Louise Leakey: Digging for humanity’s origins


Who are we? That is the big question. And essentially we are just an upright-walking, big-brained, super-intelligent ape. This could be us. We belong to the family called the Hominidae. We are the species called Homo sapiens sapiens, and it’s important to remember that, in terms of our place in the world today and our future on planet Earth. We are one species of about five and a half thousand mammalian species that exist on planet Earth today. And that’s just a tiny fraction of all species that have ever lived on the planet in past times. We’re one species out of approximately, or let’s say, at least 16 upright-walking apes that have existed over the past six to eight million years. But as far as we know, we’re the only upright-walking ape that exists on planet Earth today, except for the bonobos. And it’s important to remember that, because the bonobos are so human, and they share 99 percent of their genes with us. And we share our origins with a handful of the living great apes. It’s important to remember that we evolved. Now, I know that’s a dirty word for some people, but we evolved from common ancestors with the gorillas, the chimpanzee and also the bonobos. We have a common past, and we have a common future. And it is important to remember that all of these great apes have come on as long and as interesting evolutionary journey as we ourselves have today. And it’s this journey that is of such interest to humanity, and it’s this journey that has been the focus of the past three generations of my family, as we’ve been in East Africa looking for the fossil remains of our ancestors to try and piece together our evolutionary past. And this is how we look for them. A group of dedicated young men and women walk very slowly out across vast areas of Africa, looking for small fragments of bone, fossil bone, that may be on the surface. And that’s an example of what we may do as we walk across the landscape in Northern Kenya, looking for fossils. I doubt many of you in the audience can see the fossil that’s in this picture, but if you look very carefully, there is a jaw, a lower jaw, of a 4.1-million-year-old upright-walking ape as it was found at Lake Turkana on the west side. (Laughter) It’s extremely time-consuming, labor-intensive and it is something that is going to involve a lot more people, to begin to piece together our past. We still really haven’t got a very complete picture of it. When we find a fossil, we mark it. Today, we’ve got great technology: we have GPS. We mark it with a GPS fix, and we also take a digital photograph of the specimen, so we could essentially put it back on the surface, exactly where we found it. And we can bring all this information into big GIS packages, today. When we then find something very important, like the bones of a human ancestor, we begin to excavate it extremely carefully and slowly, using dental picks and fine paintbrushes. And all the sediment is then put through these screens, and where we go again through it very carefully, looking for small bone fragments, and it’s then washed. And these things are so exciting. They are so often the only, or the very first time that anybody has ever seen the remains. And here’s a very special moment, when my mother and myself were digging up some remains of human ancestors. And it is one of the most special things to ever do with your mother. (Laughter) Not many people can say that. But now, let me take you back to Africa, two million years ago. I’d just like to point out, if you look at the map of Africa, it does actually look like a hominid skull in its shape. Now we’re going to go to the East African and the Rift Valley. It essentially runs up from the Gulf of Aden, or runs down to Lake Malawi. And the Rift Valley is a depression. It’s a basin, and rivers flow down from the highlands into the basin, carrying sediment, preserving the bones of animals that lived there. If you want to become a fossil, you actually need to die somewhere where your bones will be rapidly buried. You then hope that the earth moves in such a way as to bring the bones back up to the surface. And then you hope that one of us lot will walk around and find small pieces of you. (Laughter) OK, so it is absolutely surprising that we know as much as we do know today about our ancestors, because it’s incredibly difficult, A, for these things to become — to be — preserved, and secondly, for them to have been brought back up to the surface. And we really have only spent 50 years looking for these remains, and begin to actually piece together our evolutionary story. So, let’s go to Lake Turkana, which is one such lake basin in the very north of our country, Kenya. And if you look north here, there’s a big river that flows into the lake that’s been carrying sediment and preserving the remains of the animals that lived there. Fossil sites run up and down both lengths of that lake basin, which represents some 20,000 square miles. That’s a huge job that we’ve got on our hands. Two million years ago at Lake Turkana, Homo erectus, one of our human ancestors, actually lived in this region. You can see some of the major fossil sites that we’ve been working in the north. But, essentially, two million years ago, Homo erectus, up in the far right corner, lived alongside three other species of human ancestor. And here is a skull of a Homo erectus, which I just pulled off the shelf there. (Laughter) But it is not to say that being a single species on planet Earth is the norm. In fact, if you go back in time, it is the norm that there are multiple species of hominids or of human ancestors that coexist at any one time. Where did these things come from? That’s what we’re still trying to find answers to, and it is important to realize that there is diversity in all different species, and our ancestors are no exception. Here’s some reconstructions of some of the fossils that have been found from Lake Turkana. But I was very lucky to have been brought up in Kenya, essentially accompanying my parents to Lake Turkana in search of human remains. And we were able to dig up, when we got old enough, fossils such as this, a slender-snouted crocodile. And we dug up giant tortoises, and elephants and things like that. But when I was 12, as I was in this picture, a very exciting expedition was in place on the west side, when they found essentially the skeleton of this Homo erectus. I could relate to this Homo erectus skeleton very well, because I was the same age that he was when he died. And I imagined him to be tall, dark-skinned. His brothers certainly were able to run long distances chasing prey, probably sweating heavily as they did so. He was very able to use stones effectively as tools. And this individual himself, this one that I’m holding up here, actually had a bad back. He’d probably had an injury as a child. He had a scoliosis and therefore must have been looked after quite carefully by other female, and probably much smaller, members of his family group, to have got to where he did in life, age 12. Unfortunately for him, he fell into a swamp and couldn’t get out. Essentially, his bones were rapidly buried and beautifully preserved. And he remained there until 1.6 million years later, when this very famous fossil hunter, Kamoya Kimeu, walked along a small hillside and found that small piece of his skull lying on the surface amongst the pebbles, recognized it as being hominid. It’s actually this little piece up here on the top. Well, an excavation was begun immediately, and more and more little bits of skull started to be extracted from the sediment. And what was so fun about it was this: the skull pieces got closer and closer to the roots of the tree, and fairly recently the tree had grown up, but it had found that the skull had captured nice water in the hillside, and so it had decided to grow its roots in and around this, holding it in place and preventing it from washing away down the slope. We began to find limb bones; we found finger bones, the bones of the pelvis, vertebrae, ribs, the collar bones, things that had never, ever been seen before in Homo erectus. It was truly exciting. He had a body very similar to our own, and he was on the threshold of becoming human. Well, shortly afterwards, members of his species started to move northwards out of Africa, and you start to see fossils of Homo erectus in Georgia, China and also in parts of Indonesia. So, Homo erectus was the first human ancestor to leave Africa and begin its spread across the globe. Some exciting finds, again, as I mentioned, from Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia. But also, surprising finds recently announced from the Island of Flores in Indonesia, where a group of these human ancestors have been isolated, and have become dwarfed, and they’re only about a meter in height. But they lived only 18,000 years ago, and that is truly extraordinary to think about. Just to put this in terms of generations, because people do find it hard to think of time, Homo erectus left Africa 90,000 generations ago. We evolved essentially from an African stock. Again, at about 200,000 years as a fully-fledged us. And we only left Africa about 70,000 years ago. And until 30,000 years ago, at least three upright-walking apes shared the planet Earth. The question now is, well, who are we? We’re certainly a polluting, wasteful, aggressive species, with a few nice things thrown in, perhaps. (Laughter) For the most part, we’re not particularly pleasant at all. We have a much larger brain than our ape ancestors. Is this a good evolutionary adaptation, or is it going to lead us to being the shortest-lived hominid species on planet Earth? And what is it that really makes us us? I think it’s our collective intelligence. It’s our ability to write things down, our language and our consciousness. From very primitive beginnings, with a very crude tool kit of stones, we now have a very advanced tool kit, and our tool use has really reached unprecedented levels: we’ve got buggies to Mars; we’ve mapped the human genome; and recently even created synthetic life, thanks to Craig Venter. And we’ve also managed to communicate with people all over the world, from extraordinary places. Even from within an excavation in northern Kenya, we can talk to people about what we’re doing. As Al Gore so clearly has reminded us, we have reached extraordinary numbers of people on this planet. Human ancestors really only survive on planet Earth, if you look at the fossil record, for about, on average, a million years at a time. We’ve only been around for the past 200,000 years as a species, yet we’ve reached a population of more than six and a half billion people. And last year, our population grew by 80 million. I mean, these are extraordinary numbers. You can see here, again, taken from Al Gore’s book. But what’s happened is our technology has removed the checks and balances on our population growth. We have to control our numbers, and I think this is as important as anything else that’s being done in the world today. But we have to control our numbers, because we can’t really hold it together as a species. My father so appropriately put it, that “We are certainly the only animal that makes conscious choices that are bad for our survival as a species.” Can we hold it together? It’s important to remember that we all evolved in Africa. We all have an African origin. We have a common past and we share a common future. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re just a blip. We’re sitting on the edge of a precipice, and we have the tools and the technology at our hands to communicate what needs to be done to hold it together today. We could tell every single human being out there, if we really wanted to. But will we do that, or will we just let nature take its course? Well, to end on a very positive note, I think evolutionarily speaking, this is probably a fairly good thing, in the end. I’ll leave it at that, thank you very much. (Applause)

Comments 100

  • Mars? LOL! We can't even keep a simple space station in orbit with working toilets! Man will never make it beyond the Moon – alive that is.

  • How many old bones does it take to convince someone they're chasing their evolutionary tails?

  • HumanitysAdvocate,

    "Man will never make it beyond the Moon – alive that is."

    So much for being an advocate for humanity! It might not happen in our life time, but if humans are to survive we literally need to reach for the stars. Our planet wont last forever.

  • What a fool…
    Amazingly ignorant

  • The Western world is suffering from record lows in fertility. Governments need to focus on boosting the birthrate, not trying to limit the lifeline that is in an unprecedented decline.

  • yeah, just a few more billion years…. and as for earth supporting life… maybe a few million years?

  • adapt or kill the biggest consumers and we'll be able to live for a few more million years…. thats right americans.

  • why? You know something I don't? Or do you just try to guess a completely unknown future, sounding like it's fact?
    I'm sure we'll survive. But who knows…

  • i think governments have started to cut the birth rates. fertility falling!

  • fk u man… stop spammming ted videos…. plz fking get a life.. wtf is wrong wif u? if u re trying to attract an intellectual crowd, u should consider rephrasing ur spam, and target specific users, and not videos…

  • We have something no other specie has ever had before us, and that is a rather big brain. We can see what is coming, and can do things to prevent them from hurting us. And we now have the technology to at least be able to save a small amount of us, almost no matter what happens. Melting poles? We build floating cities. Astoroid? We find a way to blow it out of the sky (I asure you, if we were told that an astoroid would hit in 10 years, a solution would be found before…)->

  • Destroyed environment? Well, some rich people build some giant greenhouses.
    There are too many people, with too much desire to survive, to wipe out every human on this planet. Ok, if an astoroid hit in 5 min. from now, we would be fucked. But I can't think of one single human made disaster, capeable of wiping out every single one of us. Some will survive, some will start again. I sincerely believe that humans are here to stay. We will even find a way to survive the sun, when its time comes.

  • We don't have to control our numbers, total ignorance of economics working. Tsk, tsk, tsk…

  • Not raising any more children is better than raising more children. It's not about how smart the children are it's about how many children there are.

  • Exactly!
    Leakey is too ignorant to understand that though.

  • Who says less is more? ("Old Sayings" aren't logical arguing points.) Who will we endow with the authority to tell us how many children we are "allowed" to have, if any at all? If you want to appoint people to tell you what to do with yourself and your family, be my guest; we live in a free society and we've decided that keeping the government out of our bedrooms is among the freedoms we enjoy. If anyone wants to choose not to have kids, fine, but it shouldn't be mandatory.

  • Many population Biologists figure, as a species, we will reach our 'Carrying Capacity'(CC) at between 9-10 billion. Drastic changes in biomes that are foreseen in the very near future will affect agriculture, conflict, food/habitat refugees, etc. Death from food and water shortage will slow down our pace of pop. increase but the unknowns that we cannot predict(pandemics, pestilence, oceanic food reduction, toxic magnification, etc)could hasten this CC. Could get interesting.

  • Yes you're right. 🙂

  • Many of us as children heard the story about the frog transforming into a Prince and most of us knew that this was only an imaginary tale. The magic there was the kiss of a Princess and the magic of evolution is time. Evolutionists are prone to believe that fairy tale that with enough time…anything is possible !

  • Wow, just by saying that, you show everyone your ignorance on the subject of evolution. I feel confident in saying that no evolutionist would even suggest we evolved from frogs. Although we do share a common ancestor, this is completley different than evolving from frogs.

  • These videos are too complicated for you and other 2 year olds, you might hurt yourself watching them. Maybe there are some bible stories on YouTube for you son of a bigot slave master too prude for Europe.

  • What an idiot! The first woman on earth was deceived just as this woman is.
    It will never stop, they are spiritual dead people therefore they seek animal bones instead of a creator.

  • Yes, we are animals, but not just animals. We are the most intelligent animals to walk this planet. We have the ability to rise above our lowly origins and think. We can act as a group for our own self interest and the interest of our decendants. We should 'save the world' because we can. Because we need to in order to continue making the progress towards a peacful world order where we can spend our excess capacity enjoying life and expolring the mysteries of nature.

  • I don't see her as spiritually dead. Tracing our origins seems to be a spiritually satisfying occupation. Evolution, as the mechanism of our creation, gives huge meaning to what it is to be human.

  • Andrew said, "She has great enthusiasm and charm."
    That's what got Eve's attention, allowing her to belive the lie. LOL!
    Does she tickel your ears?

  • Yes, even you are part of my family and I wouldn't mind throwing you in a cage instead of a monkey. I'm not against zoos since monkeys are being eradicated by ignorant dorks like you and they're at least trying to keep some alive. Oh and an ant is not the same as a human, nobody but you would claim something as stupid as that.

  • She's talking about birth control, to be educated, to be conscious of our future as a species.

  • Because they aren't. There human. Our brain has 3 layers. Our basic function is in deep in our skull and evolved along with reptiles (300 million years ago). Then when mammals evolved, the limbic system was formed around that (200 million years ago), which controlled emotion and looking after our young etc. Then, a few million years ago our ancestors evolved the cerebral cortex which is important for higher function such as creativity, thinking and planning……

  • Not bigger than this universe. It is our nature to think and plan and be creative. Nature, within this universe, has provided us with a brain capable of thoughts, feelings, desires, love and all other aspects of the human condition. It has also given us the capacity for hate and depravity. In the sense that we can comprehend our existance and vast space and time, yes we are more, perhaps unique. We are, as she said, superintelligent apes. We are derived from nature and live within it.

  • We are within the universe. We contain feelings, passions and ideas. Therefore the universe containts these things. Humans are unique on this earth, and possibly in the universe, for our ability to think and reason. I wouldn't say "walking sticks with brains" as this seems to be demeaning to our intricate and sophisticated capabilities. We should be humble enough to recongnise our lowly origin, yet proud enough to acknowlege our unique ability to change the world and us this responsibly.

  • We didn't evolve from chimpanzees, but we share a relatively recent common ancestor.

    Jellyfish (~96% water) and watermelon (91% water) are not as very closely related genetically (probably ~40% similarity). Their last common ancestor was a LONG time ago. DNA similarity can be used to trace relationships becuase it is inherited and passed on down the tree of life. Water is not. It is DNA that controls the devlopment from the embryo/seed/cell and gives a creature its identity, not water.

  • "The jelly fish is 99% water and so is the watermelon, therefore the watermelon evolved from the jellyfish…"

    Are you trying to ridicule Evolution through a straw-man argumentative fallacy, or are you truly displaying severe mental retardation?

  • ".. does the Universe contain feelings, passions, ideas, life?". Emotions are products of mammalian neurological processes that evolved to foster child rearing and socialization and more dramatic responses to potentially dangerous situations. Since emotions are are the manifestations of neural activity, they are contained in brains and are thus contained in the Universe.

  • "We have to control our numbers" …take note, breeders!

  • So you're saying you want to kill Americans? Why not kill breeders?

  • No, mammalian brains create the conscious states termed emotions. Since mammalian brains possess emotions, and these brains are contained within the Universe, (minuscule) parts of the Universe have feelings. White large, the Universe is without feelings or thoughts. Certainly the vast lifeless stretches of cold void separating the stars weep not.

  • I don't give a shit about what happens beyond my life time. But the people who do care maybe should think about doing that…

  • She's spent her working life doing this, cut her some slack if she isn't the best public speaker, not that many people are.

  • Actually her intro was right on…… It isn't "simple shit" nor did she say so. The implication is that we are no more complicated than most all other species, just more evolved.

    Every living creature on this earth essentially has organs, senses, spiritual capacity, nerves, neurons, bones, blood cells, energy. Some do not display vanity or spirituality, but we cannot know if they are not capable. I thought the introduction realistically framed her study.

  • "Every living creature on this earth essentially has organs, senses, spiritual capacity, nerves, neurons, bones, blood cells, energy."

    Most organisms inhabiting Earth are bacteria, which lack organs, nerves and bones (i.e. task-dedicated multi-cellular structures) and blood. Prokaryotes also lack "spiritual capacity", since this vaguely defined quality presumably requires consciousness.

  • hottides,

    I never implied that they had all at once….just that the concept of these traits are not unique to humans. Whatever combination a given life form may have is irrelevant, the idea that all these are on the menu is the point.

  • Excellent video. Thanks for uploading.

  • so will our human race evlove again? if so, what?

  • That's hawt.

  • This is bullshit!!! just do a little research in our genome, this is just the same bullshit as Darwin fooled us with!

    They just find ape skulls and bones and not the missing link that does not exsist, because we dont heritage from apes, we are humans!

    I cant explain it all here but read about the Sumerians and what they have to say.

  • 3 years in US n i have problem understanding brit ascent

  • Louis is not a Brit. She is Kenyan.

  • There is no such thing as 'less evolved' if the comparisons are living at the same time.

  • Sorry, what comment are you replying to?

  • 11:05 the nth proof of Extraterrestrial interference on Earth.

  • one of the more mediocre talks I've seen. You can tell she's used to being out in the field or writing her thoughts rather than speaking about them

  • You are just a dumb, jealous peckerwood my fiend! 🙂

  • @ActaSanctorum I rather listen to someone who knew what they were speaking about as she does rather than someone who speaks in a very elegant manner, but is totally ignorant and just baffles people with his bovine scatology! 🙂

  • @JaySkulk Yes, and I would rather hear her stumble through this topic than hear someone eloquently promote fascism as a solution to global problems (there's one of the talks where a guy does this). I don't disagree, but the lack of cadence makes it harder for the listener to follow the presentation

  • She was alright until she got to the end. Then she was a little off on her "political message". I agree that overpopulation is a major problem. But all the population growth is coming from 3rd world countries so that's where population control will need to be implemented.

  • Evolution is bullshit.

  • Speak for yourself apeGirl… your cranial evolution isn't working fast enough.

  • Posing a 'big question', and then immediately answering yourself, is a bit odd. I wouldn't claim the question to be big, if I had the answer in one sentence…
    That said, I have to say: this is a very interesting presentation, with great pictures.

  • Except for the Dugger family and people like them having multiple children for religious reasons.

  • The average fertility in some 3rd world countries is 6. The average fertility in developed countries in below replacement. Like I said, the population growth is coming from 3rd world populations so that's where the population control will need to be implemented.

  • 9:39 Jesus is in the audience and he doesn't approve.

  • Eh, i guess all those advances in medicine due to a better understand of evolution is bullshit too, eh?

  • Congratulations. You made 8 spelling or grammatical mistakes in a 27 word comment.

    Quite an achievement!!

  • Well, normally I ignore minor mistakes but you made so many of them in such a short space, and yet had the cheek to call me an idiot.

    I appreciate irony, but I doubt you have the capacity to make it intentionally.

  • She is amazing!

  • Whether it is essentially true or not you do not gain friends and listeners calling humans upright walking apes. Makes people ignore truths not discover them.

  • I love how passionate she is about apes. She keeps this twinkle in her eye, as if she's just learning this all over again

  • yeppers. havnt even watched it yet and i hate it !

  • hahahaha

  • DR.MORGANS CLASS!

  • Anyone from Dr. Morgen's class that is actually interested in this?

  • Wow it's like all the comments are from Dr.Morgens class.

  • And you are violent just like an ape. (don't kill me, I didn't say you came from one)

  • People need to get over their egos and accept the facts that keep piling up.
    I love her enthusiasm and passion.

  • I agree with you. Like you said, Western replacement rates are often abysmally low. The US is hanging in just around average while the rest of Europe is below what is needed to maintain their current numbers. Population in the Western world will continue decreasing.

    Overpopulation occurs mostly in Africa and Asia where standards of living are low and extra hands can be beneficial. The best way to curb overpopulation through raising standards of living and educating!

  • I was looking for a video concerning Louis Leakey…

  • but the Bible says…

  • There is no evolution, we are not apes. Stop lying to people about your stupid theories

  • We are at a special time in the history of this planet. I believe there is a limited window of time for life to evolve on any planet. The conditions, which may be variable from planet to planet, must within a certain range of temperature with the presence of liquid water amongst other compounds and elements. Early in the planet's history, there is evidence that the planet was bombarded with meteors. Jupiter now protects us from bombardment to a great degree due to its gravity.

  • Im Here from Dr. Morgans

  • What the hell are we even supposed to write down for this?

  • fucking, dr.morgan! :c

  • i dunno man… stuff

  • i cant even remember exactly what we need to do… i finished 10 facts but he said some shit about typing whatever to my class period and now im just hella fucking confused

  • Omg even like the comments from like 11 months ago are about dr. Morgan

  • >:I you are lazy, peasant.

  • >:I hmm still working 2secs at a time

  • yep. this seriously sucks

  • "we are not apes"

    If we are not apes, then house cats are not felines. You cannot describe the general biology and anatomy of Humans without describing other apes, just as you cannot describe the general biology of a house cat without describing felines.

  • I've watched this presentaion several times and I find it an amazing lecture in its scope. The end was interesting as I think the important thought I was left with was the idea that, even though humans have a great capacity to keep it together, we will not opt as a species to make those positives decisions to maintain ourselves as a viable earth life form, and it will evolutionary wise cost us, as in possible major extinction.   

  • thanks for a great lecture

  • Extraordinary… For so many years my mind was suppressed by religion. Religion and science are solar opposites… Religion=fiction, Science=fact.

  • Sorry, but most of you evolutionists must be careful with your words when speaking about where people came from. Not all people believe in such things. You have freedom of speech/free will to speak, do, feel, and think as you desire/want/will whatnot. So do other people. Do not assume all people on earth believe in what is spoken by you evolutionist believers. I would suggest you take out the word "our" and other words that generalize. The percentage of evolutionist believers can be said instead of "our" and other such generalized words. Thanks for evolving from your wrong wording to something better.

  • Reading some of the comments here saying evolution is hoax makes me wonder are these people just trying to be funny or are there people out there who still believe that the earth is flat and aeroplanes don't exist ….so sad to observe the level ignorance that still pervades throughout the world….in fact Charles Darwin 200 years ago predicted that eventually we will find evidence that will point to the fact that humans evolved in Africa and the current and most likely temporary domination of just one species that is us is an anomaly…hardly any other group of animals (apart from perhaps dogs who were created by us from ancient wolves) exist as a single species…so everybody get over it we are nothing special and will eventually perhaps quite quickly disappear to be replaced…..

  • I was with you until you said we had to control our numbers because that's kind of a dangerous ideas. Our population grows logarithmically so we should stabilize around 10 billion so all we have to do is continue to develop agricultural and other techniques and we should be fine

  • Still refusing that whites came from blacks,again these findings are in Africa!

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