Richard Leakey: Standing at the Lake Where Man Was Born
By Katherine Potter Thompson, National Geographic Live
“If there is a beginning of memory, it may be of this lake and its shores. This might be the Africa where human life began,” begins the narrator in Bones of Turkana, National Geographic Television’s compelling new documentary. Forty years ago, Richard Leakey pioneered paleoanthropological exploration in Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya—a rugged, largely uninhabited area in the Rift Valley. And one of the few places on the planet that offers the more than 4.5-million year continuum of the human story.
According to Sr. Exec. Producer John Bredar: “Leakey powers the movie. He’s really fantastic. He has never steered clear of speculation. He’s an agent provocateur, making bold declarations that get as close as anything to the truth.”
Leakey started his work at Lake Turkana in his 20s, making groundbreaking fossil discoveries with his wife Meave, an NG Explorer-in-Residence. In the 1980s, he admittedly had more than a typical mid-life crisis. He worked with Kenyan leaders to create the Kenyan Wildlife Service, burned poached African elephant tusks in a high-profile attempt to counter the ivory trade, raised a lot of money, and made enemies. In 1993, a single-engine plane he was flying mysteriously crashed. Leakey was severely injured and both of his legs were amputated below the knee. His comment: “I have given the best years of my life to public service. And, I recently gave my legs as well.” Leakey eventually returned to Lake Turkana and founded the Turkana Basin Institute, whose work could help us understand links between the fossils and key human traits: language, tool making, walking upright.
“We got a kick out of putting Richard Leakey in an environment with these creatures,” says Co-producer J.J. Kelley, speaking of hominids created in computer animation that appear to walk in the valley with Leakey. “We consulted with a hominid physiologist from George Washington University who would watch the film and say, ‘This Homo habilis, he should be more fluid. This Australopithecus, he should lumber more.’”
Kelley and his colleagues followed Leakey out on the land, sleeping in tents, in concrete bunkers, and outside under the stars when the bunkers got too hot. “Being with him constantly in the field, we talked a lot,” says Kelley. “Five hours might get distilled down into ten minutes on film. I’m supposed to be taking notes all the time. We’d ask a question. He’d think a minute and offer an eloquent scientific explanation. I found myself slacking off, entranced, and listening to every word. Leakey was enlightening, funny, creative—and rather cheeky from time to time.”
The world premier of Bones of Turkana will be screened at National Geographic Auditorium on March 19 at 7:30 PM, followed by a discussion with the director and producers. Co-presented by the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. For tickets: http://events.nationalgeographic.com/events/films/2012/03/19/bones/