Meave and Louise Leakey are a mother-daughter paleontologist team. The Leake family members (Louis, Mary, Richard, Maeve, and Louise) have received numerous research grants from National Geographic over the years and have made significant contributions to our understanding of human origins.
WHAT THEY DO
WHAT THEY WERE LIKE AS KIDS
Meave: I was very shy! I spent a lot of time outside, finding and collecting insects, caterpillars, frogs, lizards, rocks, and whatever I could find that excited me. I have always been happiest exploring on my own and finding new animals, plants, and rocks in natural habitats.
Louise: I loved the outdoors and enjoyed spending time exploring the forest or the desert. Even though we didn’t have television, iPads, or computers in our home, my sister and I grew up entertaining ourselves. We looked forward to story time in the evenings.
Meave: I have two—my husband [Richard Leakey] and Sylvia Earle. Sylvia Earle persisted against all odds and has worked tirelessly to increase awareness of the critical state of the oceans. In my case, [at that time] I found that being a woman was a sufficient obstacle to finding a suitable position, so I changed course and instead spent my career far from the sea in the deserts of northern Kenya!
My husband was the reason that I initially moved into a career in paleontology. He is a constant source of amazement to me in his many achievements and his vision for the future, but most of all in his guts and determination to never let anything get the better of him.
Louise: My hero is the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson. He was the sole survivor of his expedition. He is a great example of the dedication and commitment of early explorers.
HOW THEY GOT INTO THEIR FIELD OF WORK.
Meave: My husband’s father appointed me to work in a primate research center near Nairobi that he had initiated. Several years later, while working at this center, I met my husband, who invited me to join his field expedition to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. From the first moment that I arrived in his field camp, I loved this work.
Louise: My parents were both in paleontology. During the summer holidays while they were at Lake Turkana working in the fossil exposures, my younger sister and I joined them. We used to glue the broken pieces of fossils together, or excavate and plaster specimens.
WHAT A TYPICAL DAY IS LIKE
Meave: I am always up early and I go to work as early as possible, because later in the day it gets very hot. When not in the field, I prefer to be in the laboratory working with the fossils that we have collected. Our home is on the edge of the Rift Valley, with an ever-changing 180-degree view of the rift with its faults, volcanoes, and lakes. On a clear day we can even see the mountains of Ngorongoro and the volcano L'Engai in Tanzania. I love to walk in the area in the locality of our house.
Louise: Every day is different for me. I spend too much time in the office doing administration now, but when I am in the field it is much more exciting. We wake up before the birds and have a warm cup of tea, then drive or walk out to the fossil exposures, where we spend most of the morning using a GPS to track back to the locations where the fossil-hunting team has found fossils previously. We document each specimen in detail. The afternoons and evenings are often spent working through data and photographing collections or going through the fragments of fossils.
WHAT THEY DO FOR FUN
Meave: I like to spend time with my grandchildren, who, at ages 6, 8, and 10, are full of exciting, interesting ideas and they always have many questions. Interacting with them and inspiring their curiosity is a challenge that I find lots of fun.
Louise: The most fun is to go to the lakeshore and build sand castles with my daughters. We also love to splash around in the lake and throw balls to each other, but we do have to keep our eyes open for crocodiles!
Meave: Finding a complete skeleton of a 2.5-million-year-old human ancestor that turns out to have DNA preserved in its bones! This is most unlikely to ever happen to me but I still keep dreaming! It would answer so many questions that have haunted me through my career!
Louise: What do you call a paleontologist who never gets any work done? Lazy bones!
FAVORITE PLACES THEY HAVE TRAVELED
Meave: The Galápagos Islands. The most striking thing about the Galápagos is the total lack of fear that animals have for humans. When a person approaches any of the animals or birds, they do not sense danger. They continue to do whatever they are doing as if you are not there.
Louise: I think the best place I have been is on the sea with the seabirds and dolphins; away from all the noise, pollution, people, and stress.
Meave: Follow your dreams and never give up when things are difficult and not going so well.
Louise: Follow your passion and keep an open mind.
THE ONE THING THEY CAN’T TRAVEL WITHOUT
Meave: Kenyan tea!
Louise: I love to add fresh chilies to my food so I guess it would be chilies.
MOST HEART-POUNDING EXPERIENCE
Meave: Finding a fossil of a human ancestor for the first time. I was with my husband and we were exploring a site that no one had ever been to before. There were fossils everywhere and some of them were beautifully preserved. This particular fossil was a very complete skull, two million years old, that had fallen into the sand in a dry streambed and it seemed to be waiting there just for us! It was a moment I will never forget and one of the most unbelievable moments of my life.
Louise: I think excavating a new find is always heart-pounding. But you have to dig it up so slowly that your heart slows down quite a bit before it comes out of the ground!