Real-life Indiana Jones: Paleoanthropologist talks near death experiences
Community Engagement Editor
Fear is not an emotion that paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician Richard Leakey is familiar with.
“Nobody’s scared me yet,” he said. “And they’ve all had dismal failure in their attempts to scare me. It’s not as dramatic as it seems. When you read about it or hear about it I’ve lived a life of adventure and excitement. I never thought any of these things were going to kill me. A lot of people thought they would, but they were wrong.”
Despite working with the government in Kenya at a time when their democracy was volatile, surviving a plane crash that caused him to lose his legs from the knee down and numerous health scares, Leakey claims he has yet to fear for his life.
On Monday, Leakey gave a lecture about the origins of humanity at the Roselle Center for the Arts at 4 p.m. The event was followed by a question and answer session moderated by University President Dennis Assanis and a catered reception in the lobby.
During his talk, Leakey summarized his understanding of the evolution of humans from ancestral species.
“If you do your ancient DNA history, everybody in this room will go back to Africa in the last 100,000 years,” he said.
In addition, Leakey discussed how and why he thinks humans have evolved to become such a powerful species, citing the purposeful, rather than accidental, creation of tools as a huge step forward for humans and their ancestors.
“There used to be this happy idea that you need to have a big brain to make stone instruments,” he said. “In fact, you don’t.”
He argued that early humans visualizing their needs and creating tools to then meet those needs differentiated them from other animals that, for example, found a stone or stick when they wanted food and used it out of convenience.
During the question and answer portion of the event, attendees learned more about Leakey’s life and career.
Although his father and mother, Louis and Mary Leakey, were both prominent paleoanthropologists and archeologists, he said it was never his intention to follow in their footsteps, and his career path, from paleoanthropologist, to conservationist and then government official has happened largely by chance.
“I don’t need a reason — if I want to do something I generally try and do it,” he said. “I was annoyed that the politics generally wasn’t doing much for Kenya and there seemed to be a lot of corruption and lying, and I thought I could try and get into politics and start a party that was more grounded in telling the truth and dealing with issues.”
Leakey also stressed the importance of reducing waste as a means of conservation.
“I think the best thing we can all do individually is try to be more aware of how our individual actions affect the planet,” he said.
In addition to this, he discussed anecdotes from his career and life, including how he burned literal tons of ivory in a successful attempt to discourage poachers and an out-of-body experience he had while he died for approximately five minutes at a hospital.
Leakey and his lecture, which kept the audience chuckling, appeared to be warmly received.
Lauren Meckler, a senior neuroscience major with a minor in anthropology, attended the event due to Leakey’s high profile in the anthropology world.
“Richard Leakey is obviously a pioneer in the field. Him and his family all have made such important contributions and have really changed the way we look at paleoanthropology,” she said.
Although Meckler attended due to her interest in her field, the life advice Leakey gave to students— to forge a career doing what they enjoy— is what stuck with her.
Robert Kichline, a Georgetown resident brought his son, who is interested in archeology, to see Leakey speak.
“I really enjoyed [Leakey’s ] speech,” he said. “He’s very humorous, very knowledgeable about his subject, and I’d like to talk to him more. He kept everybody interested in what was going on.”
Toward the end of his question and answer session, Leakey discussed the importance of his field to politics, culture and everyday life.
“…if we want to get the world to work, we have to understand who we are and where we came from,” he said.