The University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium series brought in acclaimed paleoanthropologist Dr. Meave Leakey to give a lecture this past Tuesday night in Edwards Hall Auditorium.
The auditorium held little to no empty seats, the ground level was almost completely full and half of the balcony seats were filled as well with students, scientists and members of the community. Audience members sat on the edge of their seats as Leakey walked on the stage. The first slide of her power point read, “Milestones in the Story of Us: How, When and Why We Came to Be.”
Leakey got her start as a paleoanthropologist on a screening site with a team in the Turkana Basin in East Africa headed by her now husband Dr. Richard Leakey.
She spoke about the major findings that her research team had done in the Turkana Basin area and how those findings were able to establish new species from over 3.3 million years ago. Over the years her team uncovered many fossils in the Turkana Basin, but their first discovery, a skull Leakey called “Zinjanthropus,” was what she described as a groundbreaking find.
“Richard and I were riding camels through the area, he would not let us drive cars out of fear of disturbing any fossils,” Leakey said. “During the ride he looked down and there staring up us was a completely intact skull, and I thought to myself wow this is easy, but of course it’s not easy and it never happened like that again.”
That skull was the first evidence that life may not have originated in Asia, as everyone originally thought, rather that it began in Africa.
Leakey also discussed her part in the discovery of a rare fossil, Australopithecus anamensis. This fossil showed both traits from a modern human and ape. The specimen clearly walked on two legs. This find was done with the use of computers and computer topography scans. This technology helped to uncover fossils buried in the ground and fill in areas of the skull that could not be found. Leakey, however, spoke fondly at length how much she enjoyed reconstructing what she could of the skull by hand.
“I used to love jigsaw puzzles as a child,” Leakey said. “They would bring back bits of the skull each day and it was a very exciting time… and it definitely satisfied my jigsaw puzzle ambitions.”
Technology and paleoanthropology now go hand in hand which is a large part of what Leakey was trying to convey during her lecture.
“There is only one way to find fossils: to walk slowly looking at the ground to see what you can find,” Leakey said. “But without today’s technology we would never quite get that full picture.”