November 2020

The Sediments of Time

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Attentive readers of Meave Leakey’s masterful memoir, The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past, will learn a few details about her personal life. She was recruited by the great Louis Leakey for paleontological research in Africa in 1965, after sexism prevented her from working as a marine biologist. After completing her Ph.D., she returned to Kenya in 1969 for good. She fell in love with Louis’ son, Richard Leakey, despite his obnoxious reputation and the fact that he was then in an unhappy marriage. They had two daughters, who spent “field season” in remote areas of Kenya hunting fossils with their parents and their collaborators. After Richard was named the head of Kenya’s wildlife conservation department to end a rampage of elephant poaching, Meave became head of the field research operation and spent much of her life apart from him, especially as he became more involved in politics. Years later, long after Richard had lost his legs in a plane crash, she donated a kidney to him. And so on.

But the main and most illuminating parts of The Sediments of Time are about the tedious, painstaking years spent hunting for the fossilized remains of our species’ precursors. Drawing on field notes, interviews and research papers, Meave recounts the work that led to some of her and her team’s greatest discoveries. She demonstrates the astonishing amount of knowledge that can be gained, for example, through meticulous examination of something as seemingly unimportant as a prehistoric baby tooth. She writes of the shoestring budgets paleontologists operate on, the competition for research grants and the need for significant discoveries to maintain funding—and of the collaborative nature of the field’s efforts despite the competition for money. She also hails the positive impact of new communication and digital technologies in the field.

Best of all, Meave and her co-writer, her youngest daughter Samira Leakey, write clearly and compellingly about what these discoveries mean. In a fascinating chapter inspired by the birth of her grandchildren, Meave explores the advantages for our species of having parents who live long beyond childbearing years. Other chapters concern the development of our most distinguishing features: walking on two feet, the amazing mobility of our hands and the size of our brains. Some readers may find this all goes too deep into the sands of time, but many more will find it a thrilling account.

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