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Louise Leakey leads off at TED 2008

I’m here at the TED conference in Monterey, California for the next four days. It’s my third year at TED and my fourth TED conference, including TED Africa last summer in Arusha. I seem to have become part of the team here, live-blogging the event alongside Bruno Giussani, who runs one of Europe’s best blogs, as well as serving as the head of the TED Europe conference.

Over the next four days, I’ll likely put over 40 posts on this blog – I can’t get a post up for every speaker, but I often get quite close. Bruno will be doing the same, though he tends to post longer posts summarizing a few sessions at a time. Bruno also has an excellent post outlining some of the folks who’ll be blogging here as well – put everyone’s accounts together and perhaps you’ll get a fraction of the excitement and well-structured chaos taking place here.

Groundrules – for me, really more than for you. I’m writing really, really quickly here. I’m going to get things wrong – if I do, please use the comments to correct me. If my comment system keeps you out, send email to ethanz AT gmail DOT com… but the corrections won’t be made as quickly. I try pretty hard not to editorialize when I’m writing these posts – the words here are, to the best of my ability, the speakers’, not my own – if I’m editorializing, you’ll see comments in parenthesis. I don’t endorse (nor not endorse) any point of view put forward here – I’ll get opinionated in a wrap-up post on Saturday or Sunday most likely.

Thanks for reading, and for being here with me, virtually.

The theme of this year’s TED is “The Big Questions” – What is our place in the universe? Will evil prevail? How do we create?
Michael Stulberg, who will be the next Hamlet in this year’s Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, leads off with one of the great questions of all time, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet. A bit of a dark start, perhaps, but a reminder of the fact that at least one aspect of TED is that it’s theatre – the supreme challenge of capturing the attention of a huge group of people, eighteen minutes at a time.

Louise Leakey had a pretty interesting childhood. Hers is the first family of paleontology, and while the rest of us were doing jigsaw puzzles, she and her family were putting together the skeletons of chimpanzees and figuring out the pre-history of human evolution.

Leakey reminds us that we’re no more, no less, than big-brained, super-intelligent apes. While there are several ape species closely related to humans, we’ve got closest evolutionary similarities to the bonobo. But to understand how humans came about, we need to search for the origins of human ancestors… and that search takes place in east Africa.

The Leakey family has done most of their work in the Rift Valley, a vast depression that extends from the Gulf of Aden down to Malawi. Highland rivers bring sediment down into the depression, burying the bodies of animals – and human ancestors – that die there. She reminds us, “if you want to become a fossil, you need your bones to be rapidly buried.” And thousands of important finds have been made in the Rift Valley.

To find these fossils, extremely keen-eyed researchers need to walk across vast areas of the savannah, searching for small fossils. It’s impossible to overstate how hard it is to see these fossils – she shows us a picture of a site where she and others found an important jawbone from 2 million years ago. There’s no possible way the untrained eye could see it. She and researchers scrape dirt away with dental picks after documenting the site with digital photographs so that the sites can be returned to their previous condition. Not a lot of people get to spend time with their mothers uncovering human history with dental picks, she tells us.

There’s a wonderful photo from when she was twelve years old, removing dirt from an ancient crocodile skeleton. At the same time, another team was discovering a homo erectus skeleton on the other side of the valley. This two-million year old homo erectus was a tall, fast running, dark skinned man… who died when he was twelve, giving Louise Leakey a strong emotional connection to his story. He hadn’t been a healthy individual – he’d had a bad back due to scoliosis, and was probably cared for by female members of the family group. His life ended when he fell into a swamp and wasn’t able to escape.

Legendary fossil-hunter Kinoya Kimeyu found a small skull fragment and was able to bring a team to excavate the site. The skull had actually held a tree sapling in place, and the tree, as it grew, kept the skeleton in place. As a result, a huge amount of the skeleton was preserved, allowing us to see that his body was very similar to our own.

The pace of human history is a very fast one. Homo Erectus left Africa 90,000 generations ago. Early homo sapiens developed in Africa 30,000 generations ago, and only left the continent 30,000 years ago, or 1500 generations – an amazingly short period of time. Leakey wonders, “Will we be the shortest-lived homonid species in history?” Sure, we’re amazing at tool building – especially transport and communication tools – and we’ve had amazing population growth. But we’re “the only species that makes conscious choices that are bad for our survival,” as her father observed. Will we make it much longer? Leakey thinks we’ve got a good chance, evolutionarily speaking – after all, we’re the same people who found a way to survive in the Rift Valley with little more than rocks and social behavior.