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If you like Meave Leakey's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Sylvia Earle,
Gertrude Elion,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Sally Ride,
Richard Schultes,
Donna Shirley,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

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Meave Leakey
Meave Leakey
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Meave Leakey Biography

Pioneering Paleoanthropologist

Meave Leakey Date of birth: July 28, 1942

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  Meave Leakey

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Meave Epps was born in London, England, the oldest of three children. From an early age she was fascinated by animal life. She collected insects, explored tidal pools, and with the encouragement of her physician father, made photographs of wildlife. At the University of North Wales, she earned a B.S in Zoology. She planned to pursue a career in marine zoology, but in the 1960s, there were no jobs open to women on seagoing expeditions. One day in 1965, a university friend drew her attention to a small advertisement in The Times of London. The renowned paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey was looking for a young zoology graduate to work at Tigoni Primate Research Centre near Nairobi, Kenya. Meave Epps headed for the nearest phone booth to answer the ad. She got the job, and not long after, was off to East Africa.

Since the early 1930s, Louis Leakey had searched East Africa for the oldest remnants of the human past. Discoveries made by members of the Leakey family -- Louis, his wife Mary, and their son Richard -- had already revolutionized our understanding of the origins of the human species. While working at Tigoni, Meave collected data for a doctoral dissertation on the forelimb skeleton of modern monkeys. She was awarded her doctorate form the University of North Wales in 1968. In those days, women were still frequently denied places on scientific expeditions, but in 1969, Richard Leakey invited Meave to join his field team at Koobi Fora, on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. This would mark the beginning of her lifelong involvement with the fossil-rich Turkana Basin, which contains fossils from 27 million years ago up until the recent past. She has returned to Turkana every year since.

Meave Leakey Biography Photo
Richard and Meave were married in 1970. In the first years of excavation at Turkana, Richard and Meave Leakey were finding new hominid remains every week. Meave Leakey's early research at Turkana focused on finding fossil remains of the very earliest human ancestors, specimens between eight and four million years old. In 1994, her team found fossil remains of some of the earliest known hominids, about 4.1 million years old, at Kanapoi, southwest of Lake Turkana. These fossils revealed the existence of a previously unknown species, walking upright half a million years earlier than any previously known specimen. Meave Leakey identified the species as Australopithecus anamensis, possibly an ancestor of Australopithecus afarensis, the species of the celebrated "Lucy" skeleton, the oldest previously known hominid species. At the time, anamensis was the oldest known specimen of a bipedal primate. Meave Leakey's field and lab work had won her an international reputation in paleoanthropology, long a male-dominated specialty.

Meave Leakey Biography Photo
When Richard Leakey left his job as Director of the National Museum in 1989 to take over the Kenya Wildlife Service, Meave became the coordinator of field research in the Turkana Basin. The following year, her team found a 3.5 million-year-old hominid skull in Turkana. After spending more than a year cleaning and analyzing the skull, and a partial upper jaw, she classified the remains as a previously unidentified hominid species, Kenyanthropus platyops (flat-faced Kenya man). She proposed that it belonged to an entirely different genus than Australopithecus. Her finding suggests that two separate hominid lineages -- Kenyanthropus and Australopithecus -- existed simultaneously. Either might be the direct ancestor of our species, Homo sapiens. This remarkable discovery, published in the journal Nature in 2001, made headlines around the world, since it implied a far more complex line of descent than the earlier conception of a straight evolutionary line running from Australopithecus to Homo.

Meave Leakey Biography Photo
Meave Leakey's subsequent discoveries have raised questions about the more recent stages of human evolution as well. It was long assumed that the genus Homo evolved in a straight line from Homo habilis to Homo erectus to modern man. In 2000, she found a Homo erectus skull in close proximity to an upper jaw of Homo habilis, both dating from roughly the same period, 1.5 million years ago. This suggests that the two different species of Homo lived side by side, although it is unlikely that they interacted. They evidently shared a common ancestor, who may have lived two to three million years ago, a period for which the fossil record is meager. The Homo habilis jaw is the most recent specimen of habilis yet found, dating from an era when it was thought that habilis had given way to Homo erectus. "If you look at what we knew in 1969 compared to what we know now, it's absolutely incredible," she says.

Meave Leakey Biography Photo
Much of Meave Leakey's research over the years has focused on re-examining previously excavated sites to gather additional data on the environment that shaped the evolution of species. She proposes that the evolution of plants in the last seven million years caused grasslands to appear where forest had previously dominated, and that the appearance of grass-eating insects and other small animals would have lured four-legged predators from the forests. The change in diet may have led to bipedalism, as a more upright creature has an advantage in collecting insects, berries and birds' eggs. She remains open to other explanations about the origin of bipedalism, noting that her Australopithecus anamensis walked upright in what was probably bush and open woodland. In addition to her research in the origin of bipedalism, she is exploring the evolution of manual dexterity, which she considers the next major step in human evolution.

Today, Meave Leakey is a Research Associate in the Paleontology Division of the National Museum of Kenya. As a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, she makes annual trips to the United States for additional research projects. Alongside her daughter, Dr. Louise Leakey, she continues to probe the origins of our own genus, Homo, and the emergence of Homo erectus, the first human ancestor species to migrate from Africa.

This page last revised on Sep 18, 2007 20:08 EDT
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