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AFRICA: The Human Cradle

An International Conference Paying Tribute to Richard E. Leakey

We invite you to join us in celebrating the life and achievements of Richard Erskine Frere Leakey in the arena of African Prehistory during a five-day conference at the Charles B. Wang Center in Stony Brook University. 




MONDAY, June 5, 2023

1:00 - 2:00 pm Check-in at the registration desk
2:00 - 2:15 pm Welcome remarks by SBU President Maurie McInnis & National Geographic Society CEO Jill Tiefenthaler
Session 1 - Fred Grine, Chair
2:15 - 3:00 pm

Bernard Wood
A very consequential paleoanthropologist

Although Richard Leakey liked to stress his lack of formal education and training in paleoanthropology, this talk will emphasize that his contributions to human origins research were not just evidential. His intellectual curiosity was infectious, and by deliberately gathering like-minded colleagues around him, he is indirectly responsible for an impressive range of research initiatives, many of which continue to this day.
3:00 - 3:25 pm

Yohannes Haile-Selassie
Mid-Pliocene hominin diversity: the fossil evidence

The presence or absence of mid-Pliocene hominin diversity has been a subject of debate for the last two decades. The talk will address this issue based on the available fossil evidence from eastern Africa.
3:25 - 3:50 pm

Dino J. Martins
An overview of research in the Turkana Basin: past, present & future

Dr. Richard Leakey's vision for science grew from the pioneering work in Turkana to engage with and address questions about our origins, survival and future. This talk will cover some of the big questions and debates through time and the growing research in the Turkana Basin.
3:50 - 4:15 pm

Lee R. Berger
The Leakey legacy and the new "greatest age of exploration" - our ever-expanding understanding of human origins

Richard Leakey's impact on the field of paleoanthropology has been profound, perhaps no more so than in the field of exploration for human origins. In this talk, Lee Berger will discuss Richard's personal impact on his career and discuss recent discoveries and the future of discovery and exploration into human origins in this new 'greatest age of exploration'.
4:15 - 4:45 pm

PM Coffee Break

5:00 - 6:00 pm

Louise Leakey
Six decades - the search for fossils at Lake Turkana

An overview of the discoveries and expeditions of the Koobi Fora Research Project in the Turkana Basin.
*This lecture will be in the Staller Center Recital Hall. It is free and open to the public, but registration is required.



TUESDAY, June 6, 2023

Session 2 - Carrie Mongle, Chair
9:00 - 9:45 am

Anna K. Behrensmeyer
Faunas, floras, and footprints – the paleontological context of human evolution in the Turkana Basin

Interest in human evolution in the Turkana Basin has helped to generate a wealth of knowledge about the ancient faunas and floras of this rift basin. Kay Behrensmeyer will present highlights of this extraordinary fossil record and how it provides essential information for understanding human evolution.
9:45 - 10:10 am

John G. Fleagle / Osbjorn Pearson
Richard Leakey finds the earliest modern human

In 1967, Richard Leakey led the Kenyan research team in the exploration of the Plio-Pleistocene sediments along the Omo River. The Kenyans recovered portions of three crania, one of which (Omo I) dated to 130,000 years in age, making it the earliest modern human. On a flight to the field camp, Richard spotted promising sediments at Koobi Fora. The Omo Kibish fossils remained important but some experts rejected their date. In the early 2000s, at the instigation of Zelalem Assefa, John Fleagle, Frank Brown, John Shea, Zelalem Assefa, and Solomon Yirga revisited the sites in the Kibish Formation, conducted a more detailed stratigraphic study, found even more of Omo I, and dated the stratum that contained the fossil to 195,000 years in age. Another recent study also suggests an early age. The new dates underscore the importance of Richard Leakey's discoveries from this early portion of his scientific career.
10:10 - 10:35 am

Denné N. Reed
A comprehensive database of the published hominin fossils from the Lake Turkana basin

The Turkana Basin represents one of the largest assemblages of early hominin fossils. This paper presents the first, comprehensive, validated digital catalog of all the published hominin fossil material from this area.
10:35 - 11:15 am

AM Coffee Break

11:15 - 11:40 am

Natasha S. Vitek
Topernawi, a new Oligocene site on the western side of Lake Turkana, Kenya

Topernawi, a new site on the western side of Lake Turkana, Kenya, preserves vertebrate, plant, and ichnofossil remains from a period in time that is otherwise unknown in the African paleontological record. Here, recent discoveries, including their effect on our understanding of African faunal communities and evolution of major clades, will be discussed.
11:40 am - 12: 05 pm

John W. Kappelman
Late Oligocene and earliest Miocene primates and faunas from West Turkana

The sites of Nakwai and Losodok in West Turkana preserve evidence of late Oligocene and earliest Miocene sediments that document both apes and Old World monkeys from a time period that is not well represented in the geologic record. These sites also offer evidence of older African mammal groups and some of the first immigrants from Eurasia.
12:05 - 12:30 pm

Q&A and discussion

12:30 - 1:50 pm

Lunch Break

Session 3 - Gregory Henkes, Chair
1:50 - 2:15 pm

Robert Foley
Turkana, Eastern Africa and the Afrotropical model of hominin evolution

Turkana and Eastern Africa are well known for their fossiliferous environments, hominin record, and the many field projects that have exploited its potential. However, equally important is their biogeographical context, and in this paper we explore ideas from biogeography and ecology and their implications for human evolution.
2:15 - 2:40 pm

Marine Frouin
The contribution of luminescence dating to the chronology of Pleistocene deposits in Turkana, Kenya

Past advances in radiometric and relative dating techniques have fundamentally changed our capacity to piece together our evolutionary past over millions of years. Marine Frouin's research is focused on the development and application of luminescence dating techniques for the study of Human evolution. 
2:40 - 3:05 pm

Mikael Fortelius / Indrė Žliobaitė
Collection bias: making use of what everybody knows

As everybody knows, and as Richard Leakey was fond of pointing out, fossils are collected under many kinds of bias. Mikael Fortelius and his team explore how knowledge of such biases might be obtained post hoc, from understanding of the general processes and priorities involved. 
3:05 - 3:45 pm

PM Coffee Break

3:45 - 4:10 pm

Patrick Nduru Gathogo
Physical stratigraphic dating methods in the Turkana Basin —leveraging on tectonic and volcanic events

The geochronology of Pliocene and Pleistocene deposits in the Turkana Basin, where many hominin fossils have been discovered, is largely based on isotopic dating and geochemical correlation of volcanic materials such as tephra and basalts. Age control therefore remains challenging for fossil sites that are isolated by faults and which lack suitable materials for isotopic dating or geochemical correlation. This talk will present a petrology approach, based on which key rock features can be used for the physical stratigraphic dating method at local and regional scales.
4:10 - 4:35 pm

Ellen Miller
The Buluk primates in their environment

Buluk is well-known in paleoanthropology for the recovery of primitive apes and monkeys, from a time period after the divergence of the two lineages but before the evolution of modern forms. New discoveries provide additional insights into the early phases of African ape and monkey evolution, and these findings are discussed in light of current work reconstructing the Buluk paleoenvironment.
4:35 - 5:00 pm

Q&A and discussion



WEDNESDAY, June 7, 2023

Session 4 - Natasha Vitek, Chair
9:00 - 9:45 am

Sonia Harmand & Hélène Roche
Human origins written in stone. The Early Stone Age of West Turkana, Kenya

Hélène Roche and Sonia Harmand will present, past and new evidence on the Early Stone Age of the Turkana basin since Richard Leakey noticed the first stone tools on the west side of the lake while excavating the Turkana Boy in 1984. They will discuss the evidence in light of biological and environmental changes in East Africa and will present future research directions.
9:45 - 10:10 am

Craig S. Feibel
Where giants trod: the geology and geochronology of East Africa

Geological context is a critical component in the broader understanding of fossils and sites in East Africa. From Olduvai Gorge to the Turkana Basin, field geologists have explored the geology and geochronology of the Human Cradle and their broad shoulders provide a solid platform upon which future generations will continue to discover new and exciting perspectives on the past.
10:10 - 10:35 am

Fredrick Kyalo Manthi
Dr. Richard Leakey’s role in advancing paleosciences in Kenya

Prehistory research in eastern Africa is synonymous with the family of Louis and Mary Leakey. In Kenya, paleontological and archaeological explorations were initiated by Louis and Mary Leakey in the late 1920’s but it was Louis and Mary Leakey’s son, Dr. Richard Leakey (1944-2022), who led some of the most successful fossil hunting explorations in Kenya that recovered a large wealth of fossils remains attributable to genera, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Homo. Dr. R. Leakey’s passion for prehistory research influenced many people across the globe. Further, his passion for laying a strong foundation for paleosciences in Kenya and across the World was unrivalled.
10:35 - 11:15 am

AM Coffee Break

11:15 - 11:40 am

Kevin Uno
Miocene ecosystems and mammal diets in the Turkana Basin

Much of Dr. Richard Leakey’s research career focused on the fossil record of the Plio-Pleistocene (~4-1 Ma) deposits of the Omo Group. Here, I present new data on ecosystems and mammal diets from the Turkana Miocene Project that focus on the less well-studied deposits spanning the Oligocene to Miocene epochs.
11:40 am - 12: 05 pm

Zeray Alemseged
The paleobiology of Australopithecus revisited

Our understanding of the paleobiology ofAustralopithecushas substantially evolved since its discovery in 1925. In this presentation, an updated picture of the genus will be presented based on recent data from field and lab research with focus on  A. afarensis.
12:05 - 12:30 pm

Q&A and discussion

12:30 - 1:50 pm

Lunch Break

Session 5 - Tara Smiley, Chair
1:50 - 2:15 pm

Carrie Mongle
Bayesian tip-dating approaches to inferring evolutionary relationships among hominin taxa

One of Richard’s lasting legacies is undeniably the extraordinary number of hominin fossils he was able to add to our collective understanding of human evolution. Phylogenetic inference is a critical step in figuring out how all of these fossils come together to form the human family tree. This talk will review our recent work in reconstructing the hominin phylogeny, including new analyses to incorporate geochronological information into these inferences.
2:15 - 2:40 pm

Ignacio de la Torre
The transition from the Oldowan to the Acheulean: where do we stand?

When and how the Oldowan was replaced by the Acheulean are key questions in the archaeology of human evolution, and will be discussed in the context of biological and ecological change in East Africa.
2:40 - 3:05 pm

Jason E. Lewis
A new Early Pliocene hominin mandible from Ileret, Kenya, with implications for the origins of Australopithecus

In 2011, the Koobi Fora Research Project team recovered a broken and weathered hominin mandible and associated vertebrate remains from Area 40 at Koobi Fora. Dated to 4.3 million years ago, it is the oldest known representative of Australopithecus anamensis by ~200,000 years penecontemporaneous with Ardipithecus ramidus from Gona, Ethiopia. Its morphology indicates that the reconfigured masticatory system differentiating basal hominins from earliest australopiths existed in the narrow temporal window, if any, separating the two, suggesting that Ar. ramidus was a closely related sister-taxon of Australopithecus rather than its phyletic ancestor.

3:05 - 3:45 pm

PM Coffee Break

3:45 - 4:10 pm

Emmanuel K. Ndiema
Pastoralists’ resilience and mitigation to climate change: insights from the southeastern Turkana Basin

Today, thousands of households in east Africa depend on the widespread subsistence practice of pastoralism. However, in recent years, unpredictable climatic conditions, such as prolonged droughts and floods, have put thousands of lives at risk, especially those living in drier, more arid environments. Understanding how early herders and foragers coped with environmental transformation will clarify the issues of long-term pastoral resilience and provide lessons that can be applied to modern issues of climate change. These mechanisms are as relevant today as they were in the past, and will contribute to the well-being of an increasingly multicultural and globally connected modern society.
4:10 - 4:35 pm

Krishna Veeramah
From blood to bone: A brief review of how genetic analysis has helped untangle sub-Saharan Africa's prehistory

A synthesis of how the analysis of modern and ancient DNA has helped better understand African prehistory.
4:35 - 5:00 pm

Q&A and discussion



THURSDAY, June 8, 2023

Session 6 - Marine Frouin, Chair
9:00 - 9:45 am

Thure Cerling
Fifty years of progress in understanding environments of human evolution in Africa

When Richard Leakey first set foot in the Turkana Basin in the late 1960s, paleoenvironmental interpretations of terrestrial deposits were rudimentary compared to today. Questions posed by paleontologists and anthropologists were the catalyst for developing methods to understand paleoecology; hand-in-hand, new tools prompted further questions and today, isotope geochemistry is used in virtually every site of interest to human evolution.
9:45 - 10:10 am

José Braga
Robust australopithecines in South Africa: recent insights from Kromdraai

José Braga will present new evidence on the paleobiology of the 'robust' australopithecines in South Africa, and its evolutionary implications.
10:10 - 10:35 am

Darryl Granger
Dating Sterkfontein Australopithecus to 3.4-3.7 million years

Cosmogenic nuclide dating shows that Australopithecus-bearing cave breccias at Sterkfontein were deposited from about 3.4-3.7 million years ago, considerably older than previously supposed. Newly recognized stratigraphic unconformities at the site reconcile these older ages with previous work by showing that the faunal assemblage is mixed with a much younger member, and that dated flowstones are younger than the breccia in which they crystallized.
10:35 - 11:15 am

AM Coffee Break

11:15 - 11:40 am

Gregory Henkes
Stable isotope paleothermometry of human origins in the Turkana Basin

The stable isotope geochemistry of terrestrial carbonates is among the most important recorders of paleoclimate and paleoenvironments in East Africa. In this talk, Greg Henkes will describe our efforts to apply clumped isotopes - a novel isotope thermometer - to reconstruct ancient climates in Turkana, and he will discuss future advances and research directions.
11:40 am - 12: 05 pm

Julia Lee-Thorp
Isotope biogeochemistry and early hominin diets

This talk will look back at the genesis of isotope chemistry applied to the hominin record, examine what we have learned, and pick out some opportunities for future progress.
12:05 - 12:30 pm

Q&A and discussion

12:30 - 1:50 pm

Lunch Break

Session 7 - Sonia Harmand, Chair
1:50 - 2:15 pm

Curtis W. Marean
How did modern humans evolve into modern humans?

Modern humans have a unique psychological and cognitive machinery that evolved in the late Middle Pleistocene. Paleoanthropologists have focused on climate and environmental change as the driver for much of human evolution. While this might be a productive paradigm for explaining earlier phases of human evolution, it fails to explain the final steps to the evolution of modern humans. The evolution to modern humans involved a shift out of the high mobility-light technology niche to one focused on dense and predictable resources with a consequent reduction in mobility and increased complexity of technology and human social relations.
2:15 - 2:40 pm

Troy Rasbury
U-Pb dating of carbonate petrified wood: what these unusual deposits record about conditions of formation

The talk will focus on the discovery of carbonate petrified wood with extremely favorable U/Pb ratios and similar carbonate precipitates found broadly across the Turkana Basin at about 14 Ma. Troy Rasbury will put this in the context of the basin setting at the time based on geodynamic models.
2:40 - 3:05 pm

Lucía Nadal
Organization of complex morphological diversity in ‘robust’ australopithecines and implications for intraspecific variability

The collection of mandibular fossils attributed to Paranthropus boisei  holds a striking variability that has been explained as being the result of either sexual dimorphism, taphonomic damage, chronological change, or potential taxonomic heterogeneity. This talk presents new research characterizing the three-dimensional shape variability of this hypodigm using unsupervised machine learning algorithms to test for various contributing factors and describe patterns of morphological variability in ‘robust’ australopithecines.
3:05 - 3:45 pm

PM Coffee Break

3:45 - 4:10 pm

John J. Shea
How ancestral Africans survived the Pleistocene

This lecture surveys the survival challenges ancestral Africans faced and the survival skills they used to overcome those challenges. It proposes a new hypothesis about how early humans became so widely dispersed in Africa before launching their global diaspora.
4:10 - 4:35 pm

Thomas "Cody" Prang
A morphometric assessment of fossil hominin feet in the Turkana Basin

This talk will review the functional and evolutionary implications of fossil hominin foot morphology in the Turkana Basin with special emphasis on a new partial foot (KNM-ER 64062).
4:35 - 5:00 pm

Q&A and discussion



FRIDAY, June 9, 2023

Session 8 - Lawrence Martin, Chair
9:00 - 9:25 am

John Hawks
Opening new frontiers in human origins

The talk will look at recent innovations in field and laboratory approaches to human origins, including how researchers are finding new ways to integrate them. John Hawks will take a look at what questions these approaches are likely to answer over the next decade.
9:25 - 9:50 am

Gabrielle A. Russo
Middle Miocene primates from Napudet, Kenya

Napudet is a Middle Miocene locality in the Turkana Basin well known for yielding ape fossils, including an infant cranium of Nyanzapithecus alesi. This talk focuses on primate fossils that the Napudet Research Project has since discovered, including an ape partial postcranial skeleton, highlighting the continued importance of Napudet for contributing to our understanding of primate evolution.
9:50 - 10:15 am

Tara Smiley
Ecological diversity of Turkana Basin mammalian faunas in the Miocene: updates from the Turkana Miocene Project

This talk will present recent work from the Turkana Miocene Project investigating ecological dynamics of mammalian communities in the context of tectonic, climate, and environmental change over the Late Oligocene to Late Miocene in Turkana Basin, Kenya.
10:15 - 10:55 am

AM Coffee Break

10:55 - 11:20 am

Denise F. Su
Paleoenvironments of Australopithecus afarensis and implications for hominin evolution

Australopithecus afarensis was a long-lived and widespread species, found at sites in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania that range in age from 3-3.8 Ma. This talk will look at the habitat diversity of A. afarensis and its implications for hominin evolution.
11:20 am - 12:05 pm

Marta Mirazon Lahr
Richard Leakey, the Turkana Basin, and new frontiers of paleoanthropological discoveries

One of the most important of Richard Leakey’s many legacies is the establishment of the Turkana Basin as one of the major palaeontological and archaeological areas of the world. But this legacy goes beyond his discovery of Koobi Fora and all his and  subsequent work around the basin. Richard supported and inspired exploration and discovery, as well as the building of collections and the institutions that curate them. In this talk, I will discuss the role of rich areas, such as Turkana, in the building of models of human evolution, use our work in Turkana, and Richard’s influence on how it developed, to illustrate the potential of rich sites to challenge some long-standing views, and end with a call for new sites, new areas and new challenges.  
12:05 - 12:20 pm

Q&A and discussion

12:20 - 12:30 pm

Lawrence Martin