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Meave Leakey  

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Paleontology; Paleoanthropology; Leakey family  

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Cheryl Knott  

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Leakey family; Dian Fossey; Jane Goodall; Primatology; Orangutans  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
2003

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Note: no record of absolute time on DAT machine; the following are ¿timeless' interviews.
Donald Smith [DS]
You must be very proud of Louise. Meave Leakey [ML]
I am proud of Louise. It's so nice to have a daughter whose doing something I'm interested in. And to work with her is really fun.
DS
And she's following the family tradition?
ML
She is, finally. It took her a long time to decide. She didn't want to. I think she was worried that she would feel she was forced into it because everyone would assume that she would do that, so she took a few years off to make sure she really did want to do it. And now she's fully committed, and so it's really good.
DS
And so it's going to be a dynasty for sure?
ML
Well, who knows? She's the third generation now. It's Louis and Mary, Richard, and Louise.
DS
I'm going to ask you to pretend I don't know anything about anything and that'll get us off to a safe start. Tell me, what is Olduvai Gorge, what does it look like?

ML
Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plain. If you look at it from the air you can see that it's just a big gorge running through the Serengeti. If you look at it on foot, you can't really see it's there until you're right on the edge of it. There's a story about the man who originally discovered or rather wrote about it and the story goes that he was collecting butterflies, and he was running after these butterflies with his net and then he fell down the gorge because he couldn't see it. But I don't think it was quite like that but in any event, you don't really know it's there until you get quite close to it. So it's a very flat plain¿covered in animals and completely flat and then there's this gorge that cuts through it. Very dramatic¿It's like a geology textbook situation where you can see every bed, one on top of the other. So you start at the bottom with the lava, and then you go through bed 1 and then bed 3¿it's a classic one on top of the other situation with the sediments, you can see how the sediments were laid down.

DS
Is it like the Grand Canyon?

ML
I suppose in a miniature sense, I mean the Grand Canyon is so big. It's big in E. African standards but it's not big by American standards.

DS
What was it that led Louis to Olduvai Gorge?

ML
I think Louis had originally gone there with an American or German expedition, I think. Anyway he knew about it and when he went there he saw stone tools all over the surface and so seeing the stone tools made him think that if he looked hard enough he'd find fossil evidence of early man. He was convinced that it would be in Africa. You know at that time many people thought that man's evolution was in Europe or Asia and not in Africa and so people tried to dissuade him and say it's not worth it, you're wasting your time, don't go there. But because he knew about these stone tools and he was just convinced that that was the place to look. Mary and Louis actually looked for years and years before they found something in the late 50s. Louis first went there in 1931. They didn't go for long periods of time because they didn't have a lot of money and it was a terrible trip down there in the car, you know, especially if it was wet and rainy, it took them several days to get there. And then they didn't have very long while they were there, and then they had to return. And then eventually, in 1959, they really hit the jackpot so to speak.

DS
What was it like working there do you suppose?

ML In the early days it must have been wonderful because there were lots and lots of animals, rhinos and elephants and those sorts of things. Now the rhinos have gone and there aren't so many animals. But I think in the early days it must have just been fantastic. Water was always a problem for them. Even Richard, I think, remembers drinking these dirty puddles with rhino urine in them. (she laughs)

DS Was it a hardship or was it a nice thing?

ML
One can say that the conditions were tough, but I think if you really enjoy what you're doing it's not a hardship. And I think both Mary and Louis both really loved doing that and so they wouldn't have found it particularly hard, in the sense that it was unpleasant. It was hard physically, but they were both tough people.

DS
When Louis and Mary first arrived do you suppose they had any idea the importance of what they'd find there?

ML
I don't think so. I think they were hoping obviously but you can't predict the future and I think they had no idea at all. At that time things were being found in South Africa and so the story of early human evolution was known from South Africa but not really recognized as such because many people thought it wasn't real. Many people thought it was just apes they were finding down there. And I think that once they started finding things in E. Africa then they began realizing how important it all was. I think Louis was an amazingly, he had enormous vision in a sense and I think he imagined this could happen but he obviously couldn't have know. He was just incredible in the way that he could predict things and the way he saw things in a way that other people couldn't see things.

DS
How would you characterize putting into perspective the importance of the work that he and Mary did?

ML
The first thing was that it set the scene for E. Africa. Before that nothing had really been found of any significance and certainly hadn't been recognized. I think when they began to find things¿then the significance was recognized. So the initial finds were the starting point, the nucleus of what happened later. Then the finds that they made in the 60s were really important and really the discovery of what Louis calls¿was significant but wasn't really our direct ancestry. And then when he discovered Homo habilis and then when he named Homo habilis and named it Homo habilis that caused enormous controversy especially since he had to change the definition of homo because the brain was too small and so in order to conform with the definition of homo he had to change the definition and people didn't think that was right and didn't think it was a good thing to do. And so it met with considerable controversy and lots of publications, and so that was significant, that was the beginning of things happening in E. Africa.
Then I think the other important thing was that it definitely stimulated Richard to carry on with the work, although he initially said he wasn't going to. He initially said he didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps, especially his father's. I think many people feel that if they have a father who is very strong and very charismatic and very popular, they don't want to seem to be riding on their fame. And so Richard initially rebelled against that but then he decided that he really did want to do that and so he carried on with it. And then of course Mary was really the force behind it all. Louis was always raising money and Mary was the one who stayed behind and did all of the hard detailed work, and kept at it. I mean her work is highly respected and is a sort of textbook for all that followed and her methods were very very good. And so in that sense as well they set an example for what happened subsequently.

DS
I was going to ask you about Mary. How would you characterize her contribution, I think you just told me.

ML
Yeah I did.

DS
Louis in fact, has inspired generations of researchers now. What was it about him that attracted people to him, how do you explain that?

ML
I think he was an enormous enthusiastic. He was just bubbling over with enthusiasm. And he made everything sound so exciting and so important and so significant that you couldn't help but get excited by what he was telling you about¿.I think it was his way of communicating that was as much an inspiration as well as what he had to say. And he was enormously knowledgeable and it wasn't just on early man. He knew about wild animals and wild plants and his mind was always racing ahead, so he was going one thing through another and telling you all sorts of things you didn't know about. And so it was always very exciting, and to be with him was always a real experience.

DS
Did Richard inherit some of that?

ML
Definitely he has, yes. They're very different Louis and Richard. But Richard has inherited the ability to communicate and he stimulates people in the same way and inspires them.

DS
Let me ask you a more general question about the origin of humans¿step back and look at the 20th century. What do we know about the origins of humans that we didn't know coming into the 20th century.

ML
Going right back to the very beginning of the 20th century, we actually knew nothing, I mean really nothing. In fact people hardly even believed in evolution at that time. When Dart first discovered¿in 1924, that was really the beginning of what subsequently followed in Africa anyway. And if you looked to Europe at that time¿it was very Eurocentric and everyone believed that since the majority of things had been found in Europe that therefore humanity had its origins in Europe and not in Africa. And when Dart started saying these early ape-like things were actually human ancestors people were horrified, first of all that it could have happened in Africa and secondly that we could have been like apes, that we actually came from an ape-like ancestor. So, if you go back to the very beginning of the century, people's ideas were so different from today. And then I think like everything else humans do, it seems to have increased in the century. Our advances in all sorts of disciplines have increased as you go through the century. The early stages were very slow¿.and if you look now and the way we analyze bones and the different disciplines that are involved, it's just a completely different approach, it's just a completely different subject.

DS
There are people who think there's nothing left to be discovered.

ML
oh, that's, you couldn't be more wrong! There's so much to be discovered. It's so true in this field that the more you find the more questions there are and the more you know the more questions there are. For example when Louis and Mary found¿in 1969 just penned off a note to Nature in 2 weeks. You could never do that now, you have to do all sorts of research and compare it to all sorts of things¿

DS
Where is the leading edge of hominid research now? What do we want to know?

ML
I think there's 2 main areas that people are curious about. One is the very earliest origins of human ancestry, so we're going back now more than 4 million years and the discoveries that Tim White has made in Ethiopia¿it's going to be very significant and very exciting and will take human origins back even further. The other is how Homo sapiens actually evolved and what Homo sapiens relationship is to the Neanderthal man, how homo evolved from an African ancestor and whether¿early Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa into Europe and then evolved into humanity as we know it today or whether there were several migrations out of Africa. So this is a very, this is hazy area , there's different interpretations and we don't know that much about which is correct.

DS
But there's no question, it all came out of Africa.

ML
There's no question that our early ancestor came out.. of that our early ancestry is in Africa. Homo erectus moved out of Africa. It is the first homily to be discovered outside of Africa and that was just under 200 million years ago. Prior to that everything is found in Africa and everything is known from Africa and although the time of exodus of Homo erectus is going back, it was originally thought to be 1 million years, then it was one million and a half and now it is closer to 2 million. It still happened that way, that's how it worked.

DS
Let me just ask you one more question, we were talking about unsung heroes¿. The explorers who tend to get the credit are the Leakey's, the Peary's, the Amundsen's, but they have a lot of help, don't they?

ML
Oh, absolutely, the work that we do depends entirely on our field crew and if it wasn't for the field crew we would have nothing to talk about . I mean, they are the people that make the discoveries. They are the people that work the long, long hours in the hot, hot sun. They are really dedicated and very committed and they have this amazingly positive attitude, they know that if they look long enough they are going to find something and I think that it's because they have that positive outlook that they do find so much, and they're really the key people. They're the people that really matter.

DS
So, tell me what they do.

ML
Well, it's uh¿ We get up early in the morning, we try and start really before the sun comes up so that when it starts to get hot we've already done quite a lot of work. And I think the early hours are really the hours that you can really concentrate and when it gets hot you tend to find concentration more difficult. We work really from about 6, 6:30 or 7 until about 11:30 or 12 and then the sun gets so bright that you really can't see so well so unless it's a cloudy day it really isn't worth continuing when the sun gets so hot.

DS
Just briefly, tell me about one person especially.

ML
Well, the person who is most frequently mentioned is of course Kamoya Kimeu. He worked with Liz and Mary at Olduvai Gorge. Then when Rich had started his own expeditions, Kamoya joined him and he then worked with Rich subsequently. He's now retired actually, but when I took over from Rich at leading the expeditions. Kamoya was working with me, as well. So, up until last year, he's been with field expeditions every single year since 1959.

DS
What has he found?

ML
The most important thing that he found is the Nariokotome Boy (also known as Turkana Boy), which is a skeleton of a Homo erectus youth probably 9 or 10 years old and it's the most incredible skeleton. I think probably the most significant find of the century actually.. The most significant find that's been made anywhere this century.

DS
He found that when you were there?

ML
I wasn't in the field at the time. It was a Sunday and he went off on a Sunday walk and was just automatically, subconsciously looking for bones and he found this tiny fragment of skull and the discovery followed from that initial skull fragment that he found.

DS
Can you just describe one case where he found something when you were there and what happened?

ML
The tibia, I think, at Kanapoi was the one that I was there for when he found it. We were just wandering around looking at the geology, with a geologist, and Kamoya is not so interested in the geology and he can't help looking for bones anyway so while we were discussing geology he found this tibia. And, of course the tibia is the lower leg bone and his discovery of that at Kanapoi was highly significant because that took back¿[DS starts talking over her¿]

DS
Can you describe him finding it and coming to you.

ML
Well we were walking together and he just pointed out this bone and we both looked at it and said, ¿This looks really big.¿ Because we imagined at that time, that our ancestors would be a lot smaller. So we were a bit puzzled by the size because it we as large as a modern human tibia and so we were sort of doubting really that it could be a hominid. But it clearly was. So, it was very exciting.

DS
[asides] Could you just describe what you are doing now?

ML
After the Geographic article, we worked another couple of years at Kanapoi. We were trying to find hominids in situ (?) because generally if you find a specimen that hasn't eroded out it is in much better condition than one that has eroded out. It should be anyway, in better condition. So were investigating beds that apparently, were probably the one's that were giving rise to these specimens that we were finding on the surface. So we did a number of excavations and test trenches and we did find a number of specimens in situ and it took us a long time because excavating is a lot slower than actually looking on the surface. So, after we'd done that for two years and we really hadn't found that much in situ and I felt that we'd picked up most of the material that was to be found on the surface. So this last year, especially because Louise was going to be working farther north, I decided that I would try and work some of those sediments that were slightly younger than Kanapoi but the same age as the sediments Australopithecus afarensis comes from in the Hadas. So I decided to look at those sediments farther north and Louise was looking at sediments slightly younger than that so we had this combined expedition. So this last year I wasn't at Kanapoi. I was searching a very rich site actually, a really very good site. So we were working that.
DS
And for next season?

ML
Next season I want to continue because the site that we worked was so rich that we didn't anywhere near complete the work and there's a lot still to be done and we had to leave specimens out there to collect next year and there's an extension to that side that we haven't even touched. There's just masses of bones to be found.

DS
Tell me once again, your field season.

ML
We work from June until August. It's three months and it's generally the coolest time. It rains in April, so there's water in the rivers at least in June and July. Water's always a problem out there because there isn't any water. So, if it's rained and you can dig further for water in the sand rivers it's a great help.

DS
Identify yourself¿

ML
I'm Meave Leaky and I work at the National Museums of Kenya where I run the Paleontology department and I also run the field work in the Turkana Basin in Paleontology.

Cheryl Knott Interview
24:12

DS
Chatting for level¿. Where have you been most recently? US?

CK
Yes, I've been here, it's been about a year ago since I was in Borneo or nine months, a little less.

DS
So you've been working on writing.

CK
I've been working on writing and I just became an asst. professor at Harvard. I'm teaching there now. This is my first year¿.I've been making that transition from being a graduate student to being a professor¿.

Chatting¿..

DS
You have so many academic credentials¿

DS
You are an anthropologist that studies orangutans. How was it that you came to be inspired by Louis Leakey?

CK
Well, when I was a young child I was always interested in human evolution and well, Louis Leakey really inspired my interest in human evolution. In fact when I was really young and learning what this was all about, I was confused between Louis Leakey and Charles Darwin. I used to get the two of them mixed up. I always thought ¿Wouldn't that be wonderful, to go out and do that, to find fossil human skulls and to learn about why we are the way that we are¿ And that's always really driven me, trying to answer that question.

DS
Your inspiration from Leakey came through reading about him and reading what he'd done. He's inspired people directly. How do you account for that ability?

CK
I don't know, I guess that there is something really charismatic about him. It seems so exciting to be out there, the questions he was¿I remember him talking, explaining things about fossils and the things that they meant and it's very exciting to want to go out and do that yourself.

DS
Identify yourself.

CK
My name is Cheryl Knott and I'm an asst. professor at Harvard University in the Dept. of Anthropology.

DS
How does your work relate with what you learned from Louis Leakey through study?

CK
Well, I think that my work in studying orangutans relates a lot to Louis Leakey's interests. He really got Jane Goodall, and¿. Dian Fossey he got them started on studying the great apes of the wild. Some of the first studies of that kind and had a great interest and in what great apes could teach us about past ages or human evolution and I think that's what I'm really interested in too. I'm interested in orangutans in their own right but also in the bigger picture, how they are different from humans and how they are similar and what they can teach us about changes that have occurred during our own evolution.

DS
What about Jane Goodall?

CK
Well, Jane really paved the way for studies like mine. By going out and doing these long term studies she showed the world and the scientific community the value of this type of work and what it can teach us about ourselves and also these other unique creatures and also about the importance of doing really long term work. So it wasn't until quite a few years, for example that she discovered that chimpanzees were hunting and also killing other group members. These splitting and chimpanzees would kill their own kind. These discoveries were made after quite a few years and so that set the stage for the long term type of project which I'm doing which is over quite a few years. Just like if you were studying a group of people ya know if you arrive for one year you might see nothing, you might think that no wars occur or anything but if you stay there for twenty years you might see a different picture.

DS
So she laid down some paradigms.

CK
So she really laid down the paradigms and the kind of observation that we do is very similar to the way she initially studied chimpanzees.

DS
What about Dian Fossey?
CK
And yet again Dian Fossey was very similar in the kind of work that she did. Dian was really committed to the mountain gorillas. I think one thing Dian did was really raise awareness about conservation. She was very interested in gorilla conservation. And of course, Jane is too. That's her, one of her main tasks right now is raising awareness about chimpanzee conservation. But Dian's work with the mountain gorillas also set the stage for people that are studying these animals to be involved in conserving them too. We can't just go out there and live with them, that they are readily being threatened.

DS
Have you met Jane Goodall?

CK
I've met her once, no actually twice. I went to a talk she gave many years ago and also I met her more recently at a conference.

DS
What was your first impression at the talk?

CK
Well, I think when she gave her talk, she often starts out with giving a chimpanzee pant hoot, so that's very impressive start. She was very mesmerizing. I just remember her stories about the chimpanzees and different animals and really giving you an individual sense and I think that's one thing she also did was to bring out the individual personalities and how we can learn a lot by studying individuals, that they are not all the same, that each animal is different and in total we can learn about chimpanzee society through studying the different animals and I think that others studies of other mammal up to that time really hadn't done that. Partly because if you are studying other groups of animals, they don't have as much individual personality that's maybe debatable but she really brought that out.

DS
When was it that you first saw her?

CK
I think it was 1986, I believe was when I first saw her. It was when her first book, The Chimpanzees of Gambi had just come out.

DS
So you would have been, how old?

CK
23? I think so

DS
At what stage in your academic career?

That was when I'd already graduated from college. So, I already was very familiar with her work before.

DS
Were you headed in your current direction at that time?

CK
I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be¿ by that time I had an undergraduate degree in anthropology and I knew I wanted to study anthropology but it's such a broad field. At one point I thought that I was interested in studying fossils, or maybe studying living human societies and also studying great apes. So I was trying to decide between these different avenues to take.

DS
Did she help you decide?

CK
Well, not exactly I guess, that was still quite a few years. That was still quite a few years before I went back to graduate school but she helped me in the sense that I knew that this was something available to do. In terms of the idea, if she hadn't done this then it wouldn't be an option in terms of something that I could have pursued.

DS
And she was a role model as a woman.

CK
Yeah, I think so, I think she was a role model. Just seeing that she was out there and could do this It's also made other people aware that women could go out and do this type of study gradin agencies or other people the establishment of both Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, established that women were very well suited to this type of work.

DS
Up until fairly recently, in the 20th century women weren't expected to do things that men did. That's changed slot. Do you feel that you are standing on the shoulders of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall?

CK
Yeah, I think so, I think that they really, they're real pioneers in women going out and living in the field and doing this kind of field work. Probably the most.. certainly the most visible of female field scientists. There have been a lot of women since who have done lots of studies of different kinds of animals but they really established that this was ¿ a woman's place was also to be in the jungle and that enabled me to do that in a lot of ways.

DS
Women explorers and researchers in general¿ do you ever feel that a woman's place is not in the field?

CK
No, I feel like it's fine for women .. I mean just as much as it's good for men to be there

DS
Tell me about the focus of your current work and what is your field season?

CK
Well, we don't really have a field season per say so every year it's a little bit different than, say fossil work where you have to be there at a certain time of year because of the temperature or other climate factors but because the rainforest is pretty constant in the rainfall and temperature that doesn't really vary so I've, usually I've been going, well, 94/95 I was there for a year and a half, 15 months and, since then I usually go for a couple, a few months a year.

DS
And your focusing on what particular part?

CK
Well, I've been looking at or studying orangutans or orangatangs as people say but orangutans is how they say it in Indonesian. It means .. Orang means person and utan comes from hutan which means forest. So that's where the word comes from. I've been studying aspects of their reproduction and their ecology and trying to really understand how the changes in the environment affect their reproduction and other aspects of their social behavior. So, really understanding why, why they have such long birth intervals for example. They have the longest birth intervals of any primate, so really understanding what's going on. How the environment is affecting that. We do that through measuring their hormonal levels in urine and also doing genetic studies, by collecting DNA samples from them. And also studying nutrition, collecting everything they eat and analyzing the calories in their foods.

DS
So this is not always the most glamorous work in the world.

CK
No, it's not ¿ it's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of fun to be out there and.. but it's not really glamorous when you are actually in there. Although sometimes, I have to say, you wake up or you're in the forest and you think, ¿Oh, this is really great. This is where I want to be¿ so..

DS
[aside] Do you have anything?¿
General trajectory of work with primates over the course of the century.. early techniques and what's evolved?

CK
How things have evolved? [Exchange between DS and CK]
Well, at the beginning of the century we didn't know very much at all about primate behavior, a lot of misconceptions. Especially about great apes. Gorillas were thought to be really dangerous, a threat to humans. Just very little was known, just from a few accounts from explorers that happened to see the animals or hear stories from local people. And so it wasn't until the 60's really when Jane Goodall first began her work and other people as well, that we started to really learn about these animals and what was going on. How similar they were to humans and begin those type of studies. At first, a lot of those studies were observational and I think that where we are headed now, and what I've been trying to do is really to bring a lot of new techniques into the study of great apes and primates. With these new molecular techniques or hormonal techniques we can actually understand on a different level about why things are happening about why different behaviors or attributes have evolved. That's kind of where we've gone in the past say, 20 or 30 years is from observation and documenting the natural history to really understanding the basis and evolution of those kind of behaviors that have been observed.

DS
A lot of people believe that there's nothing left to be learned, that's obviously not the case here.

CK
Oh, no, there's so much that we don't know, even animals and things that have been very well studied, we are always learning things that we didn't know about.

DS
Did we study, animals or primates to find out about the primates or to find out about ourselves?

CK
Well, I think both, I think that the reason that primates are such a well studied group is because compared to other mammals is because they are so similar to humans. I think that's ok I think it's good to go, I think we are naturally interested in our own species and our own history. But also I think that they are interesting in themselves too and also how they relate to other animals, other similar animals. I'm certainly interested in it on both those levels. So, I think of it as the level of the orangutan and what's going on with those animals and then bigger picture of how it fits in with primates and other animals and still the bigger picture, which perhaps I'm most interested in, with how it relates to humans and human evolution and our relationship.

DS
Is this the trajectory that you see primary research following.. hormones.. endocrinology?

CK
I think that's one of the trajectories that it's going into and combining the lab and the field methods. The reason is that we can learn, let's say with genetic studies, ok we didn't really know before in many cases who was fathering offspring with orangutans, for example, we really don't know who is fathering the offspring. By doing DNA studies we can answer that question. It's a way to answer the questions that we've always been interested in primatology. Things that we have always been interested in . The past you could only use observation so that's one of the big areas we are moving into.

DS
Field season next year?

CK
Yes, I'll be probably be going back in the summer and spend my summers there for the next few years and then occasionally I'll be able to take a sabbatical and be there for 6-8 months at a time.

DS
And you'll be doing?

CK
I'll be doing the same thing, the way it runs with great apes you can't really leave and come back and find them still there and habituated. So I have a large team that's there when I'm not there. I have about 10 Indonesian men who are field assistants right now I have 2 women from the US that are managing the project when I'm not there.

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