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In memoriam: Fossil hunter Richard Leakey dies at 77

Richard Leakey

Richard Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist, died Jan. 2 at age 77.

He was born Dec. 19, 1944, in Nairobi, Kenya, to the famous archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey. As a child, Leakey accompanied his family on archaeological expeditions and discovered his first fossil when he was 5. After dropping out of high school when he was 16, Leakey entertained various careers such as leading safaris, but ultimately chose to follow in his parents’ footsteps, becoming an accomplished paleoanthropologist.

His achievements included finding the full skeleton of a 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus known as “Turkana Boy” and co-discovering in 1972 the “Black Skull,” the earliest australopithecine fossil discovered to date. He also wrote numerous books.

Caned in school as a child for missing chapel, he vowed to never become Christian. “I didn’t ever have religion,” Leakey said during an interview with the Academy of Achievement on June 21, 2017. 

He made his first forays into paleoanthropology and met archaeologist Margaret Cropper. In 1965 they married, but divorced in 1969 after having a daughter, Anna. He married zoologist Meave Epps in 1970 and they had two daughters: Louise, also a paleoanthropologist, and Samira.

In 1990, he was appointed the first chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service and spearheaded efforts to stop elephant poaching. A plane he was piloting crashed in 1993 and both his legs had to be amputated. He told President Daniel Arap Moi, a religious man, not to pray for him.

Leakey left Kenya in 2002 to teach anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York and chair the Turkana Basin Institute. In 2007, he was appointed interim chairman of Transparency International’s Kenya branch and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2013, he received the Isaac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Association. President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Leakey chairman of the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 2015.

In his book, One Life: An Autobiography (1983), Leakey wrote: “I myself do not believe in a god who has or had a human form and to whom I owe my existence. I believe it is man who created God in his image and not the other way around.”

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