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Happy Birthday Zinjanthropus!

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An illustration of Zinjanthropus by Peter V. Bianchi

It was 50 years ago in Olduvai Gorge that Louis and Mary Leakey found fragments of teeth and a skull that were part of a male hominid they called Zinjanthropus, or Nutcracker Man, because of his huge teeth. This led to field research programs in Ethiopia and Kenya, the findings of which now dominate discussions of human evolution. To celebrate this occasion, on September 30, 2009, Richard Leakey will be leading a symposium at the Rockefeller University that will examine the development of scientific prehistory research in East Africa since the discovery of the Zinjanthropus fossil.

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The Leakeys face the incredible challenge of finding tiny fossils in a huge area armed with dental picks and paint brushes. Fred Spoor and Meave are examining fragments of an antelope skull that were found close to a hominin tooth. (Photograph by Mike Hettwer)

Richard and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Meave and Louise Leakey have continued the family tradition of paleoanthropology with the Koobi Fora Research Project. Meave and Louise Leakey currently co-lead the field seasons in the Turkana Basin, which in the last five decades have recovered the fossil remains of hundreds of early ancestors. With help from the Turkana Basin Institute and National Geographic, they are planning field expeditions and excavations each year.

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Maeve Leakey here holds delicate upper jaw of a human ancestor that lived in the Turkana Basin close to 2 million years ago. The fossil is largely concealed by rock so determining exactly what it presents cannot be done until all the sandstone has been removed. (Photograph by Mike Hettwer)

The Koobi Fora Research project also works closely with highly skilled Kenyan field workers. Robert Moru, originally a livestock herder living near the Kanapoi site, joined the field crew in 1995 and now is the undisputed “king fossil hunter” with more that 20 hominin finds. During the 2008 field season, together as a team, they collected 725 fossil specimens and documented an additional 1,595.

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With hand sharpened picks, three of the field crew, Robert Morn, Hillary Sale and Aike Lawri, carefull excavate a fossil that needs protecting. (Photograph by Mike Hettwer)

Learn more about the Leakeys and the Koobi Fora Research project.