Anthropologist speaks about discoveries of human origin

Tammie Tamara

Tammie TamaraSection Editor

Distinguished paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey spoke to a crowd in Doner Auditorium about her discoveries relating to the origins of mankind in the Griffith Honors Forum Lecture Monday night.

Director of Paleontology at the Kenya Museum, author of 50 articles in scientific magazines and one of the most visible scientists in her competitive and male-dominated field, Leakey has has been uncovering fossils in Kenya since 1965.

Her research team’s 1999 discovery is causing the most uproar. In a small, unworked area by Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, bits and pieces of a hominid were found. She put these pieces together?one of her favorite aspects of her profession.

“You don’t know what it’s going to turn into,” she said. “It’s like a jig-saw puzzle in three dimensions without the picture.”

In this case, the bits and pieces created what they named the Luekwi skull, a skull distinctly different from the other genuses of early man so far discovered.

“You couldn’t happily make this fit into any known genus,” she said.

Therefore, they concluded that what they had found was in fact a new genus, one she named Kenyanthropus platyops, meaning “flat-faced man of Kenya.”

What does this mean for the origin of mankind?

Unlike the previous understanding that mankind has a single, straight line of descent, this finding suggests that man’s descent looks more like a web.

“The diversity we see … is going to extend back in time right to the origin of humans,” Leakey said.

The discovery has caused some controversy over the idea that there are branches of evolution in human history.

Other pivotal discoveries, like Lucy in Ethiopia, a bidpedal human ancestor 3 to 3.5 million years old, caused Leakey to question where Lucy came from and whether she was the only species of her kind in that time period.

Homo erectus is a key species because it is considered the first human ancestor to move out of Africa, she said.

In the 1980s, her research team discovered a rare complete skeleton of an 11 or 12-year-old youth on the west side of Lake Turkana. This youth, called the Turkana Boy, is similar to Homo erectus but with a smaller brain, comparable in size to that of a 1-year-old.

Findings of ancient hominids lead her to ask certain questions.

“The question you ask is, is it a human or isn’t it a human? How like us is it? What actually makes us human?”

Making tools, using language, having self-awareness and having culture are four points humans have, but they are not unique to humans. Other animals have shown to have these characteristics as well, although in different degrees, she said.

Discovering connections between evolving species of hominid is important, she said.

“We have not been around very long,” she said. “We have a common African ancestry, and we also have a common future.”