This month, Nature magazine published the findings of a study carried out on hominid fossils found between 2007 and 2009 in the Turkana Basin in Kenya/Ethiopia by a mother-daughter-led team: we’re talking about paleoanthropologists Meave and Louise Leakey. It turns out that there were two hitherto unheard-of Homo species alive at the same time as our Homo erectus ancestors! The fact that only our Homo sapiens species survived all the way to 2015 makes us look pretty lonely, so it’s a warm and fuzzy feeling to know we had company (with whom we perhaps could not breed, though) back then.
Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia share the Turkana Basin, and these fossils were discovered East of the modern Lake Turkana – also called the Jade Sea for its beautiful dark green colour:
But halt! Before you think there were only two women paleoanthropologists in the Leakey family, Mary Leakey forces to begin this story at the beginning:
Mary Leakey (1913–1996), was a British paleoanthropologist. She worked with Louis Leakey (husband), a founder of research institutes and projects, who seems to have been a visionary, but also worked at the excavation sites where Mary was regularly digging.
Here be the Google doodle of Mary on her 100th birthday:
Let’s list her discoveries. (Trigger warning: they might make you feel you have nothing to show for your life.)
– 1930–34, UK: Apprenticed (archaeology) to one Dorothy Liddell.
– 1934, UK: Found what turned out to be the largest elephant tooth known in Britain up to that time.
– 1935 to 1959, Tanzania (clearly she hadn’t heard of gap years): Found all sorts of Stone Age stone tools ranging from chopping instruments to axes.
– 1948, Kenya: Along with Louis Leakey, found a Proconsul africanus
– 1959, Tanzania: Found the skull of an Olduvai Hominid number 5, aka “Nutcracker Man” (look at his jaw and you’ll know why the nickname).
– 1960, Tanzania: Found the first fossilized remains of Homo habilis aka “Handy Man”, along with Louis.
– 1976-78, Tanzania: Found the now-famous Hominin footprints preserved in volcanic ash. Hominins were ancestors of us Homos (now we know why LGBT rights are vital). These footprints predated the then estimated date of bipedalism (that pesky cause of backaches, according to yours truly) by 3 million years.
Incidentally, over the years, she discovered 15 new species of other animals.
This stuff pretty much speaks for itself.
Maeve Leakey, PhD
Maeve (born 1942) is Mary’s daughter-in-law, as we see from above family tree; she married Richard, paleontologist. But this wasn’t no “Tu Tu Main Main” sasuraal, at least professionally.
1999, Kenya: She and her team discovered a skull that turned out to belong to Kenyanthropus platyops, aka the “flat-faced man of Kenya” – clearly another overachiever. No offence, Maeve, but at 57, the only digging I hope to be doing is in a cup of ice cream. She followed this discovery up with research about the genuses Australopithecus and Kenyanthropus. She works for the Turkana Basin Institute, founded by sasurji Louis.
Louise Leakey, PhD
Meave’s daughter Louise, born 1972, works at the Turkana Basin too, with her mother. She tweets lovely pics of excavation sites. We’ll spare you her bio-data, for fear of too much self-flagellation.
PS: She’s also a princess. You heard right. She married a Belgian prince, who happens to be a primatologist too. I think it’s now safe to say that this paleontology/anthropoogy/biology stuff is a family business.
Finally we come to the Trimates, three women who were hired by the Leakey grandfather, Louis, to work with primates. These be:
Louis got them funding (though it didn’t quite materialize properly with Galdikas while Louis was alive) – funding seems to have been another of his mover-and-shaker talents.
So to sum up, in the Leakey extended family tree, we’ve got:
Male paleontologists/paleoanthropologists: 2 (Louis and Richard)
Female paleoanthropologists: 3 (Mary, Maeve and Louise)
Male primatologists: 1 (The Prince)
Female primatologists: 3 (Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas)
Woohoo for females! Since that’s the only thing an underachiever like me has in common with them (except that we’re all homo sapiens), I’m milking it for all it’s worth.