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Richard Erskine Frere Leakey was born on 19 December 1944 in Nairobi. As a small boy, Leakey lived in Nairobi with his parents, Louis Leakey, curator of the Coryndon Museum, and Mary Leakey, director of the Leakey excavations at Olduvai, and his two brothers, Jonathan and Philip. The Leakey brothers had a very active childhood. All the boys had ponies and belonged to the Langata Pony Club. Sometimes the whole club were guests at the Leakeys' for holidays and vacations. Leakey's parents founded the Dalmatian Club of East Africa and won a prize in 1957. Dogs and many other pets shared the Leakey home. The Leakey boys participated in games conducted by both adults and children, in which they tried to imitate early humans, catching springhare and small antelope by hand on the Serengeti. They drove lions and jackals from the kill to see if they could do it.
In 1956, aged eleven, Leakey fell from his horse, fracturing his skull and nearly dying as a result. Incidentally, it was this incident that saved his parents' marriage. Louis was seriously considering leaving Mary for his secretary, Rosalie Osborn. As the battle with Mary raged in the household, Leakey begged his father from his sickbed not to leave. That was the deciding factor. Louis broke up with Rosalie and the family lived in happy harmony for a few years more.
Leakey chose to support himself, borrowed £500 from his parents for a Land Rover and went into the trapping and skeleton supply business with Kamoya Kimeu. Already a skilled horseman, outdoorsman, Land Rover mechanic, amateur archaeologist, and expedition leader, he learned to identify bones, skills which all pointed to a path he did not yet wish to take, simply because his father was on it.
The bone business turned into a safari business in 1961. In 1962, he obtained a private pilot licence and took tours to the Olduvai Gorge. It was from a casual aerial survey that he noted the potential of Lake Natron's shores for palaeontology. He went looking for fossils in a Land Rover, but could find none, until his parents assigned Glynn Isaac to go with him. Louis was so impressed with their finds that he gave them National Geographic money for a month's expedition. They explored in the vicinity of Peninj near the lake, where Leakey was in charge of the administrative details. Bored, he returned to Nairobi temporarily, but at that moment, Kamoya Kimeu discovered a fossil of Australopithecus boisei. A second expedition left Leakey feeling that he was being excluded from the most significant part of the operation, the scientific analysis.
In 1964, on his second Lake Natron expedition, Leakey met an archaeologist named Margaret Cropper. When Margaret returned to England, Leakey decided to follow suit to study for a degree and become better acquainted with her. He completed his high school requirements in six months; meanwhile Margaret obtained her degree at the University of Edinburgh. He passed the entrance exams for admission to college, but in 1965 he and Margaret decided to get married and return to Kenya. His father offered him a job at Centre for Prehistory and Palaeontology. He worked excavating at Lake Baringo and continued his photographic safari business, making enough money to buy a house in Karen, a pleasant suburb of Nairobi. Their daughter Anna was born in 1969, the same year that Leakey and Margaret divorced. He married his colleague Meave Epps in 1970 and they had two daughters, Louise (born 1972) and Samira (1974).
Leakey spoke fluent Kiswahili and moved effortlessly between white and black communities. While he rarely talked about race in public, racism and gender inequality infuriated him.
Leakey stated that he was an atheist and a humanist. He died at his home outside Nairobi, on 2 January 2022, less than a month after his 77th birthday. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried on a hill along the Rift Valley.