Not too long ago, nearly everyone thought it was the Asian ape that jumped through the evolutionary ring to turn bipedal, thus becoming human. But, no. “As homo sapiens, we have been around only for 200,000 years,” says Louise Leakey, a paleontologist, on a visit to India to attend THiNK 2013 at Goa. “If you actually look at how long we have been around as an upright walking ape, which is going back eight million years, our species has been here only this tiny window in time.” And back then, the ancestors of everyone who is human today was negotiating life in Africa.
That Asia is the native land of all our ancestors is not the only myth the Leakeys — for she is the third generation of paleontologists — smashed. They were also the first to suggest that millennia ago, not one but several species of ape were marching up the evolutionary scale, most likely simultaneously, until the early ancestors of today’s humans went into overdrive and shot ahead.
The passion for searching our remotest past first flared up in her grandfather, Louis Leakey, the son of expat Christian missionaries. Even as a child, all of Louise’s vacations were spent excavating for artefacts and fossils.
By the time Louis passed away in 1972, his and his wife’s digging had thrown up more new explanations than all previous excavations put together. Louise was only 21 when her father, Richard, also a paleontologist, became an invalid from being in a plane crash. To build on the work of her grandfather and father was the natural course for her.
And some toil that has been. “If you want to become a fossil, you have to die in the right place and your bones have to actually be buried quickly,” she says. “It is a very rare event indeed that anything is ever fossilised.” But once it happens, the fossils are a revelation. “There is a lot you can do by looking at the context of these bones, by dating the volcanic ash horizons, between which the fossils are sandwiched,” she says. “If they’re above a known horizon, they’re younger; if they’re older, they would have fallen below the volcanic ash horizon.”
More clues are to be had from the sediments in which the fossils are preserved, the fossils of the animals found preserved alongside, the isotopes and the teeth. “There are many ways to look at the past,” she says. Indeed.