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If you like Richard Leakey's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Edmund Hillary,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes
Wole Soyinka,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Richard Leakey can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Hear Richard Leakey participate in discussion of Global Warming and the Environment in our Audio Recordings area.

Related Links:
The Leakey Foundation
Turkana Basin Institute
Transparency International
Great Apes Survival Project

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Richard Leakey
Richard Leakey
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Richard Leakey Interview (page: 2 / 7)

Paleoanthropologist and Conservationist

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  Richard Leakey

What were you like in high school? Were you ever a believer? Did you have religion when you were younger?

Richard Leakey: I didn't ever have religion, but I had an uncle who was very much a senior churchman. I referred to him, the Archbishop of East Africa, and he had the school chaplain as a friend of his, and they tried extremely hard to coerce me into religion, and I became very anti. More anti than I think was necessary, but I simply would not accede to being forced into this, and would frequently be kept out of classes because of irreverent comments and mocking this religious stuff. Frankly, it stayed with me to this day. In fact, don't get me going. I'm almost as bad as Richard Dawkins on this issue.

You were, after all, white growing up in an African country. How did that affect you?

Richard Leakey: I was at an entirely white school. It was a segregated school. My father, Louis, had grown up in a mission family. He had been inititated into the Kikuyu tribe. He was an expert in Kikuyu custom and folklore, and during the years of the Mau Mau, the revolution that led to the British granting of independence of Kenya, he had worked quite closely with the government of the day, but had also retained and maintained very close relationships with the local people.

I grew up with a sense that I belonged with the Africans, I belonged with the Kikuyu, I belonged with the local people, and that somehow my contemporaries at school were children of settlers, children of administrators who clearly had racist instincts, had no pleasant ideas or social contacts or experience with people of darker skin, which I did through my father's work. And so I always felt a bit puzzled and a bit irritated and certainly used to get very angry at some of the insults and attacks. I suppose that in some ways, they managed to turn me into a racist, but I became anti-white in the process, and I was often known as a -- to use the terrible epithet, but it was one that was used against me on frequent occasions -- as a, quote, "nigger lover," close quotes. I felt very glad to have earned that epithet, in the sense that I believed that the majority of the people were the people that I belonged to, and had no wish to be associated with the settler community or the others. And that's gone through to the present day.

Was there ever any doubt about what you would do with your life?

Richard Leakey: Oh, I think there still is.

I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to do what my parents did. As I got older, it was very clear that they were very successful, and it's quite difficult to be successful in the shadow of successful people. That was one part. Two, I had done so badly at school that the options that I hoped were available to me obviously weren't. I was unemployable. My school leaving certificate, I found many years later, the headmaster had said to my father that he couldn't think of anything in which I could be usefully directed as a career, and he thought maybe the British Army, entering as a private, might be one option. So, I don't know. I was pretty glad to leave school and pretty glad when my parents said, "If you leave school and don't go on with your education, you are on your own." I thought that was the best I'd heard for a long time and was delighted to have that.

So, I kind of made my way from there, and I did a few odds and ends. I made a little money trapping animals. I eventually realized that you could exploit this family shadow by trading in its name.

I started taking tourists on safari using the name Leakey, which was fine until they met this child and thought what on earth had they got into. But I did quite well for a few years and managed to survive, managed to keep myself together. And then I thought I'd try getting back to an academic training and tried to get into a university as an undergraduate and was reminded in very quick order that I didn't have any of the necessary qualifications, and that it would be extremely difficult to see me as a scholar. So, I sort of went and looked for something else to do. So that's been my life.

How old were you when you left school?

Richard Leakey: I dropped out of high school at 16. I had two more years to go, chose not to do that, and really have never -- apart from a brief flirtation with the idea of getting into a university. In fact, I went to Cambridge. Three or four generations on my parents' side had been scholars at Cambridge, and I had heard about the old-boy network, the old school tie, and thought they would take a fifth generation just on the name. They made it very clear that that was not an option to me. So Cambridge rejected me. Quite rightly, although at the time I thought it was a little churlish. So, I had to do it without any university training.

What did you do after you dropped out of high school?

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
Richard Leakey: Well, I did some safaris. I used to take people to look at wildlife. I did some collections. The Smithsonian wanted a collection of African bird skeletons to compare with fossil birds. So, I shot and collected a lot of African birds. I collected some fairly unusual primates that were needed for research at Yale and made some money on those activities, but largely, it was hit and miss. Fortunately, the cost of living in Kenya in the early '60s was relatively modest, and I could manage, but it was very unsatisfactory. It looked as though I could go into a serious commercial enterprise running tours and safaris, but the problem is you have to take people with you, and most of the people that ended up as clients were not particularly nice people, and so I didn't like that either. Eventually, I offered to help my parents organize some of their ongoing projects. At that time in the '60s, Olduvai was just getting underway. My mother had discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus. The National Geographic Society was supporting them. They needed logistics. So, I began to work with them and then found that they were quite willing to let me go off and look into the possibility of other sites and other places.

I knew the fossils. I knew the background. I had a lot of energy, and I was fairly cheap, and so I would be sent off with a vehicle and a couple of men to explore the possibility of A or the possibility of B, and so I got into field work and prehistory that way. Fortunately, my first real venture into looking for fossils in a small group resulted in a very important discovery. That was in late '63 or early '64, where we discovered a lower jaw of an Australopithecus that had not been found before. It was in perfect condition. We found it on the first attempt, and so that got me very excited, and I began to realize that there were probably a lot more of these things, and that if you find these things, you get a position in the ladder which you can't get to unless you have either got an education or something else. So by finding important things, you immediately get into the game, which you'd been excluded from otherwise.

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This page last revised on Oct 28, 2010 14:41 EDT