Richard Leakey dies at 77

January 2, 2022 • 12:22 pm

This just in: Richard Leakey, well known paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician, has died at 77.  (Two of his team’s finds are H. rudolfensis and “Turkana Boy,” placed in H. ergaster.) A brief bio from the France 24 website:

World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and politician Richard Leakey, who unearthed evidence that helped to prove humankind evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country’s president said.

“I have this afternoon… received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, Kenya‘s former Head of Public Service,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement late Sunday.

Leakey, the middle son of famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, had no formal archaeological training of his own but led expeditions in the 1970s that made groundbreaking discoveries of early hominid fossils.

His most famous find came in 1984 with the uncovering of an extraordinary, near-complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of his digs in 1984, which was nicknamed Turkana Boy.

In 1989, Leakey was tapped by then President Daniel arap Moi to lead the national Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), where he spearheaded a vigorous campaign to stamp out rampant poaching for elephant ivory.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both legs.

He also tried his hand at politics, ran civil society institutions, and briefly headed Kenya’s civil service.

In 2015, despite ailing health, he returned to the helm of the KWS for a three year term at the request of Kenyatta.

Here’s Leakey in 2010:

And Turkana boy (1.5-1.6 million years old), the most complete early hominin skeleton found to date:

19 thoughts on “Richard Leakey dies at 77

  1. A thing that is rather impressive about Turkana Boy is that he was maybe 11 years old, or younger, but was already well over 5 feet tall. It is estimated that at maturity he could have topped out at over 6 feet.

      1. Define “mature”?
        IIRC, his long bones still had unfused epiphysal (speelung?) plates at the joints, suggesting that his skeleton still had some growing to do, particularly in height. Whether he was producing sperm and using it … doesn’t fossilize well.

    1. The high point of my trip to Kenya was a visit to the Hall of Man at the National Museum, where Turkana Boy and other important fossils are housed. I shivered in awe.

  2. Just heard this on the BBC radio news. Apparently, the plane crash in which Leakey lost both legs was possibly sabotage (he made many enemies with his stance on fighting corruption and poaching).

  3. I saw him do a talk I think it was at the Royal Society, & got him to sign the Sixth Extinction, a book he wrote with Roger Lewin. I also recall the book appears in a scene in an X Files episode, on a desk I think.

    Great bloke even if you think his confrontational conservation work was not the right approach.

  4. I came across him some years back in a BBC program called ‘The Selfish Green’ (yeah, a play on Richard Dawkins’ book) alongside David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins (hence the program title) and Jane Goodall. Seemed a friendly, knowledgable chap.

  5. Wait for it: I’m sure the Woke hit-job is coming. Surely there’s something at least vaguely racist or sexist somewhere in his past that they can dig up.

    1. Geez, is everything on this blog from now on going to be bashing wokeness? It seems you await such a piece with glee so that you can delight in your smug anti-wokeness. It is really approaching “Old man yelling at (woke) clouds” territory. THis blog used to be interesting and informative.

      1. If you are suggesting that the routine scarlet-lettering of Leakey by the woke is not forthcoming (i.e., that all the wokes of the world will suddenly forego the opportunity to prove their chops re this white male scientist), I’m sure you can find a number of live wagers in Jerry’s audience; if you are suggesting that the hit is forthcoming but irrelevant, you’ll be quite on the defensive in this group 🙂

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