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Louise Leakey on what ancient fossils tell us about our future

Louise Leakey on what ancient fossils tell us about our future

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Continuing her family's work on the origins of humans, Louise Leakey talks about what fossils can help us understand about ourselves.

Her grandparents, Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, made ground-breaking discoveries that illuminated what we know about human origins. Her father, Richard Leakey, continued their fieldwork before launching a political career in Kenya. And in 2001, her mother Meave Leakey, announced with her team the discovery of a new genus and species of human ancestor.

Now, Louise Leakey is at the helm of her family's research dynasty. An assistant professor at Stony Brook University in New York, Leakey spends most of her time in Kenya. Last week, as she geared up for a three-month expedition, Leakey spoke with me from Nairobi about why her work, though it deals with ancient fossils and bones, sheds light on our future.

What are you working on now?

I'm working with my father and mother to set up the Turkana Basin Institute. This will be a privately-funded and endowed research facility that has field centers up at Lake Turkana, on the west and the east sides of the lake. We have facilities that include laboratories and accommodations. This will enable students and scientists to use these facilities to do research in this remote region more effectively. Although the field research in the past has primarily been geared around prehistory, it is by no means limited to this interest.

Secondly, I continue to co-direct the Koobi Fora Research Project, which is the research project at Lake Turkana that has, over the past 40-odd years under the directorship of my father and mother, and now my mother and myself, made numerous fossil discoveries including those relating to the origins of humankind. Over the last 10 years, we have concentrated our efforts on the east side of Lake Turkana, systematically working fossil exposures that date from four million to one million years ago. We are now revisiting areas that were searched during the '70s with a new team of people and with better understanding and new technologies for recording the finds. We're still focusing on this same time frame trying to answer questions to better understand our own origins and the context in which we evolved.

What are the questions you're still trying to answer about human origins?

One of the areas we're interested in surrounds the origin of Homo as a genus. Where did it come from? What were the ancestral species that led to this origin? There still remains some discussion about which specimens one can attribute to the species Homo habilis. We're looking for fossils that are going to help us understand that. Secondly, what do the limb bones of various human ancestors look like? At Lake Turkana, you don't get complete skeletons preserved very often, so we've got fragments as a starting point. To get articulated skulls with the bodies is very unusual, but would be very helpful. If we could find associated elements, this would help us understand more about these different species of hominids.

What are the challenges you -- and you parents -- continue to face in your work?

One of the biggest challenges, when you're working at Lake Turkana, is distance. It takes three and a half days to get up the east side of Lake Turkana to the fossil sites from Nairobi, where supplies are purchased. A second challenge is actually getting the funding to do this work. There's a misconception that because we've done the work for such a long time that we are well-funded. That's not the case. We have a long term relationship with the National Geographic Society which has essentially kept us in the field for three months of each year for many years. But every year, we reapply for support and look for other donors who can help to support the work. Understanding our own origins is not on a high-priority list in terms of support for many people. But I think it's increasingly important in today's world to actually understand who we are and where we came from, to understand that we all share a common origin and, secondly and probably even more importantly, that we all actually come from Africa.

Talk about why you decided to follow in your parents' footsteps. What about this work is so important to you?

It's quite difficult when you live in this part of the world to work and focus on old bones when there are so many things that one could get involved in that you feel would actually make a real difference to the country and to the world. But to discover fossils of our ancestors dating back four million years ago provides the much needed evidence of our ancestry and provides an understanding that today we are but one species that share a common origin and a common future. It helps us to understand how easy it is for a species to go extinct. Today we are faced with a massive number of people on this planet and we're fast changing our landscape and causing the extinction of much of the natural world. In order to survive as a species, we have to control our numbers. This is something that we have failed collectively to do and it has devastating consequences which we understand, but seem to do very little about.

Image: Louise Leakey

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure