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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution

The Sediments of Time My Lifelong Search for the Past

Biography / Memoir
By: Meave G Leakey(Author), Samira Leakey(Co-Author), Patricia J Wynne(Illustrator)
396 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos; b/w illustrations
The grande dame of palaeoanthropology reflects on a fulfilling career in an inspiring autobiography full of scientific detail.
The Sediments of Time
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  • The Sediments of Time ISBN: 9780358629221 Paperback Oct 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
  • The Sediments of Time ISBN: 9780358206675 Hardback Nov 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 2-4 weeks
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About this book

Meave Leakey's thrilling, high-stakes memoir – written with her daughter Samira – encapsulates her distinguished life and career on the front lines of the hunt for our human origins, a quest made all the more notable by her stature as a woman in a highly competitive, male-dominated field.

In The Sediments of Time, preeminent palaeoanthropologist Meave Leakey brings us along on her remarkable journey to reveal the diversity of our early pre-human ancestors and how past climate change drove their evolution. She offers a fresh account of our past, as recent breakthroughs have allowed new analysis of her team's fossil findings and vastly expanded our understanding of our ancestors.

Meave's own personal story is replete with drama, from thrilling discoveries on the shores of Lake Turkana to run-ins with armed herders and every manner of wildlife, to raising her children and supporting her renowned palaeoanthropologist husband Richard Leakey's ambitions amidst social and political strife in Kenya. When Richard needs a kidney, Meave provides him with hers, and when he asks her to assume the reins of their field expeditions after he loses both legs in a plane crash, the result of likely sabotage, Meave steps in.

The Sediments of Time is the summation of a lifetime of Meave Leakey's efforts; it is a compelling picture of our human origins and climate change, as well as a high-stakes story of ambition, struggle, and hope.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An inspiring autobiography
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Mar 2021 Written for Hardback

    In the field of palaeoanthropology, one name keeps turning up: the Leakey dynasty. Since Louis Leakey's first excavations in 1926, three generations of this family have been involved in anthropological research in East Africa. In this captivating memoir, Meave, a second-generation Leakey, reflects on a lifetime of fieldwork and research and provides an inspirational blueprint for what women can achieve in science.

    With The Sediments of Time, Meave* follows a family tradition. Her husband Richard, and his parents Louis and Mary have all been the subject of (auto)biographies, now many decades old. Science writer Virginia Morell later portrayed the whole family in her 1999 book Ancestral Passions. Much has happened in the meantime, and though this book portrays Meave's personal life, it heavily leans towards presenting her professional achievements, as well as scientific advances in the discipline at large. Thus, Meave's childhood and early youth are succinctly described in the first 15-page chapter as she is keen to get to 1965 when a 23-year-old Meave starts working with Louis in Kenya.

    Whereas Louis and Mary were famous for their work in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Richard and Meave have made their careers around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The first two parts of the book take the reader chronologically through the various excavation campaigns. These include the decade-long excavations in and around Koobi Fora, one highlight of which was the find of Nariokotome Boy (also known as Turkana Boy), a largely complete skeleton of a young Homo erectus. The subsequent campaign in Lothagam yielded little hominin material but did reveal a well-documented faunal turnover of herbivore browsers being replaced by grazers with time. Meave has also described several new hominin species. This includes Australopithecus anamensis, which would be ancestral to Australopithecus afarensis (represented by the famous Lucy skeleton), and Kenyanthropus platyops, which would be of the same age as Ardipithecus ramidus. That last name might sound familiar, because...

    Having just reviewed Fossil Men, which portrayed the notorious palaeoanthropologist Tim White, I was curious to see what Meave had to say about him. In Fossil Men, Kermit Pattison already mentioned that she described White "with a note of sympathy" (p. 5), and she affirms that picture here, writing that he is "a meticulous scientist [...] intolerant of bad science [...] outspoken and frank [...] although he was charming and a gentleman in less formal situations" (p. 136). And though they meet more than once to compare fossils, notes, and ideas, they remain at loggerheads over certain claims.

    Woven into Meave's narrative of exploration and excavation is an overview of how palaeoanthropology developed as a discipline, and what are some of its big outstanding questions. A recurrent theme is the influence of climate on evolution, often by impacting diet and available food sources. There is the difficult question of naming species and how much difference is enough to recognise a separate species, which ties into the whole lumpers vs. splitters debate in taxonomy. The latter readily name new species whereas the former (White being an example) point to sexual dimorphism and morphological variation and recognize only one or very few hominin species. Your stance in that debate affects what you think of Meave's descriptions of Au. anamensis as being part of a lineage towards Au. afarensis, and whether K. platyops is a species distinct from Ar. ramidus (White obviously thinks not).

    This discussion of topics relevant to palaeoanthropology strongly comes to the fore in the book's third part, by which time Meave is examining the Homo lineage and the question where we appeared from. This sees her tackling topics such as human childbirth and the role of grandmothers, Lieberman's hypothesis of endurance running as a uniquely human strategy to run prey to exhaustion, palaeoclimatology and the mechanism of the Milankovitch cycles, the spread of Homo erectus around the globe (the Out of Africa I hypothesis), and the use of genetics to trace deep human ancestry. I feel that Meave overstretches herself a little bit in places here. Though her explanations are lucid and include some good illustrations, some relevant recent literature, on e.g. ancient DNA and Neanderthals is not mentioned.

    Meave can draw on a deep pool of remarkable and amusing anecdotes that are put to good use to lighten up the text. And though the focus is on her professional achievements and the science, real life interrupts work on numerous occasions. Some of these are joyful, such as the birth of her daughters Louise and Samira. Some are a mixed blessing, such as Richard's career changes, first when Kenya's president hand-picks him to lead the Kenya Wildlife Service and combat rampant elephant poaching, then when he switches to attempting political reform. It removes him from palaeoanthropology and their time together in the field. Other occasions are outright harrowing, such as Richard's faltering kidneys that require transplantations, or the horrific plane crash that sees him ultimately lose both legs despite extended surgery.

    Illustrator Patricia Wynne contributes some tasteful drawings to this book, though the figure legends do not always clarify the important details these images try to convey. And I would have loved to see some photos of important specimens, whether during excavation or after preparation, especially given how much Meave focuses on the scientific story in this book. Many specimens are described in great detail but the colour plate section mostly contains photos of the Leakeys and collaborators in the field. Another minor point of criticism is that I was not clear on Samira's part in writing this book. The dustjacket mentions her as a co-author, but the story is told exclusively through Meave's eyes, and the acknowledgements do not clarify Samira's role. I am left to surmise that Meave and Samira together drew on their store of memories for this book.

    These minor criticisms notwithstanding, I found The Sediments of Time an inspiring memoir that provided a (for myself long-overdue) introduction to the Leakey dynasty. Meave has led a charmed existence and she is a fantastic role model for women in science.

    * I normally refer to authors by their last name but, for obvious reasons and with all due respect, I will be deviating from that habit here and mention the various Leakeys by their first name.
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Meave Leakey currently coheads the significant field efforts in northern Kenya, started nearly a century ago by Louis and Mary Leakey, seeking the fossil records to the roots of humankind. She has worked at the National Museums of Kenya since 1969, including the head of the palaeontology department, and is research professor at Stony Brook University, New York. She is the recipient of several honorary degrees, has been elected an honorary fellow of the Geological Society of London, inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, was a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, served as a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences, and received the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal, among many other accolades and achievements. She is also an author of numerous groundbreaking scientific publications in prestigious journals and of several monographs documenting her research.

Samira Leakey obtained a BA in politics with First-Class Honours from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a master’s in public administration from Princeton University. Samira worked at the World Bank in Washington, DC, and now lives in Nairobi with her daughter.


Biography / Memoir
By: Meave G Leakey(Author), Samira Leakey(Co-Author), Patricia J Wynne(Illustrator)
396 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos; b/w illustrations
The grande dame of palaeoanthropology reflects on a fulfilling career in an inspiring autobiography full of scientific detail.
Media reviews

"A fascinating glimpse into our origins. Meave Leakey is a great storyteller, and she presents new information about the far off time when we emerged from our ape-like ancestors to start the long journey that has led to our becoming the dominant species on Earth. That story, woven into her own journey of research and discovery, gives us a book that is informative and captivating, one that you will not forget."
– Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute

"An exciting and richly informative scientist's autobiography [...] This major work of scientific dedication and original insight illuminates both our distant past and our current, serious, human-caused planetary challenges."
Booklist, starred review

"Attentive readers of Meave Leakey's masterful memoir, The Sediments of Time, will learn a few details about her personal life [...] But the main and most illuminating parts of [the book] 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 [...] Meave and her cowriter, her youngest daughter Samira Leakey, write clearly and compellingly about what these discoveries mean [...] A thrilling account."
BookPage, starred review

"An engaging memoir [...] A marvelous account of what it is like for a celebrated scientist to take on some of the most vital and vexing questions regarding human origins and to come up with biocultural answers."

"Meave describes a life that many readers will envy. Her discoveries, often after numbingly tedious work in a brutal climate, added new species to our family tree, teased out more information about existing ancestors, and increased our knowledge of how evolution, geology, and climate change gave rise to modern humans. She is not shy about explaining all this [...] An illuminating memoir of an impressive scientist."
Kirkus Reviews

"Fossils, hyaenas, and eccentric scientists almost literally jump off the page in Meave Leakey's exuberant memoir. This riveting read takes you on the unplanned but glorious adventure that has been Meave's life of discovery. Her love of learning and quest for knowledge about our origins inspire every page and will set your mind alight!"
– Nina G. Jablonski, PhD, Penn State University, Author of Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

"Meave Leakey confronts extraordinary challenges that ultimately yield unimaginably rich rewards. The Sediments of Time offers everything for everyone: exciting fossil finds, courageous expeditions, seminal paleoanthropological contributions to science, and convincing scientific evidence to support climate change. Meave has labored five decades filling the gaps in Homo sapien's 3-million-year journey of evolution. She also verifies global climate change by analyzing fossil teeth, 800,000-year-old ocean floor ice cores, and Milankovitch's sun-earth alignment to explain global glaciation and torrid periods. She is a researcher extraordinaire."
– Gilbert Grosvenor, former president and chairman of the National Geographic Society

"Involved for five decades in collecting, describing and interpreting an extraordinary range of fossils critical to understanding human evolution, Meave Leakey and her daughter Samira present us here with a welcome and accomplished example of accessible science writing in this engaging and deeply informed book."
– David Pilbeam, PhD, Henry Ford II Research Professor of Human Evolution, Harvard University

"A fascinating memoir and whirlwind tour of research into human origins by one of the preeminent explorers of our age; an inspiration for new generations of researchers and the wider public alike."
– Fred Spoor, PhD, Natural History Museum, U.K.

"Meave Leakey has long been recognized as one of the world's leading paleoanthropologists. In this memoir, Meave recounts her East African field expeditions and shares broad insights into anatomy, geology, paleontology, botany, language, and human behavior. Her contributions to solving some the puzzles of human evolution illustrate how field and laboratory work, analytical studies, and long-term collaborations work together to shape scientific knowledge. Hers is a remarkable and inspiring life story."
– Thure Cerling, PhD, Francis Brown Presidential Chair, University of Utah

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