Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist and fossil hunter whose discoveries of ancient human skulls and skeletons helped cement Africa’s place as the cradle of humanity, died on Sunday in Kenya. He was 77.
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya announced the death in a statement but did not specify a cause. Mr. Leakey died at his home outside Nairobi, said Prof. Lawrence Martin, director of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University on Long Island; Mr. Leakey was its founder.
Mr. Leakey’s parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, were towering figures in paleontology, but Richard was initially determined to steer clear of his parents’ field, finding work instead as a safari guide, before eventually, and perhaps inevitably, succumbing to fossil fever.
A turning point came on a flight in 1967, when he looked down over the rocky shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya and had, by his account, a feeling that the area could yield a trove of fossils. He was right.
The fossils found there by Mr. Leakey and his “Hominid Gang,” as he and his colleagues came to be known, would change the world’s understanding of human evolution.
One of his most celebrated finds came in 1984 when he helped unearth “Turkana Boy,” a 1.6-million-year-old skeleton of a young male Homo erectus. The other was a skull called “1470,” found in 1972, that extended the world’s knowledge of the Homo erectus species several million years deeper into the past.
“He was a mentor to dozens of Africans in diverse fields and had played a key role in shaping the world’s view on Africa’s place in the human evolution story,” WildlifeDirect, the organization he founded, said in a statement on Sunday.