Meave Leakey, a member of what often is called the world’s “first family of paleontology,” will discuss “The Search and Discovery of Our Earliest Ancestors” at noon Tuesday, April 10, in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium.
The talk, free and open to the public, is sponsored by St. Thomas’ University Lectures Committee.
For the past 70 years, the Leakey family has been digging in Africa to find fossilized clues to the origins of mankind. Family members have uncovered vast amounts of data that have changed the way scientists view early humans.
Meave Leakey, who for the past two decades has led the Palaeontology Division at the National Museums of Kenya, is the wife of paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey. He is the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, whose discoveries in Tanzania revolutionized theories of evolution.
In the late 1980s, Meave Leakey focused her fieldwork on Kenyan fossil sites between 8 and 4 million years old. Her efforts received worldwide attention in 1994 with the discovery of fossils of a hominid that began to walk upright some 4 million years ago.
More recently, in August 1999, a member of her team found a 3.5-million-year-old skull from a totally new genus of the human family. The discovery of Kenyanthropus platyops, or “flat-faced man of Kenya,” was announced by Leakey and six colleagues in the March 2001 issue of Nature. The skull, according to Nature, is the oldest, reasonably complete hominin cranium known to date. In recent weeks the discovery has been featured in newspaper and magazine stories around the world.
As explained in the March 28, 2001, issue of Time magazine, the latest discovery reignites the debate of whether mankind evolved in direct steps from a common ancestor, or if the human tree has several trees, some of which did not survive.
“This means we will have to rethink the early past of hominid evolution,” she told Time. “It’s clear the picture isn’t as simple as we had thought.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Leakey said the flat-faced man of Kenya “certainly is a branch of the human family tree, but it may be a twig that became extinct.”
The 3.5-million-year-old flat-faced man of Kenya has significantly different characteristics than the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton called Lucy. Found in 1974 in Ethiopia, Lucy had been considered the top contender as modern man’s forerunner.
The flat-faced man had a more delicate, modern face than Lucy. Another difference is their teeth. Lucy’s large front teeth and huge grinding molars probably were used to eat tough grasses, roots and other vegetation; the flat-faced man’s teeth were smaller and probably used to eat things like fruits, berries and bugs.
Leakey holds a bachelor’s degree and doctorate from the University of North Wales. Although interested at first in marine zoology, she took a position in 1965 at Louis Leakey’s Tigoni Primate Research Center, located just outside of Nairobi. In 1969 she was invited by Richard Leakey to join his field expedition to a newly discovered palaeontological site on the eastern shore of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. She has worked in the desolate, often scorching Turkana area every year since then.
Leakey is the author of more than 50 scientific articles and books. Her research has focused on the evolution of East African fossils, with special interest in monkeys, apes, hominids and carnivores.
Her talk at St. Thomas April 10 will combine scientific observations with tales of her fieldwork in Africa. Her talk will be illustrated with slides.
For more information about the talk, call the St. Thomas Activities and Recreation office at (651) 962-6136.