One word — fossil — is usually enough to identify Richard Leakey, known the world over for his discoveries confirming Africa as the birthplace of humanity.
Just 23, he found two partial skulls of early humans in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley in 1967.
Numerous major discoveries followed, including a complete skull of early Homo erectus, an ancestor of today's humans, in 1972. And in 1984, team member Kimoa Kimeu found "Turkana Boy," the partial skeleton of a young Homo erectus who suffered from bone disease and a deformed spine 1.6 million years ago.
Leakey was a high school dropout turned paleontologist, thanks to informal tutoring from his parents, renowned archaeologists Mary and Louis Leakey, themselves known for finding fossils and footprints of some of the earliest upright walking creatures.
Their son went on to become a towering force for wildlife conservation and a fighter of climate change.
A scientist at heart, Leakey, who died on Jan. 2 at age 77, was a prodigious fundraiser, a mesmerizing lecturer and a fine chef, winemaker and host, his friends and colleagues said. Yet he always found time for them — and students — at Stony Brook University, where in 2002 he became a visiting anthropology professor.
Stony Brook was a refuge from fierce clashes in Kenya over his anti-corruption battles with officials as he overhauled wildlife agencies and the national park systems, and served as the first director of the National Museums of Kenya. In 1995, he cofounded an opposition party — was whip lashed, he said, by dissenting activists — before serving as a member of Parliament. Leakey also led its civil service, which helps run Kenya's departments, ministries and counties, and became a cabinet secretary.
In 2005, Leakey and Stony Brook formed the Turkana Basin Institute to study that fossil-rich site in northwestern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. He chaired it until he died.
Stony Brook a natural fit
Founded in 1957, Stony Brook's youth, excellent anthropology department, and his friendship with then president Shirley Strum Kenney made the university a natural fit, Lawrence Martin, Turkana Basin's director, said by telephone from Nairobi earlier this month.
To Leakey, Martin said, "old institutions were stuffy and couldn't imagine doing something out of the box." He added: "Stony Brook was young and nimble enough to say 'Yes, let's roll up our sleeves and get it done.' "
"Everybody who got to know him was just amazed by the breadth of his knowledge, the breadth of his interest," Martin said.
Leaky's focus on the big picture, Martin said, allowed him to succeed in so many varied careers. "He would lay out a vision and then find people he could rely on to execute it."
Eric W. Kaler, now president of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Stony Brook provost from 2007 to 2011, by email stressed Leakey's courage, drive and cutting edge views. He "did see early the need to take care of people, animals, and the climate. And he took chances and sacrificed — emotionally, politically, and physically, for what he believed in."
"I sometimes thought he really could just cause some things to happen by his sheer force of personality."
Despite his fame, "even as a graduate student, you could always pop in, say hello and you could chat with him," said Christopher C. Gilbert, now an anthropology professor of at Hunter College.
Though they later had a falling out, Leakey and Kenya’s former President Daniel arap Moi agreed to burn 12 tons of tusks worth $3 million in 1989, spurring a global ban on the ivory trade.
In 1993, Leakey's plane crashed soon after take off when a full tank of gas somehow drained. His lower limbs were amputated. Despite walking on prosthetics, Leakey — who also survived two kidney transplants — believed in manners. He always rose to his feet, however hard that was, when meeting someone, his friends said.
200 fossils found over 30 years
At Lake Turkana, Leakey and his team found 200 fossils over three decades, including a complete skull of early Homo erectus in 1972. These successes led Time magazine to feature Leakey in a 1977 cover story entitled "How Man Became Man."
From the twisted skeleton of "Turkana Boy " Leakey deduced humans were innately compassionate as the boy could only have survived if others helped him, Katie Carpenter, the co-producer of a National Geographic documentary, "Bones of Turkana," told Newsday in 2012.
Dennis Assanis, also a Stony Brook provost from 2011 to 2016 and now president of the University of Delaware in Newark, by email said Leakey helped "construct the bridge from the early days of paleoanthropology — where people relied on photos and drawings and physical reconstructions — to what we have today, where researchers use CT scans, computer imaging and 3D printing to study bits of fossilized bone that might have been overlooked before."
Leakey's fossil discoveries, including ones of now extinct animals, prompted him to realize how fragile all life is — and into a new battle: fighting climate change though lectures, programs, and his own example.
"Climate change is something that is indeed a part of the world and is indeed fundamental to our existence and is indeed fundamental to the existence of everything around us, and it would be foolish to deny that," he told a University of Edinburgh audience in 2009. Explaining how he had lived off the grid in Kenya for decades, he told a Stony Brook audience in 2014: "We don't have outages in my home."
Patricia Wright, Stony Brook's Herrnstein Professor of Conservation Biology, by email said Leakey urged her to return to Madagascar, to learn more about a 10,000 year-old Elephant Bird fossil she found a few years ago. The two agreed it had cut marks made by humans — though the island only was settled 2,000 years ago.
"You owe it to the Malagasy people," she said he told her. Leakey, she said, added: "'You will be able to tell them their origins. You can't deny the Malagasy this knowledge. You must go back.'"