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Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey dies at age 77

Monday, January 3rd 2022 - 21:53 UTC
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Leakey's most notorious discovery was that of the Turkana Boy in 1984 Leakey's most notorious discovery was that of the Turkana Boy in 1984

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, whose surname is tantamount to the origins of mankind, has died Sunday at his native Nairobi, it was announced. He was 77.

“I have this afternoon... received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement late Sunday.

The globally famous conservationist gained worldwide notoriety alongside other members of his family for groundbreaking discoveries since the early 1970s of skeletons deemed to belong to what could be referred to as “the missing link,” which were believed to prove humankind evolved in Africa.

The legendary scientist remained active way into his 70s despite not being able to walk, in addition to bouts of skin cancer, kidney and liver disease.

Born Dec. 19, 1944, Leakey was destined for palaeoanthropology -- the study of the human fossil record -- as the middle son of Louis and Mary Leakey, one of the most famous couples in history as researchers into man's origins. Thanks to them, there is overwhelming evidence that homo sapiens sapiens originated in Africa, which has been confirmed by genetic testing that humans separated from the chimpanzee line 5 million to 7 million years earlier. The Leakeys spent their lives digging in the earth in the search for human origins.

At age 23 Richard Leakey won a research grant from the National Geographic Society to dig on the shores of northern Kenya's Lake Turkana, despite having no archaeological training other than the one acquired through a lifetime spent with his parents. In the 1970s he led expeditions that reshaped the understanding of human evolution with key discoveries in 1972 and in 1975.

A TIME magazine cover featured Leakey under the headline “How Man Became Man”. In 1981, he took part in a BBC television series named The Making of Mankind.

Richard Leakey's most famous unearthing was that in 1984 of the so-called Turkana Boy, a near-complete homo erectus skeleton, which is now on display at Kenya's national museum in Nairobi. It is around 1.6 million years old it is believed he was aged about eight when he died.

In the late 1980s Leakey also led the fight against the then legal global ivory trade. President Daniel Arap Moi in 1989 appointed him to lead the national wildlife agency, which later changed its name to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). He then ordered 12 tons of tusks be burnt to make the point that they have no value once removed from elephants and issued a shoot-to-kill order against armed poachers.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley where he had made his name. He survived but lost both legs. “There were regular threats to me at the time and I lived with armed guards. But I made the decision not to be a dramatist and say: 'They tried to kill me.' I chose to get on with life,” he told the Financial Times.

Leakey was forced out of KWS a year later and began a less successful career in politics. In 1998 Moi appointed him to head Kenya's civil service and fight corruption, which proved impossible, leading to his resignation just two years later.

In 2015, as another elephant poaching crisis gripped Africa, President Kenyatta asked Leakey to again take the helm at KWS, this time as chairman of the board, a position he would hold for three years.

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