By Rowan Obach, C2ST Intern, Loyola University
On Dec 19, 1944, Anthropologist Richard Leakey was born. Leakey’s most notable discovery was “Turkana Boy”, a vital piece in the puzzle of human evolution.
In the current understanding of human evolution, there are 6 species that humans developed from. Homo Homo Sapiens is our current genus. The species, listed in order of genetic similarity (least similar to most similar) to Homo Homo Sapiens are Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo habilis, Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens. These species act as the link between apes or monkeys and humans within the evolutionary cycle.
“Turkana Boy” is an early specimen of Homo erectus. Scientists estimate that he lived and died about 1.5 million years ago during a historical period called the Pleistocene. The specimen is named “Turkana Boy” because it was uncovered near Lake Turkana in Kenya on the western shore of the lake. The discovery was part of a research program called Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP). The program was named after the Koobi Fora rock formation, on the east side of the lake.
According to National Geographic, “Turkana Boy” is the most complete early human skeleton ever found. Most early hominid remains are incomplete or fragmented due to the build up of soil and rock above ground. This buildup compresses fossils and applies pressure to the bones. Upon recovery of the bones by paleontologists or anthropologists, the applied pressure typically damages the structure of the skeletal remains. “Turkana Boy”, however, had 40% of its remains complete or in good shape. It is rare to have a fully intact skeleton with the skull included but “Turkana Boy” has both intact.
This discovery helped link Homo floresiensis, a species that was genetically closer to apes and monkeys, to Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), which are the closest species to humans. In fact, some humans have DNA tested with traits that can be linked back to Neanderthals.
This was just one of Leakey’s many discoveries. His contributions to the field will be acknowledged for years to come. One of those contributions was the Leakey Foundation, a nonprofit that supports anthropology research and education. C2ST partnered with the Leakey Foundation and Chicago Public Libraries for a presentation on the origins of Genus Homo in 2018. Check out the program here if you’d like to learn more!