Richard Erskine Frere Leakey

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Richard Erskine Frere Leakey

Death: January 02, 2022 (77)
Immediate Family:

Son of Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey and Mary Douglas Leakey
Husband of Private
Ex-husband of Private
Father of Private; Private and Private
Brother of Private and Private
Half brother of Private and Private

Occupation: paleoanthropology
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

    • Private
    • Private
    • Private
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    • Private
    • Private
      father's ex-spouse
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      half sibling
    • Private
      half sibling

About Richard Erskine Frere Leakey

Richard Erskine Frere Leakey (born 19 December 1944 in Nairobi) is a politician, paleoanthropologist and conservationist. He is second of the three sons of the archaeologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, and is the younger brother of Colin Leakey.

Earliest years:

As a small boy Richard lived in Nairobi with his parents, Louis Leakey, curator of the Coryndon Museum, and Mary Leakey, director of the Leakey excavations at Olduvai, and his two brothers, Jonathan and Philip. The Leakey brothers had a very active childhood. All the boys had ponies and belonged to the Langata Pony Club. They participated in jumping and steeplechase competitions but often rode for fun across the plains to the Ngong Hills, chasing and playing games with the animals. Sometimes the whole club were guests at the Leakeys for holidays and vacations. Richard's parents founded the Dalmatian Club of East Africa and won a prize in 1957. Dogs and many other pets shared the Leakey home. The Leakey boys participated in games conducted by both adults and children, in which they tried to imitate early man, catching springhares and small antelope by hand on the Serengeti. They drove lions and jackals from the kill to see if they could do it.


In 1964 on his second Lake Natron expedition, Richard met an archaeologist named Margaret Cropper. When Margaret returned to England, Richard decided to follow suit to study for a degree and become better acquainted with her. He completed his high school requirements in six months; meanwhile Margaret obtained her degree at the University of Edinburgh. He passed the entrance exams for admission to college, but in 1965 he and Margaret decided to get married and return to Kenya. His father offered him a job at Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology. He worked for it, excavating at Lake Baringo and continued his photographic safari business, making enough money to buy a house in Karen, a pleasant suburb of Nairobi. Their daughter Anna was born in 1969, the same year that Richard and Margaret divorced. He married his colleague Meave Epps in 1970 and they had two daughters, Louise (born 1972) and Samira (1974).[6]


Richard’s career as a palaeoanthropologist did not begin with a dateable event or a sudden decision, as did Louis’; he was with his parents on every excavation, was taught every skill and was given responsible work even as a boy. It is not surprising that his independent decision making led him into conflict with his father, who had always tried to instill in him that very trait. After he gave some fossils to Tanzania and set Margaret to inventory Louis’ collections, Louis suggested he find work elsewhere in 1967.

Richard formed the Kenya Museum Associates (now Kenya Museum Society) with influential Kenyans in that year. Their intent was to 'Kenyanize' and improve the National Museum. They offered the museum 5000 pounds, 1/3 of its yearly budget, if it would place Richard in a responsible position. He was given an observer’s seat on the board of directors. Joel Ojal, the government official in charge of the museum, and a member of the Associates, directed the chairman of the board to start placing Kenyans on it.

The Omo:

Plans for the museum had not matured when Louis, intentionally or not, found a way to remove his confrontational son from the scene. Louis attended a lunch with Haile Selassie and Jomo Kenyatta. The conversation turned to fossils and Haile wanted to know why none had been found in Ethiopia. Louis developed this inquiry into permission to excavate on the Omo River.

The expedition consisted of three contingents: French, under Camille Arambourg, American, under Clark Howell, and Kenyan, led by Richard. Louis could not go because of his arthritis. Crossing the Omo in 1967, Richard’s contingent was attacked by crocodiles, which destroyed their wooden boat. Expedition members barely escaped with their lives. Richard radioed Louis for a new, aluminum boat, which the National Geographic Society was happy to supply.

On site, Kamoya Kimeu found a Hominid fossil. Richard took it to be Homo erectus, but Louis identified it as Homo sapiens. It was the oldest of the species found at that time, dating to 160,000 years, and was the first contemporaneous with Homo neanderthalensis. During the identification process, Richard came to feel that the college men were patronizing him.

Koobi Fora:

During the Omo expedition of 1967, Richard visited Nairobi and on the return flight the pilot flew over Lake Rudolph (now Lake Turkana) to avoid a thunderstorm. The map led Richard to expect volcanic rock below him but he saw sediments. Visiting the region with Howell by helicopter, he saw tools and fossils everywhere. In his mind, he was already formulating a new enterprise.

In 1968 Louis and Richard attended a meeting of the Research and Exploration Committee of the National Geographic Society to ask for money for Omo. Catching Louis by surprise, Richard asked the committee to divert the $25,000 intended for Omo to new excavations to be conducted under his leadership at Koobi Fora. Richard won, but chairman Leonard Carmichael told him he'd better find something or never "come begging at our door again." Louis graciously congratulated Richard.

More was yet to come. By now the board of the National Museum was packed with Kenyan supporters of Richard. They appointed him administrative director. The curator, Robert Carcasson, resigned in protest and Richard was left with the museum at his command, which he, like Louis before him, used as a base of operations. Although there was friendly rivalry and contention between Louis and Richard, relations remained good. Each took over for the other when one was busy with something else or incapacitated, and Richard continued to inform his father immediately of Hominid finds.

In the first expedition to Allia Bay on Lake Turkana, where the Koobi Fora camp came to be located, Richard hired only graduate students in anthropology, as he did not want any questioning of his leadership. The students were John Harris and Bernard Wood. Also present was a team of Africans under Kamoya: a geochemist, Paul Abel, and a photographer, Bob Campbell. Margaret was the archaeologist. Richard took to smoking a pipe to enhance his status, as did Kamoya. There were no leadership problems. In contrast to his father, Richard ran a disciplined and tidy camp, although in order to find fossils, he did push the expedition harder than it wished.

In 1969 the discovery of a cranium of Paranthropus boisei caused great excitement. A Homo habilis skull (KNM ER 1470) and a Homo erectus skull (KNM ER 3733), discovered in 1972 and 1975, respectively, were among the most significant finds of Leakey's earlier expeditions. In 1978 an intact cranium of Homo erectus (KNM ER 3883) was discovered.

Leakey was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease in 1969. Ten years later he became seriously ill but received a kidney transplant from his brother, Philip and recovered to full health.

Leakey and Donald Johanson were at the time considered to be the most famous palaeoanthoropologists, and scientifically their views on human evolution were differing, a scientific rivalry that gained public attention. This culminated at the Cronkite's Universe talk show hosted by Walter Cronkite in New York in 1981, where Leakey and Johanson held a fierce debate on live TV show.

West Turkana:

Turkana Boy — discovered by Kamoya Kimeu, a member of the Leakeys' team in 1984 — was the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo ergaster (though some, including Leakey, call it erectus) who died 1.6 million years ago at about age 9-12. Leakey and Roger Lewin describe the experience of this find and their interpretation of it, in their book Origins Reconsidered (1992). Shortly after the discovery of Turkana Boy, Leakey and his team made the discovery of a skull (KNM WT 17000, known as ”Black Skull”) of a new species, Australopithecus aethiopicus (or Paranthropus aethiopicus).

Richard shifted away from paleontology in 1989, but his wife Meave Leakey and daughter Louise Leakey still continue paleontological research in Northern Kenya.

Leakey family:


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Richard Erskine Frere Leakey's Timeline

December 19, 1944
January 2, 2022
Age 77