Anthropologists: THE LEAKEY FAMILY

Without the groundbreaking--and backbreaking--efforts of Louis, Mary and Richard, the story of how we evolved would still be largely untold

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    Much like his father, Richard has strong opinions and is often hasty to make pronouncements about his discoveries. This was especially true when he presented, in 1972, a Homo skull that he believed was 2.9 million years old. Adhering to his father's belief in very early Homo, this find, older than all Australopithecus fossils then known, was a welcome and stunning endorsement of Louis' views. Louis and Richard had been feuding over museum matters, and this discovery brought them together again in a final meeting shortly before Louis died. He spent his last days comforted by the knowledge that he had been proved correct. Since then, however, the skull has been correctly dated to 1.8 million years; despite Louis and Richard's objections, most anthropologists today believe Australopithecus is indeed one of our ancestors.

    Richard, meanwhile, continued his rise to prominence. Fossil finds such as the astonishingly complete 1.6 million-year-old skeleton of an African Homo erectus (Homo ergaster to some) and the Black Skull have added immeasurably to our knowledge of human origins. His career benefited from best-selling books, a television series on human evolution and popular lecture tours.

    Paleoanthropology has not been his only passion, however. He will probably be best remembered in Africa for founding an opposition political party in Kenya in 1995, after which he suffered public humiliation, including being beaten with leather whips. But Richard has proved astonishingly resilient. Even after a life-saving kidney transplant in 1979 (a gift from his estranged brother Philip) and the partial loss of both legs in a 1993 plane crash, he continues to exude confidence.

    In 1989 President Daniel arap Moi appointed Richard head of what is now the Kenya Wildlife Service. Richard raised hundreds of millions of dollars and revamped Kenya's approach to wildlife conservation, heavily arming antipoaching units and instituting a controversial edict permitting the shooting of poachers on sight. He resigned in 1994 amid politically motivated accusations of corruption, racism and mismanagement--only to be reinstated by Moi 4 1/2 years later.

    Nevertheless, the Leakeys will forever be synonymous with paleoanthropology and even today show all signs of being alive, well and contributing productively to the field. Richard's wife Meave, a trained zoologist, and their eldest daughter Louise are currently leading teams to northern Kenya, where hominids in excess of 4 million years old are being found. The stage is set for the first family of anthropology to continue well into the next century.

    Donald C. Johanson is director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University

    Talk to Richard Leakey Sunday, March 28, 10 a.m. E.T., on AOL (Keyword: AOL Live)

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