Government Technology

Louise Leakey: Time Traveler

"Crowdsourced Fossil Hunt"

February 28, 2013 By

Louise Leakey is definitely not an ivory-tower PhD. She arrived in the Turkana Basin in Northern Kenya with her parents when only a few weeks old, discovered her first hominid fossil at age 6, and continues to work there today. She awakens every morning before sunrise to work while it is still cool, and goes to bed exhausted. But she said she loves it, and every day brings the excitement of discovery.

Leakey, speaking at the Sacramento Speakers Series this week, comes from paleontology nobility. Her grandparents were Louis and Mary Leakey, who made groundbreaking discoveries in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. Her parents, Richard and Maeve Leakey, developed Kenya's Turkana Basin as an archeological site and made many discoveries themselves.

Leakey described to a packed auditorium the slow almost painful process of locating fossil fragments, meticulously cleaning and assembling the three-dimensional puzzle that eventually becomes a piece of man's ancient past. When she leaves the Turkana Basin site and comes to the U.S., she said, she is always amazed by how fast things move, even joking that she sometimes wishes the Internet were slower.

But Leakey is no Luddite, and uses technology to help interest a new generation in her passion -- a fascinating trail of discovery through time. She showed the audience a drone used to take high-resolution GPS-tagged photos of likely areas for fossils. The idea is to parcel out high-resolution photos to schools so students can scrutinize each inch of ground on their computers, and report potential discoveries. Leakey told of a finger bone fragment that was found, and painstakingly matched to rocks to find where it came from. That was successful, she said, and an entire skeleton was unearthed. It was "a crowdsourced fossil hunt," as she termed it.

Leakey would like to provide public access to discoveries, and since few people can travel to Africa, she has a website on which visitors can tour the Turkana facility, and can manipulate 3-D images of various skulls and fossils. The technology is a joint venture of the National Museum of Kenya, Autodesk and the Turkana Basin Institute.

In addition, Leakey hopes to take those images and allow schools to re-create them with 3-D printers.

And what ivory-tower PhD would make a timeline from toilet paper? Leakey said that if the 400 squares of toilet paper on a roll represented life on earth, only the final few centimeters would represent Homo Sapiens. She fears that human population explosion -- from some 250,000 individuals prior to the Industrial Revolution to an estimated 9 billion by 2050 -- will cause the extinction of many species of living things, an event she calls the "sixth extinction." The fifth extinction, she said, occurred when an asteroid -- or volcano, or both -- wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

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