She’s Spent Nearly 50 Years Unearthing Our Human Ancestry

For nearly 50 years, Meave Leakey has worked to uncover the story of human evolution in Kenya’s Turkana Basin. Her extensive research has added significantly to our understanding of human origins and to the long legacy of the Leakey family.

Meave Epps began her career studying marine zoology in her native Britain. After graduation, she had trouble finding work at marine research facilities, as they were reluctant to hire women. These difficulties, however, led her to pursue what would become her life’s work.

She answered an ad for researchers at Louis Leakey’s Tigoni Primate Research Centre in Kenya, where she would work while also completing her Ph.D. In 1969, Richard Leakey, who would later become her husband, invited her to join his excavation team in Kenya's Lake Turkana Basin. She would prove to be an important member of the team; she reconstructed the skull that would later be classified as a Homo rudolfensis.

In the late 1980s, Leakey led an expedition at Kanapoi at Lake Turkana. The discovery of a jaw bone and tibia led to the identification of a new species, Australopithecus anamensis. It also provided firm evidence that hominins walked upright 4.2 million years ago—half a million years earlier than previously thought.

Leakey, along with a team that included her daughter Louise, later uncovered a skull believed to be a new genus and species of human ancestor, Kenyanthropus platyops, adding another new chapter to her legacy in the Turkana Basin.

Congratulations to Meave Leakey, recipient of the 2016 Hubbard Medal, National Geographic’s highest honor.

Read more about Meave Leakey.