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Richard Leakey
Richard Leakey
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Richard Leakey Interview

Paleoanthropologist and Conservationist

June 21, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Richard Leakey

How would you describe your childhood growing up in Nairobi?

Richard Leakey: I think it was an unusual childhood, looking around the world today. We lived in rather simple circumstances. My father was a public employee running the then-museum, not well paid. He was really quite busy, didn't see a lot of him. My mother was working as an archeologist in the museum. She was fairly busy and I think never really liked having children. So we were rather left alone as boys, and there were four years between us. So we weren't at all close to each other, my younger brother and myself and my older brother. We went to a nearby school, which I didn't like, found it irritating and boring. The good parts about my growing up in Kenya was that my parents two or three times a year would go off some way into the wilder places to look for artifacts and archeological traces, fossils, and these were generally in areas where there was a lot of wildlife, a lot of natural beauty, a lot of adventure, and we used to enormously look forward to these outings for two or three weeks at a time where we lived pretty simply, in very simple tents, but it was just a tremendous adventure. I think more than anything else, it brought me in close touch with nature and the environment and gave me a feel for the land.

We've read that you discovered your first fossil at the age of six.

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
Richard Leakey: Well, those stories become sort of currency. It's true that from the age of about three or four, I'd go with my brothers on expeditions. This was an expedition on the shores of Lake Victoria. It's a particularly hot and humid area, and usually, fossils are found in areas where there is very little shade. They're open areas where erosion has carved up a lot of rough badlands country. So there is very little opportunity to get out of the sun. My parents were excavating some particularly interesting bone. It was late morning, and I had been with them since early morning. I was very hot, there were a lot of flies, and it seemed to me well past the time that I should be taken back for a swim in the lake and lunch. Like all little boys, I was saying, "What time is it? When are we going? Why don't you stop?" or "Can't I go back?" I know I was a pain in the neck.

My father said, "Just go off and find something to do. Find a fossil. Push off!" So, I pushed off. I wasn't usually encouraged in this way and had a little brush and a dental pick. I didn't go very far, and funnily enough I found a bone washing out on the ground. I had been told to dig it up. So, I started picking away at it and got quite intrigued because the bone went on into the ground, brushed away a little more dirt and picked away a few more cobbles, and a tooth appeared. Pushed on a little bit more, and another tooth appeared, and it really became quite absorbing for a five-year-old. So, I forgot all about lunch and the flies and was happily poking away at my little bone, when a shadow sort of fell over me, and they said, "What have you got there?" I said, "Well, it's a bone. Look, it's got teeth, and it's going on. There's more of it," and they said, "Oh. Why don't you move off? Find another. We'll take this one over." And I said, "Well, at least we go to lunch." "No. Lunch will wait now because we want to see what you found." So, I sort of got into worse trouble. Lost my bone, lost an early lunch, lost a swim in the lake, and thought, "Damn it! That's no way to live," and I sort of got very negative about paleontology from that day on.

What didn't you like about school?

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
Richard Leakey: I never really understood why, if people had the knowledge, we were being taught it. It just made no sense to me. For instance, if people could add two and two and make four, why should I have to do it? It was obvious that there were people better at it than me. Why should I be learning these things? I remember thinking, when they came up with tables that you could refer to, why not carry a book of tables with you? Why not carry a slide-rule with you? Now, with these pocket calculators that young people are allowed to take into examinations and tests, why were we not given that opportunity? All right, we didn't have a calculator. It just seemed an exercise in trying to beat one into submission of some kind, and I didn't like that at all.

What interested you as a kid?

Richard Leakey: I was not interested in sports. Chasing a ball seemed to me a particularly unnecessary form of strenuous activity. I could see no reason to kick a ball and then run after it. It didn't make sense to me. I guess I was not a good sport player, and therefore, I found joining a team -- I was always the one who got the blame for not doing the right thing -- and so I didn't enjoy team sports. I didn't enjoy the teachers. I didn't enjoy the discipline of being -- and in those days, the schools in Kenya were quite disciplined. If one got into quite serious trouble, corporal punishment, you got beaten for the most minor infractions of the laws. We used to wear short trousers, just above the knee, and then long stockings which had to be three fingers below the knee, and if one's shorts were too short or too long and the stockings had slipped because the garters weren't tight, one would get called up and punished. This seemed to me a form of unfair treatment, and I just didn't like it. But you could not complain to your parents because that was considered to be weak and whingeing, and neither parents nor the authorities looked well on somebody who couldn't take his punishment. So it just was a lonely time for me.

Were there books that interested you when you were growing up? Were there events that influenced you?

Richard Leakey: I think stories rather than books.

I loved to hear stories from periodically listening to my parents and their visitors. They had a lot of visitors because they were quite successful people. Hearing about how people had done extraordinary things, gone to extraordinary places. I was particularly excited about the idea of science, discovering new things. My parents used to talk, as I have done to my children, about the excitement of being the first to know something, that you know later will become known to millions of people through publication, the first to see something and to understand something. Those sort of concepts certainly excited me.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I think watching nature and puzzling about a conflict which still puzzles me today. That is, the idea that we were so different from everything else around us and that we were created separately.

I had relatives who were very much in the church and an uncle who was an archbishop in the church in East Africa. The sort of awareness that he believed that humans were created in a special way, created in God's image and had souls and consciences and felt pain and joy, whereas the others didn't -- whether it was a dog or a cat or an elephant -- that these were somehow just chunks of flesh that were wandering around their own way, I always found that very hard to understand. I suppose one of the moments I remember most as a young boy, when the present British Queen's father died, and she was to become the Queen of England, and there were church services, and I was sort of in a religious-oriented school, and so there were masses and church services that we boys were forced to attend. It was a Catholic school, and not being Catholic, not in fact being christened or baptized, I was excluded from mass and things of that kind. I remember sitting outside and found a couple of praying mantises who amused me because praying mantises often sit up with their hands together like this, and I wondered if they, too, had been caught up in this conundrum. I remember a happy two hours -- when everyone was singing their hearts out -- communing with two praying mantises about what they thought of the whole thing. So, those sort of things amused me.

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