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Richard Leakey, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University’s Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, will speak at the University of Delaware on April 23.
Richard Leakey, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University’s Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, will speak at the University of Delaware on April 23.

Pioneering paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey speaks at UD on human origins

Photo by J.J. Kelley for National Geographic Television | Photo illustration by Jeffrey Chase

Kenyan’s legacy includes pivotal fossil discoveries, fierce battles against poaching, corruption

One of the world’s most influential paleoanthropologists—with a name familiar to anyone interested in humanity’s first steps—will visit the University of Delaware on Monday, April 23.

Richard Leakey, whose fossil discoveries have shaped our understanding of human evolution, will speak on “A Review of Human Origins in Africa” at 4 p.m. in the Roselle Center for the Arts. Registration for the event has filled, so the lecture will be streamed online for those who cannot attend in person. Access the live stream at www.udel.edu/udlive.

After his lecture, Leakey will take questions and chat with UD President Dennis Assanis. Leakey is a professor of anthropology affiliated with Stony Brook University, where Assanis was provost before becoming UD’s president in 2016.

“Dr. Leakey is a remarkable scientist and a passionate conservationist, and we are thrilled that we could bring him to UD for this lecture,” Assanis said. “His work helps answer fundamental questions about who we are as human beings and challenges us to take responsibility for every other species on the planet. He has enjoyed an amazing career and led an even more extraordinary life. We look forward to his fascinating lecture and to introducing Dr. Leakey to UD’s excellence in anthropology, Africana studies, environmental conservation, public policy, global partnerships and many other areas.”

Be there—whether in person or online—said UD Professor Karen Rosenberg, a paleoanthropologist whose research also focuses on human evolution.

“This is the talk that people should not miss,” Rosenberg said. “This is a person who has been at the center of some of the most important fossil discoveries made in the last 50 years. He has revolutionized the way we think about early human evolution and he has spent his entire life doing this.”

By live streaming the event, the University makes it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to tune in, no matter where they may be.

A native of Kenya, Leakey is one of three sons born to Louis and Mary Leakey, world-renowned paleoanthropologists and archaeologists who uncovered some of the most important fossils in Africa. Richard Leakey made his own mark in the field when he and his expedition team found a trove of fossils and ancient tools in Kenya’s Turkana Basin, the earliest known record of human ancestry, dating to 1.9 million years and beyond. Analysis of this fossil record and additional fossil discovery continue at Leakey’s Turkana Basin Institute. His wife, paleontologist and zoologist Maeve Leakey, is also a research professor for Stony Brook.

Leakey has survived life-threatening situations, including a 1993 plane crash that forced amputation of both his legs below the knees, and has worked in extreme conditions.

“Doing the independent kind of field work he does is heroic,” Rosenberg said. “The area is far from electricity or water, with all kinds of dangers. He works in really remote regions without much infrastructure. So he is not just looking for fossils and managing a large crew, he is an engineer and has to figure out how to make it all work.”

He surrounded himself with great people, such as Kamoya Kimeu, Rosenberg said, “who is probably the best fossil hunter who ever lived.”

Kimeu was on Leakey’s team in 1984 when he found “Turkana Boy,” the nearly complete skeleton of a pre-adolescent “Homo erectus” male, estimated to have died 1.6 million years ago.

The focus of Leakey’s work in Kenya shifted in later years and grew in political significance. He became director of the National Museums of Kenya and took on a fierce struggle to defend elephant and rhino populations against a culture, rife with corruption, that had long tolerated poaching.

This effort won him both praise and persecution as he pursued regulatory measures against poachers and drew international attention to the plight of the threatened animals. The cause of his 1993 plane crash was never determined, but sabotage is a clear possibility.

Now 73, Leakey continues to speak to audiences around the world, sharing his science and calling out continued black-market exploitation of a fragile elephant population.

“He’s all about bringing science to the general public,” Rosenberg said. “And at this point in history, having scientists who can talk to the general public is a good thing.”

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