The death of Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey, “greatest fossil discoverer of all time”

He was one of those “bigger than life” characters, capable of inspiring a Hollywood film – Angelina Jolie even had the project. Richard Leakey, bush runner, organizer of photo safaris, paleoanthropologist without diploma, multimiraculate of medicine, relentless fighter of elephant-killing poachers, political opponent and Kenyan minister, died on Sunday January 2 at the age of 77 year.

Born on December 19, 1944 in Nairobi, Richard Leakey was literally bottle-fed with fossils. His father Louis and his mother Mary are among the greatest paleoanthropologists of their time, and the intrepid is summoned to “Find bones” when he is too turbulent on their excavation sites. But young Richard intends to chart his course. He will first be an organizer of safaris, before atavism catches up with him. He therefore goes through London to restore his CV, but puts an end to the experience before obtaining any parchment.

No matter if he feels snubbed by academic researchers, in the field or from the sky, he has no equal with his right arm Kamoya Kimeu to unearth soil fertile in ancient bones. The discoveries of their “hominid gang”, which would also include his second wife Meave and later his daughter Louise, follow one another. In Ethiopia, his team finds the oldest Homo sapiens of the time (160,000 years). Then he invests the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya, and collects the skulls: Paranthropus boisei (1969) ; Homo rudolfensis (1972) ; Standing man (1975 and 1978).

Recognition from peers

Here he is soon propelled to the direction of the National Museums of Kenya, the bridgehead for the majority of paleontological expeditions in the region. Perhaps the most striking discovery will be that of “Turkana Boy” in 1984 by Kamoya Kimeu, a erectus surprisingly complete teenager of 1.6 million years old, soon followed by that ofAustralopithecus Where Paranthropus aethiopicus (2.5 million years old).

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This record earned him the recognition of his peers. “He is the greatest fossil discoverer of all time”, estimated Yves Coppens. “The flagship of our discipline”, according to Sonia Harmand, archaeologist who discovered humanity’s oldest tools in Turkana. Others, such as Martin Pickford (National Museum of Natural History, MNHN), are less praiseworthy: he sees Leakey’s hand in the five days spent in prison for illegal excavations in 2000 after the discovery, during a French mission. -kényan led by Brigitte Senut (MNHN), fromOrrorin tugenensis, a fossil almost 6 million years old.

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