Famed Paleoanthropologist and Wildlife Conservationist Richard Leakey Dies at 77

His team’s discovery of early human skulls and skeletons cemented Africa as the cradle of humanity

An image of paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey holding a cast of an early hominid skull
Richard Leakey's most notable find came in 1984 when he uncovered a near-complete Homo erectus skeleton dated about 1.5 million years ago. The skeleton dubbed Turkana Boy is 40 percent complete and is the most near-complete fossil skeleton of a human ancestor ever found. Mickey Adair/Getty Images

Richard Leakey, a world-renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist who uncovered evidence that supports human origins and evolution in Africa, died at 77 on January 2, reports Arnaud Siad for CNN.

The announcement was made late Sunday evening by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement, but a cause of death was not stated, reports Scott Neuman for NPR.

On December 19, 1944, Leakey was born in Nairobi to notable parents Louis and Mary Leakey, who made many profound discoveries in human evolution, per NPR. 

At first determined to evade his parents' field, Richard Leakey would eventually follow in their footsteps with a few key fossil finds himself, report Alyssa Lukpat and Christine Chung for the New York Times. After a brief stint as a safari guide, he finally caved in to fossil fever and began pursing anthropology. After running out of money before he could support his degree in London, he returned to Kenya to learn about anthropology firsthand, according to an archived article published by the New York Times in 1979.

While he never completed formal schooling, Leakey began exploring the eastern shore of Kenya's Lake Turkana in 1967, where he and his "Hominid Gang" discovered a treasure trove of fossils that changed how the world understood human evolution, per the New York Times. His team unearthed nearly 200 hominid fossils belonging to early humans were found in this area, per the University of Missouri in St. Louis. These discoveries landed Leakey on the cover of Time magazine in 1977. In 1981, he gained public noteriety as the host of the BBC television program calledThe Making of Mankind, NPR reports.

An image of the Turkana Boy fossil
Turkana Boy resides in the National Museum of Kenya and is the oldest known near-complete skeleton of an ancient human ancestor.

  Smithsonian Institution

Leakey's most notable find came in 1984 when he uncovered a near-complete Homo erectus skeleton dated about 1.6 million years ago. The skeleton, dubbed Turkana Boy, is 40 percent complete, making it the most complete fossil skeleton of a human ancestor ever found. Based on the fossil's teeth structure, the boy was about eight or nine years old when he died.

Leakey also held various official positions in Kenya, including chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and director of the National Museums of Kenya, per CNN. In his conservation work, Leakey was a leading force against rhino and elephant poaching, becoming a prominent voice against the global ivory trade, reports Jane Clinton for the Guardian. In a 1989 publicity stunt, Leakey had Kenya's 12-ton stockpile of confiscated tusks burned to make the point that once the tusks are removed from the elephant, they have no value, per the New York Times. This gesture was repeated in 2016.

After his KWS career, Leakey entered politics in the 1990s with a campaign bid against Kenya's former President Daniel Toroitich Moi's corrupt regime, NPR reports.

Before his passing, Leakey dreamed of opening a museum honoring humankind named Ngaren to translate the science of human origin into captivating content. When construction begins in 2022, the museum is set to open in 2026 and will overlook the Rift Valley, where Turkana Boy was discovered.

"Ngaren will not be just another museum, but a call to action. As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long-extinct species, many of which thrived far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species," Leakey said in a statement.  

When Leakey passed, he was chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University in New York. Leakey is survived by his wife Meave Leakey; their daughters, Louise and Samira; Anna, a daughter from a previous marriage; and three grandchildren, the New York Times reports.

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