For three generations the Leakey family has been pioneers in the field of paleoanthropology, seeking to uncover the origins of human beings. Louis Leakey (1903–72), who was born in Kenya, started exploring remains of human ancestors in East Africa in the 1930s. Experts, according to conventional wisdom, believed that Asia had been the source of human evolution and greeted him with initial skepticism.

By the late 1940s Leakey and his wife, Mary Leakey (1913–96), had found the skull of a Miocene hominoid and went on to find fossil bones of other human ancestors. Although many of Leakey’s conclusions regarding the age and classifications of his discoveries remain highly controversial, his works led the way for important new interpretations and work into the origins of hominids.

In the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, Mary excavated remains of Zinjanthropus boisei, now known as Australopithecus boisei, in 1959. In 1979 she found a line of early human footprints dating back 3.6 million years, thereby showing that early human ancestors were bipedal. These and other ongoing explorations have led most experts to conclude that Africa was the evolutionary source of humankind.

Their son, Richard E. Leakey (b. 1944) and his wife, Meave G. Leakey (b. 1942), carried on work in northern Kenya on Lake Turkana where they found important skulls of Homo habilis and Homo erectus and a nearly complete skeleton of "Turkana Boy", a youngster that lived some 1.6 million years ago. In 2001 Meave found a skull of Kenyanthropus platyopsa, a new genus and species.

Their daughter, Louise N. Leakey (b. 1972), continues the family tradition and heads the Koobi Fora Research Project along Lake Turkana searching and excavating for fossils; Louise’s research focuses on the evolution of early human ancestors, seeking answers to the origins of Homo, humankind’s genus.

 New generations of paleoanthropologists, including Donald Johanson, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, and others, have expanded fieldwork into Ethiopia, as well as central Africa. In 1974 Johanson discovered "Lucy" an early human ancestor. Scientists now believe that human evolution dates back 6 or 7 million years with about a dozen different species of human ancestors.

The Leakeys were also ardent environmentalists and supporters of animal conservation. Louis mentored a new generation of young scholars such as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas Brindamour, who conducted groundbreaking fi eld studies of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans.

Similarly, Richard became head of the Kenya Wildlife Services, championing the cause of wildlife preservation and a ban on the sale of ivory in order to preserve elephant herds, as well as serving as a member of the Kenyan parliament.