‘If you want to become a fossil, you need to die in the right place, your bones need to dry very quickly’

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Tarun Tejpal talks with Louise Leakey. Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Tarun Tejpal talks with Louise Leakey. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

This session of THiNK 2013, titled “The Bone Collectors: How One Family Tracked the History of Man”, saw Louise Leakey discussing her family legacy in the field of palaeoanthropology and her research on the origins of the modern man, the homo sapiens sapiens.

Leakey spoke about the time when her grandfather Louis was born in 1903, when it was an accepted truism that the origins of man lay in Asia. But the ground breaking research he conducted in the Turkana basin in Kenya with his wife Marie altered conventional palaeontological thinking – their discovery of humanoid fossil skull proved that the modern man in fact, had origins from East Africa.

Since then, three generations of the Leakey family have concentrated on gathering evidence that can help in understanding the characteristics that define us as humans. Leakey’s father Richard famously discovered the fossil skull ER 1470, one of the most complete homo habilis skulls known. Exposed to the delicate scientific craft of bone hunting at a very early age,  Louise has followed in her family’s footsteps ever since.

Leakey gave vivid descriptions of fossil hunting, comparing it to “looking for an earring lost in a car park” as “the fossils are are extremely difficult to find and require walking over vast areas of over 25,000 square kilometers of rock deposits and stones”.

Although palaeontological research methods have vastly improved, Leakey says there are many missing links, many unanswered questions, and many undiscovered fossils that are needed to fill in the gaps in knowledge. Yet, hominids comprise only 1% of all fossil remains, and provide only small clues to piece the story of the origin of man together.

“If you want to become a fossil, you need to die in the right place, your bones need to dry very quickly, and then resurge”, says Leakey. For this reason, she thinks, palaeontology finds itself relying on other disciplines such as geology, to answer the fundamental questions of where we came from and what really defines our species.

By Sara Sudetic

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