SPIEGEL Interview with paleontologist Richard Leakey A Wealth of Human Fossils Could Soon Be Destroyed

Richard Leakey and his parents Louise and Mary -- working in Kenya -- have been responsible for some of the most important finds in the search for the origins of man. Now, though, encroaching cattle herds endanger the hunting grounds. Leakey spoke with SPIEGEL about hominids, the threat to unique archaeological sites and the fight to ensure that Africa’s elephants survive.

Kenya has been a goldmine for researchers looking for the origins of man. This skull, found in Kenya in 2001, is estimated to be 3.5 million years old.

Kenya has been a goldmine for researchers looking for the origins of man. This skull, found in Kenya in 2001, is estimated to be 3.5 million years old.


: Mr. Leakey, you and your wife Meave have been researching the origins of man in Kenya for almost thirty years. Today, the excavation sites are under threat from cowherds and you are constantly having to fight for financial support for your work. Is your life’s work endangered?

Leakey: Sadly, I am not able to take part in the fieldwork myself so much anymore, as both of my legs were amputated following an airplane crash twelve years ago. But you are right, the situation is very grave indeed. Koobi Fora, the region you are referring to, is not only a National Park, it was also declared a World Heritage Site back in the early 1970s by Unesco. In spite of this, more and more livestock herders have muscled their way into the Sibiloi National Park with their huge herds of beef cattle. This is where our major excavations are situated. Immeasurable treasures are thus being lost.

SPIEGEL: Is the Kenyan government doing enough to protect this World Heritage Site?

Leakey: I’m afraid not. We are concerned that, in a few years time, this place of discovery, with its wealth of human fossils, the like of which can be found nowhere else in the world, could be completely destroyed. It is virtually impossible to control Northern Kenya, which is populated chiefly by migrant nomads. Along the borders to Ethiopia and Somalia, anarchy reigns, the police and military have retreated quite some distance. The land is not in the least bit fertile and yet the cattle herds grow larger and larger. A cow represents capital investment here. If the Kenyan government persists in doing nothing, the cattle drovers will press even further into Koobi Fora, with catastrophic consequences. The cattle can ruin research into unique fossils.

SPIEGEL: What makes the Koobi For a site so unique?

Leakey: This is an incredibly large region. It doesn’t matter if you are to the west of the Turkana lake, in the east or the north, you can find unimaginable quantities of all kinds of fossils. Some of them are many millions of years old, covering lengthy periods of time. I can’t think of any other region in the world which is such a vast source of fossils.

SPIEGEL: And why here in particular?

Leakey: The site is in an area which was a large lake basin for millions of years, with swampland and rivers flowing as far as the Ethiopian highlands. This is in the East African network of ditches which, thanks to its geological development, is home to an exceptionally rich variety of species. As the Earth’s crust broke up, the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands were formed.  A rainforest region gave rise to a mosaic of wooded patches, heath and bushlands.

For fossils to thrive, certain favorable circumstances are required. First of all, of course, remnants of life have to be there. These then need to be washed over with water as soon as possible, so that the bones are covered with a layer of sediment. Fortunately, these wetlands later dried up, and the ensuing erosion uncovered the incredible variety of specimens that once lived here.

SPIEGEL: What exactly are you looking for? What do you hope to find?

Leakey: To investigate the history of man’s development, the most important finds are, of course, hominid fossils. The ascent of man can be divided into four main episodes. The origins of the human family began around seven million years ago, when the first apes started walking on two legs. They fell into two groups. One was the Australopethicus. He stood up straight on two legs but was more ape-like in character, small brain, pronounced jaw and large teeth. The other was the hominid, with altogether more human features. The descendents of this group, around two million years ago, had larger brains and were the forerunners of homo as we know him. Modern man himself, Homo sapiens, came much later, roughly 30 thousand years ago.

SPIEGEL: These days, scientists seem to be more or less in agreement that Africa was the cradle of mankind.

Leakey: It is becoming a more prevalent theory. I, too, am convinced that our ancestors came from Africa. Whether or not all this came to pass in an East African ditch, I wouldn’t like to say. Perhaps it happened in North Africa or further west, but Africa was definitely the place. When the ape stood up on his hind legs and began to walk, when the human brain began to grow larger…

SPIEGEL: we are looking at between two and seven million years ago…

Leakey: ... we have only found remains of such a two-legged ape in Africa. We have also unearthed fossils in Europe which are many millions of years old, but no two-legged apes. Hence we assume that this is where it all began. The so-called Peking Man, for example, the Homo erectus found in China, is over one million years younger than the Turkana Boy, a Homo Erectus from North Kenya.

I would hazard a guess that we have found fossilized human remains of at least a thousand different specimens in South and East Africa, more or less complete at that. I think this is where the prelude to human history was primarily played out.

SPIEGEL: What conditions were necessary for this development?

Kenya's elephant population has begun bouncing back.

Kenya's elephant population has begun bouncing back.

Leakey: Primates need good nutrition, to begin with. Not only fruits and plants, but insects as well. Baboons, for example, live on the ground as well as in the trees, where they try to get hold of birds’ eggs. What counts is the right balance. It isn’t really feasible to live in the desert, in swampland or in the deepest rainforests. The formation of savannahs at the borders of these regions, home to man-apes, is probably the reason for life having developed the way it did millions of years ago. The conditions were perfect: plenty of food and an agreeable climate with a permanent summer. We think that groups of between 30 and 40 early men would have settled in an area measuring a hundred square kilometers. 

SPIEGEL: The Turkana Boy was discovered by Kamoya Kimeu, one of your closest work colleagues. It dates back one-and-a-half million years.

Leakey: This was round about the time that early man must have begun his trek to Asia and, later, to Europe.  Whilst the New World and Australia were colonized 20,000 and 55,000 years ago respectively, discoveries in the Middle East and Georgia suggest that Homo erectus ventured across the Arabian peninsula to Asia and, later, on to Europe, some one-and-a-half to 1.7 million years ago. The Turkana Boy, in contrast to apes and the Australipeticine, already has a larger brain and a more athletic body. He is the missing link between apes and modern man.

SPIEGEL: Is this the period you find most exciting?

Leakey: Yes, and the period prior to that. We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man. One should not forget that there are very few surviving items from this period, often just single, small bones, a tooth, a sliver of the skull. Categorizing these pieces can be very difficult. A number of scientists with greatly different backgrounds can come up with completely different assessments. The discussions or controversies are endless. Once a year, we try to bring the most important discoverers together to exchange their experiences and knowledge.

SPIEGEL: There are currently plans to ship what is perhaps the most well-known and most well-preserved hominid skeleton, the "Turkana Boy" from Kenya and "Lucy," an Australopithecus skeleton from Ethiopia, to museums in the United States and Germany. 

Leakey: I consider these plans totally wrong and irresponsible and will do everything in my power to prevent them from happening. I will fight against them. The risk that something could happen to the fossils is too great. They should stay in the countries where they came from. They are extremely fragile. These plans are only about money. In the end, the loser will be science. 

SPIEGEL: If Lucy were to spend six years in a glass case in an American museum, thousands of Americans -- rather than just a few researchers -- would be able to see her and marvel at an original hominid… 

Leakey: ... which they couldn't differentiate from a copy. Throughout all of those years, any sort of important scientific work would be impossible. Researchers travel here from across the world to work on the find. Scientific innovations continually provide us with new means of analyzing the finds. Paleoanthropology is not a science that ends with the discovery of a bone. One has to have the original to work with. It is a life-long task.

SPIEGEL: Since 1989, you have stopped excavating and taken up the fight against elephant poaching. 

Leakey: Yes. At the time, I had served for 20 years as the director of the national museum in Nairobi and was having a sort of mid-life crisis. Everything was fine, but it was all so routine. Then Daniel arap Moi, who at the time was Kenya's president, asked me if I wanted to help create an authority to fight against the appalling slaughter of elephants. I had criticized him in the past for not doing anything to prevent the killings. 

SPIEGEL:  At that time, the poaching was reaching dangerous levels.

Leakey: The elephants were being slaughtered in masses. Some were even killed in the vicinity of big tourist hotels. Within 20 years, Kenya lost 80 percent of its elephant population. At one point, only 20,000 elephants remained in Kenya. And still no one stopped bands from Somalia from streaming to hunt them with Kalashnikovs. Tragically, corrupt officials often supported this madness. It really became a tragedy. At the beginning, it took a lot of courage to build up a strong regiment of troops to take on these bandits. But in the end they succeeded.

SPIEGEL: Now, there are 30,000 elephants in Kenya. And already there are calls for a reduction in the elephant population. Many are pushing for the adoption of trophy hunting. Others have suggested culling the elephant population by permitting the controlled shooting of elephants by game wardens.             

Leakey: Earlier, 100,000 elephants lived in Kenya and we didn't have any noteworthy problem with it. The problem that we have is not that there are now more elephants. The problem is that during the 1980s, a decade of heavy poaching, the elephants retreated to safer areas. And now people have moved into the corridors once used by the elephants. In some cases, these animals travelled great distances -- and are able to remember the paths they travelled. Elephants can live to an age of up to 70 or 80 years and they have a good memory. It could be they come across an area that is experiencing a drought. Then they continue on their path and run into people. 

SPIEGEL: … and they wreak havoc. In Kenya alone, every year dozens of people are killed by elephants. Just as many elephants are killed by farmers who fear for their crops.

Leakey: That's true, and we need to find a solution. It is true that there are too many elephants in certain areas -- that's no question.

SPIEGEL: Kenya recently began to resettle 400 elephants from an overpopulated national park, Shimba Hills, to the relatively sparse Tsavo East. Could that be a step in the right direction?

Leakey: I don't believe it is a solution. It's very expensive and it is no alternative in the long-term, anyway. In addition, the animals will be profoundly traumatized. They have to be tranquilized, they're enormously heavy and have to be loaded by a crane into a truck before being transported hundreds of kilometers to be resettled in a completely foreign habitat. Additionally, Tsavo is a pronouncedly dry national park with Savannah elephants and Shimba Hills is a rain forest area with smaller forest elephants. For all we know, these elephants will just start making their way back to where they came from. The distance between the two parks is only 350 kilometers. For an elephant, that's not an especially long distance, he can walk up to 400 kilometers. 

SPIEGEL: Would fences help?

Leakey: You can fence smaller areas. But how do are you going to fence in, for example, an area like Masai Mara? The Masai Mara always ends somewhere different because the area is constantly changing ecologically. And we know, especially at that place, how important migrations are. The only solution to this conflict is a reasonable, long-term land-use policy that creates spaces in which elephants can live and also have a corridor, within which they can move around. The people need to be resettled in other places and paid reasonable damages. 

SPIEGEL: A few countries feel differently – some even want to legalize the ivory trade.

Leakey: I think that would be catastrophic -- it could reopen the floodgates. It was only after the ban on ivory trade was introduced that elephant poaching was significantly reduced. And the claim that ivory trade would help preserve the elephant population is totally unproven. A bitterly poor country like Swaziland, for example, wants to legalize the trade in endangered white rhinos in order to raise funds to protect the rhino population. But at the same time, one hears reports that the king is building a palace for each one of his 13 wives. It's a question of management -- the money doesn’t reach the people who need it the most. 

SPIEGEL: Mr. Leakey, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Stefan Aust and Thilo Thielke


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