THE FOSSIL HUNTER
Pretty much most of what we conclusively know about the origin of ourselves as a species – as human beings – we know because of the Leakeys.
To some, digging for humanity’s origins in a remote, vast basin in East Africa may sound like a romantic notion.
To Louise – third generation of the Leakey paleontologists – the need to understand who we are and how we got here is far grittier, far more urgent, far more fundamental to our existence.
As she said in an interview to Singularity University recently, “The most important thing we lose sight of and that the past can tell us is that our history only goes back eight million years. And two million years ago, we had at least four types of human ancestors. As little as 50,000 years ago, there were four. Today, there’s only us. Something happened to wipe out the others.”
That, to Louise and to her family – inarguably the most important human origins researchers of our time – is why there’s an urgency to the search for definitive information about how we evolved. “As a species, we’re not very good at doing what is needed to ensure the survival of the species,” she points out.
When her missionary great-grandparents migrated to Africa at the turn of the previous century to work with the underprivileged, they had no idea they were setting in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to one of the most staggering discoveries of our time: that human life as we know it originated in Africa and that every single human being around the world today is, fundamentally, of African descent.
It was Louise’s grandfather Louis, born in Africa, who set the family on the path of fossil studies: as a teenager he was given a book on stone age tools that so fascinated him, it sparked the love affair from which no Leakey has quite since escaped.
Today, that research is centered around the Turkana Basin, a depression – also called the Rift Valley – that runs from the Gulf of Eden to Malawi. A massive geological fault, it’s a feature even visible from outer space. Because it’s a depression, rivers flow and form lakes and other slow-moving rivers that are dynamic and constantly changing their routes. The rivers carry along sediments brought from the erosion of the highlands and deposit them in the basin – and each layer of sediment carries with it the bones of the animals that lived in the highlands for centuries. “There’s nowhere else in the world quite like the Turkana Basin,” says Louise. “Fossil remains have been preserved there among ash layers deposited through time that can be dated very accurately. In many ways it is an exceptionally good field lab.”
She’s as comfortable in the basin as she is anywhere in the world – her first visit to the basin was when she was merely weeks old. Like her grandparents, and her parents before her, all vacations since childhood were spent excavating for artefacts and fossils. In 2001, the persistence finally paid off – although she had made important discoveries before, in 2001 Louise and her mother Meave found a previously unknown hominid, the 3.5-million-year-old Kenyanthropus platyops, at the same region where her father, Richard, had discovered the ‘Turkana Boy’ fossil, and near Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, where her grandparents, Louis and Mary Leakey, discovered the bones of Homo habilis.
The mother-daughter duo continued their collaborative search and in August 2007 Louise and Meave, both National Geographic explorers-in-residence , dug up new Homo habilis bones that may rewrite humanity’s evolutionary timeline. We tend to believe that we evolved from apes in an orderly progression – from ape to hominid to human – but the Leakeys’ find suggests that different species of pre-humans actually lived side by side at the same time for almost half a million years.
Louise – a paleoanthropologist – brings to the field a passion for the gritty, laborious work of fossil hunting but an equally appreciative understanding of the role technology can play in speeding up the search for answers. iPads have replaced paper and pins, digital cameras and satellite imaging have made establishing the exact point of important finds easier, and cross-engagement with other disciplines including archaeology as well as dietary, climatic and isotopic studies help draw an elaborate picture of what happened to our planet over the last 8 million years.
She recently completed her Ph.D at the university of London and now heads the Koobi Fora Research Project, as comfortable with the rigour of academic research as she is with the rigour of field work. She’s also excited about bringing other contemporary sciences – genetic studies, for instance, to bear on fossil research, to help decode information on how we evolved.
One would imagine it’s easy to get people interested given the scale of what the Leakey’s are trying to unearth. She laughs. “Not really. Ironically, if we were working on dinosaurs we would have much more support than we do now. We need to somehow popularise the field of human origins again.”
There’s no question she’s managing that feat almost singlehandedly herself.