling the whole way through these fossil sites and we have a picture from last season where we were working on a hominid and, you know, forty head of cattle walk straight past us and it's absolutely terrifying that this is happening today and we don't have a setup that this place is safeguarded and the Kenyans have been trained over seas, and there are a number of them, cannot come back and know they've got a salary and can then actually take this forward through to the next generation, so that's really my challenge and I think that's really what I'm spending more and more time working towards.
CJ: Did your grandfather have to do all of this as well?
LL: He did and I think he really put prehistory or paleoanthropology on the map in East Africa. He followed his conviction and said, it's Africa and this is where we're going to find our origins and he really had to go against what his contemporaries were saying at that time and followed his conviction and actually showed this to be the case and I think when they found Zinj, if I understand it, in 1959 suddenly people woke up to the fact that this is where things could happen and it started to free up funds to follow that research, but you know, things have changed since then and there're a lot more people involved and it's a lot more costly to run and these areas are very remote and it's not a sexy subject in terms of raising money locally. There are other priorities, there's heath care, there's education. The government's never going to put funds into protecting fossil sites, not at this time anyway and so therefore we're really going to have to raise the awareness and try and work on raising some long-term funding from elsewhere.
CJ: The whole discipline of paleoanthropology has really changed, you know, I think fifty of sixty years ago or certainly in the fifties or sixties, it was sort of a one person or a one group show. It was the Leakey family. Certainly in East Africa it's gotten a lot more attention and you've got Don Johansen and you've got some French researchers. Well, let's of people are there. Can you imagine the day when there might not be a Leakey doing paleoanthropology in East Africa?
LL: Oh, absolutely. I'm quite sure. If I decide in the next couple of years that maybe the whole thing's set up, and the Kenyans can carry this forward, I might go off and try and do something else and at the moment there don't seem to be too many male Leakeys around so the Leakey line may become extinct fairly fast anyway, at least the Leakey line of paleoanthropologists, though, yeah, for sure, but I don't think paleoanthropology will die in East Africa. By no means. There are a huge number of Kenyans that are really going to pick this up and international students and it's a very lively field. There's some very interesting research topics people are pursuing and many more techniques actually trying to answer some of the questions that were being looked at over the last twenty years and I think that we can get far more information out of some of the sites that were worked before and there's very good reason to go back through more slowly and extract more of this information with a larger team of people.
CJ: Well, speaking of the Leakey family and extinction, I must confess, as proud fathers often do, let something slip which I'd like to ask you about which is that you're getting married.
CJ: Have I got your father in trouble?
LL: Yes you have. He's not supposed to be world viewed.
CJ: Ok, we'll honor that, but I have to ask one question, though. Feel free to answer it or not. Would this person be a paleoanthropologist?
LL: This person is not a paleoanthropologist, but an anthropologist by training, but he does some very interesting things in some very remote and trying parts of Africa as well. And he's a pilot and a lot of fun. I think that we'll both be able to do what we want to do in life and sort of compliment each other
CJ: Well, do you think you'll continue doing fossil hunting?
LL: He's never done fossil hunting, no. He's never done fossil hunting.
CJ: But you?
LL: Me? Oh me? Absolutely! As long as I can do and I think that my challenge really is not to be out on the ground doing the fossil hunting as much as I'd like to, but to raise the funds to ensure that the fossil hunting can carry on in East Africa by East Africans for the long term and that those areas up in the north in the protected area, particularly Sibiloi, is safe for both the communities on its boundaries and for future generations of Kenyans and international scientist to come. So, that really is my challenge that I see. I think that's going to be far more rewarding if I achieve that and know that if I step out of the field then things will continue.
CJ: Let me ask you to talk a bit about your grandfather. I'm not sure I have the numbers right, but he died very shortly after you were born. Is that correct?
LL: That's correct. I was born in 1972. He died several months after that. I was born in March.
CJ: Um, I'd like to ask you¿his claim, history is claiming his great achievement was pointing out that humans did evolve in Africa, not in Asia not in Europe and that he fought for that idea long and hard, long before others did and with, especially with DNA work, and finds even as recently as this month with Tim White in Ethiopia, continue to bear that out, wouldn't it be wonderful for him to be able to know that it turned out to be true?
LL: Yes it would. I think he would be very excited to know how much has gone on in this field since he left us. Most certainly, and same goes for my grandmother who I think was most excited to see things doing. She died just before I actually began my PhD studies, but she knew I was going to carry on working on this. I think my grandfather would be probably surprised to know I was doing this work today and I think he'd be happy to know that I was trying to make sure that this continues into the future, not necessarily being held by a Leakey, but for Kenyans and for East Africans. And I think it's a timely event in that it's his hundred year birthday this year, to set up something that for the long term will make sure that East African paleoanthropology can continue and by East Africans and I think that's really what I owe to him to try and do.
CJ: I think, and I may not be unique in this, that people who are interested in the history of human origins and know a little bit about the work that the Leakey family has done over their so many years, you know, one wonders, there must have been times when you're all sitting around the dinner table, perhaps when you were old enough to remember, Louis wasn't there, but Mary Leakey and Richard Leaky and Maeve Leakey and um, you know, what was that like? Did you talk about bones all the time?
LL: I think, we grew up, preferable seen and not heard until we were old enough to be, you know, contribute to conversations sensibly at least at dinnertimes and I think that dinnertime conversations were often very full of bone talk and we didn't really see much point in hanging around so we were often early to bed. There was a lot of talk with some of the other colleagues and scientist at that time. I particularly recollect seeing photographs of the research camp at Koobi Fora where the table in the main mess area was completely surrounded and all the young characters that we've learned and read about, the Time Whites, Hansons, Jack Harris', that are still in the field today and have gone their own ways and it must have been a very exciting and vibrant time. It would be wonderful to see the research camp used again in that manner on the east side of the lake where you've got a lot of people all doing their work again in on sites in the area and discussing the potential and I think the work on that side of the lake has calmed down, it hasn't been so active for many years and I think it's time now to go back there and actually make the place and produce some good results again.
CJ: The history of the family and its fame, I wonder whether it ever weighed heavily on you or whether for example, when you were contemplating what to do with your life as people of 15 and 16 and 17 often do, and whether that was ever intimidating?
LL: I think it could have been intimidating, but I sort of dove straight into things because I feel that they're important to do and maybe later think, well, maybe have taken a pass, not necessarily be the easiest way to go, but it's never been an issue to make me think about not doing so. I've gone in there and I do realize the challenges and the consequences, but do these things in my own way and I think I've got my own challenges to rise to and I think they're quite different to the challenges that both my parents and my grandparents were faced with and I think once can really do it your own way and put this thing on the map so that you can know that you've done something and contributed something to Kenya and to the world in a sense and I think that's what life's about, just actually doing something that you feel is actually useful in your own small way.
CJ: When I read about the history of some of the discoveries in east Africa, many, if not most, of the actual discoveries were made by Kenyans who worked with you and trained at the museum in Nairobi. I imagine there must have been times when you were out hunting fossils with the Kenyans and your parents and grandparents. Do you remember any moments, any anecdotes, about learning from them about how to go about this business?
LL: You learn everything from them actually because if it wasn't for them, none of these fossils would ever have been found. They really are a great team of people and the fossil hunters that work with me and my mother at the moment, many of them are some of the fossil hunters that worked alongside my parents in their time at Turkana. I've spent long hours with some of the field crew, as we call them, working on the digs doing the brushing or working on the sieves cleaning sediments off the Lake Shore and collecting water for the camp. When they were just school boys from the west side of Lake Turkana we used to go down to the waterhole and sing songs as we carried water out and filled up drums and things and some of them now are finding the more important discoveries that we've been coming up with in the last five or six years. For instance Justice Erus was the fossil hunter who found Kenyanthropus and I worked with him on the Nariokotome dig about ten years before that and so he's very much a part of the team and you could say or someone like Robert who's another of the young boys who joined us at a very young age are now finding increasing numbers of important specimens.
CJ: Do any of them ever harp back to the way that your father did it or your mother did it or your grandfather or grandmother did it? This is how they did it and this is how you should do it?
LL: I think, I mean, it's passed on from one team to the other. They sort of work together and there are certain ways that you need to work fossil sites. The slower you go about these areas the more thoroughly you look and You never know whether you're going to come up with a find or not. There's a certain amount of luck involved. Obviously some people have much sharper eyes than others and generally seem to find more of the hominids, but you just never can tell. I personally don't ever seem to find any hominids. I spend more time running around trying to collect all the pig teeth and antelope teeth that all the field crew have actually found. Once or twice I've been lucky, but there's never been anything to really write home about.
CJ: But, you've been there one the scene I expect during some of the great moments. Were you, I think, around when the Laetoli Footprints were found and Kenyanthropus, obviously a whole new genus, an extraordinary find, one of the most important, I would say. Do you have memories and recollections of those?
LL: Those two¿I wasn't around when the Laetoli Footprints were found so I've just read about that and heard about it. Likewise, the find of Kenyanthropus, I was slightly further north working some of the more recent sites at that time. We were co-leading the expeditions and I think it wasn't until the skull was really out of the ground and was then cleaned that nine months later that we were able then to start to make comparisons with other hominid fossils and actually realize the significance of that find. So, it was a very very messy specimen when it came out of the ground. It was obviously very exciting because it was at that time the oldest skull from the fossil record. That's of course now been pipped by the Chad find which takes us back 3 million years before hand so I wasn't actually there on site. These finds generally become more important once you've got them back into the lab and you can clean them up and see what you've got because you can't really prepare them for the details that they need preparing to in the field, on the ground. Pieces need to be stuck together and you often have to take things out in a block and then put in a big sieve to try and get any of the smaller fragments left behind that you can then stick together so it sort of sticking bits of a puzzle together over a several week or a several month before one actually realizes what you have.
CJ: Um, you know, your father mentioned something almost in passing, perhaps not. He referred in passing to the Leakey gene. I wonder if there's something, has that come up as a topic before? Something familiar to your family?
LL: Say that again. He referred to the Leakey gene?
CJ: Yeah, in the sense of this¿
LL: Wish I'd heard this interview!
CJ: This predilection for hunting for fossils in the desert under conditions that most of, 99% of the world would not tolerate, perhaps that's what he meant, this intellectual curiosity, perhaps. I just wondered if during some of these dinner conversations if a Leakey gene for fossil hunting was ever discussed?
LL: A Leakey gene¿I mean, I think it's, you're put into situations that you really have to adapt to, to survive. I'm not sure if it's genetics so much as being brought up under those situations. My mother, for instance, she's definitely got this Leakey gene although it's not a direct blood line, I've got as much from her as I have from my father in the sense of perseverance and riding up to the challenges in those difficult situations up in the north. Though, I mean, there is a sense that circumstance puts you up to dealing with those situations. You kind of have to be a resilient kind of person to cope¿
CJ: In the subject of perseverance, if I'm not to, putting to fine a point on it, it does seem as if there's a division between the genders in the Leakey family on perseverance because both Louis and Richard moved on to other things whereas their wives stuck with the rigors of doing paleoanthropology in the desert.
LL: Yeah. Um, so yes, they did. I mean, I don't know where that will put me. I don't know quite what you're getting at there.
CJ: Oh, I'm not sure either. I just¿
LL: Ok. I mean, definitely, my father moved onto other things, but certainly he kept a very keen interest in what's going on. So much so that he's been known on one of the finds to tell us what we had coming out of the ground and he wasn't even there! I think he can feel it.
CJ: I'm paraphrasing him here, but he did say at one point, it's almost as if the women in the Leakey families do the hard work and the men take all the credit.
LL: Well, I don't think that's the case anymore. I think those days are gone and I think the women are now taking some of the credit probably because there are many more women in this field too now and there're many more scientists doing this work so I think that probably was the case in the past, but now I think, especially my mother, she's now getting the credit that she's due for the work she's doing. She's an absolutely brilliant scientist.
CJ: Well, as much as anybody in the world I suspect Mary Leakey and Maeve Leakey are the ones who were the role models for so many other women to get into this field which was a male dominated, live in tents and sort of rough it. You know, this is not a work for women. They proved quite otherwise.
LL: Sorry, I missed that. A gate opened over here.
CJ: Oh, sorry. I was going to say that it was Mary Leakey and Maeve Leakey probably were the role models that lead women of this generation, of your generation, to get into this male dominated field because they could say, well Maeve and Mary did it.
LL: Absolutely. I think that's absolutely true. I certainly got a lot from working alongside my mother and she's largely influenced a lot of what I do in this field. I think it would be unfair not to also give some credit to both my grandfather and my father for actually just getting many many people interested in this science. It's such an extraordinary topic and I think when you have big people like that doing this and articulating the excitement of the work, that it obviously influences many people and gets them into the field.
CJ: Well thank you. Oh, I have to ask you simply to identify yourself and what you do for a living.
LL: I¿That's a very hard thing to talk about.
CJ: However you would like to be known.
LL: Well, I can't even answer that really. No, I'm really trying to do a bit of conservation, a bit of fundraising, a bit of paleoanthropology. Trying to do some research on the ground, do some flying (??). I'm sort of dabbling in a lot of things at the moment. First and foremost, I'm a Kenyan and this is where I want to make a difference on the ground in the long run and so I'll have to keep at that. So, I don't know whether¿I wouldn't call myself strictly a paleoanthropologist. I'm a bit of everything.
CJ: I would say the world is your oyster then.
LL: It sure it. If you go...nothing, you can't do, you can do anything if you want to do it, basically. We'll see what five years from now, where I've got to.
CJ: Well, I'll release you from having to talk about yourself anymore. These are always difficult, but I appreciate your patience with so many questions about your family and I think Jessica, the producer here wants to ask you something, but before she does, I just want to say good luck with getting back to Turkana. I hope it works out in the spring for you and thanks for talking with us.
LL: Thank you Chris. It's been a great pleasure talking to you.
CJ: Well, it's been a great pleasure for me and I hope to see lots more and I'm sure we will. I'll be keeping an eye on nature and science for your next papers. Should I be looking for a wedding announcement or should I not even mention that?
LL: No, no I think we'll keep that as a quiet affair.
CJ: Ok, well let me turn you over to Jessica and thanks very much.
LL: Ok, thanks Chris¿.
LL: Hi Jessica¿.