Richard Leakey, born in 1944, Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter whose discoveries have contributed immensely to the study of human evolution. His parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, introduced him to paleoanthropology at a young age. Paleoanthropology is the study of fossilized remains of extinct humanlike creatures called hominines, some of which are thought to be the ancestors of modern humans. The elder Leakeys, whose discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania revolutionized theories of early human evolution, often took Richard with them on their fossil-hunting expeditions.
A descendant of British missionaries who came to Kenya in the 19th century, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and studied at Nairobi's Duke of York School. He left school at the age of 16 to start a business leading safaris to photograph wild African animals. When the country became independent in 1963, he chose to become a citizen of Kenya.
Leakey led his first fossil-hunting expedition in 1967 at the age of 19. Since then, he has headed major expeditions to various sites in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Leakey's most famous discoveries were found in the area around Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf) in northern Kenya. Leakey's expeditions have uncovered more than 200 fossils of early hominines around Lake Turkana. These finds include a number of skulls and other bones of early representatives of the genus Homo (which includes modern humans), as well as the earliest skull of an Australopithecus robustus, an extinct relative of modern humans. In 1984 one of Leakey's expeditions discovered an almost complete skeleton of an adolescent boy at Nariokotome on the western shore of Lake Turkana. The 1.6 million year old “Turkana Boy” is the most complete skeleton ever found from this period of human evolution. In 1983 Leakey was involved in another discovery: the 17-million-year-old jaw, teeth, and skull fragments of an apelike creature, Sivapithecus, a possible ancestor of both humans and apes.
As the director of the National Museums of Kenya from 1968 to 1989, Leakey helped establish the Kenyan Museum as one of the most prestigious in Africa. In 1989 he was appointed director of the Kenya Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (later the Kenya Wildlife Service). In this position, Leakey became a leader of the successful international movement to reduce elephant poaching and the black-market sale of ivory. Leakey continued these efforts despite a 1993 plane crash that resulted in the loss of the lower half of both of his legs. In 1994 Leakey resigned as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service after bitter disagreements with other Kenyan government officials about the best way to balance the needs of local farmers with the preservation of Kenya's wildlife.
Disenchanted with the Kenyan government under the leadership of Daniel arap Moi, Leakey helped found a new political party in 1995. The party, named Safina (meaning “ark”), attacked corruption and political repression in Kenya. In 1998 Leakey was appointed a member of Kenya’s parliament, representing Safina. Later that year he resigned his parliamentary seat to accept reappointment as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. In 1999 Moi appointed Leakey head of Kenya’s civil service in a new drive intended to fight government corruption.
Richard Leakey is married to Meave Leakey, an important paleoanthropologist in her own right. Her 1995 discovery of an approximately 4-million-year-old skeleton in the Lake Turkana region is the oldest known specimen of a hominine that walked upright on two legs. With science writer Roger Lewin, Richard Leakey coauthored Origins (1977), People of the Lake (1976), and Origins Reconsidered (1992). He also wrote an autobiography, One Life (1984).