Bred in the bone

April 4, 1997

Harriet Swain hears why, despite the family rows, Louise Leakey is determined to carry on the palaeontological work of her parents

After a childhood spent helping to dig up her forebears, Louise Leakey tried hard to break the family obsession with early ancestry. Granddaughter of Louis and Mary Leakey, who together placed humans' origins in Africa, and daughter of Richard and Meave Leakey, whose finds have helped transform thinking about human evolution, she wanted to leave fossils behind and make her own mark in the world.

"I tried to do something completely different," she says. "I wanted to do anything really - just not this." But after a spell as a marine biologist and with a joint honours degree in biology and geology, she has found herself inexorably drawn to the palaeontology work of her parents.

Like the two generations before her, she has found the tug of the past irresistible and, like them, has become increasingly enmeshed.

"It's just very tempting to stay with it," she said. "No pressure was put on us as children particularly. I don't think my parents expected any of us to carry it on, although they probably hoped one of us would."

It is hardly surprising that the 24-year-old Bristol University graduate, whose voice carries a slight clipped colonial tone, feels so at home fossil-hunting.

Born in March 1972, she was with her parents at camp in the Kenyan desert by the time she was four months old, resting in a basin of water to keep cool. Later, she would help clean and sort their finds and by the time she was 12 was driving Land Rovers to find water and doing some digging herself. Secondary school was in the Del Monte pineapple plantations in Thika, where she boarded until achieving a place at the United World College of the Atlantic in South Wales.

Every summer holiday she would return to her parents, wherever they happened to be at the time, and join in their expeditions. Her time between school and university was spent on a camel expedition along the shores of Lake Turkana with college friends, collecting data about elephant carcasses.

But this background appears almost conventional compared with that of her grand-father, Louis, born in a remote mission station in the Kenyan highlands. At 14, Louis had built himself a three-roomed house, where he lived apart from his family, filling it with collections of skulls, nests and animal skins. Five years after leaving Cambridge University he was claiming to have found evidence that Homo sapiens was far older than anyone had so far believed - a theory that was to form the foundation of his life's work.

It was also the basis of work carried out by his son and Louise's father, Richard, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service until 1994. In an extraordinary career, which, like his daughter's, started on his parents' expeditions, Richard has made discovery after discovery, shaking up thinking about human origins. In the past decade, he has helped introduce an international ban on the ivory trade, bringing him at times into conflict with the Kenyan authorities. He is now heavily involved in politics as secretary general of the opposition Safina Party.

"He moved from fossils into the wildlife service and now that he has got that off the ground he has set his mind on politics," says Louise, who describes the constant security presence this entails as "a little unnerving". She adds: "I support him 100 per cent but we can't make him do anything. He always does exactly what he wants."

After battling through much of his life with kidney disease, Richard lost both his legs in 1993 when his aircraft suddenly lost power and crashed. His wife, Meave, now heads the family expeditions, which continue to peel back layers of human evolution.

While the male Leakey line has been marked by high achievers and dominant personalities, the women have been just as forceful. Louise's grandmother, Mary, who died in December, is credited with some of the family's most important finds, including hominid fossils dating back 3.7 million years.

These are hard acts to follow and, at times, professional rivalries have proved stronger than blood ties. In the process of excavating the dry fossils of early humans, the Leakeys have exposed all the competitive urges, passions, family strains and survival instincts of living humanity.

It is an issue thoroughly explored by science writer Virginia Morell in her book, Ancestral Passions, recently published in paperback. As much family saga as record of scientific discovery, it exposes the quarrels between Richard and his parents, Louis' affairs and the vicious rows with other scientists.

Louise's attitude to her work shows the same confusion of personal ambition and family and professional loyalties. "It is difficult," she confesses. "I have kept a low profile for a long time but I've just decided that I don't care what other people want to think or say about me carrying it on because I'm quite confident of finding my own place. I don't feel competitive in any way. There is just so much more work here to be done."

She intends to study for a PhD in Britain or South Africa and meanwhile to earn her own money for research and expeditions by taking tourists on private safaris. Like her grandfather before her, she has set up home apart from her parents but on their property, where she lives alone. She has also followed her father by taking up flying, undeterred by his brush with death.

Louise has picked up a powerful repetitive thread leading from the determined missionary Harry Leakey and his wife, May, who first braved the Kenyan climate, through Louis and Mary, and Richard and Meave. "I'm sure there are strong characteristics I have inherited," she said. "We are all quite alike in many ways. I would say we all have the drive to get out there and achieve."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments