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Bones Of Turkana

The Leakey team excavating a pelorovis skull. Our human ancestors once feasted on these ancient bovids (akin to cows).
Courtesy of National Geographic Television
The Leakey team excavating a pelorovis skull. Our human ancestors once feasted on these ancient bovids (akin to cows).

Airs Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

"Bones Of Turkana," a National Geographic Special, follows Richard Leakey’s astonishing life and investigates four decades of exploration and discovery in Africa, alongside Meave and Louise, both paleontologists and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence.

Africa and the Great Lakes Region

Explore the physical and human geography of Africa's Great Rift Valley.

“I believe we have at Turkana a remarkably complete record of the last four million years,” says Richard Leakey. “I’m absolutely certain that Turkana is the key to understanding humanity.”


View African Fossils

Explore the collection of fossils housed in the National Museums of Kenya.

Turkana Basin Institute is on Facebook, and you can follow @turkanabasin on Twitter.

The film is both a portrait of a remarkable family and a dramatic tale that spotlights the new work being done today by world-famous fossil-hunters of the Turkana Basin Institute team as they explore along the harsh, arid shores of one of Earth’s largest desert lakes. It’s a setting so stark, it’s hard to imagine we ever called it home. But the fossil evidence says we did.

Cinematic and breathtaking, "Bones Of Turkana" is shot in HD in the extraordinary light of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Cutting edge CGI animation depicts hominids in motion, the cognitive leaps involved in early stone tool-making, and climate changes in the region over millions of years.

Music from celebrated Africaphile Paul Simon combines with the voices of the Kenyan Boys Choir to create an ethereal and unforgettable soundtrack befitting this story of a passionate search for truth in the Kenyan desert.

The Leakeys’ major finds are legion and critical to understanding our oldest human ancestors — including a famous fossil called “Turkana Boy,” a 1.5 million year old skeleton of a teenager from a species called Homo erectus (the most complete specimen ever found of our closest ancestor); Homo habilis, which means “handy man” and who was using tools 1.9 million years ago; and Meave Leakey’s discovery of Australopithecus anamensis, one of their most remarkable finds and the earliest biped ever found at 4.2 million years.

The new aim is to find in the bones of Turkana evidence of the basic, most definitive traits that make us human. Aiding Leakey in his quest are scientists from around the world who have also chosen to focus their efforts on Turkana Basin.


French archeologist Helene Roche, American geochemist Thure Cerling, Cambridge University anthropologists Marta Lahr and Rob Foley come each year with their teams to hunt for bones and stones around Turkana. Their mission: to find evidence of these critical stages of human evolution — bipedalism, tool-making and language — and when these traits arose in the fossil record of Turkana.

Together, these scientists paint an indelible picture of the transformation of a species — ours —from a tree-swinger to a fast-running, quick-thinking, stone-tool-making linguist with a special gift.

This film features unprecedented revelations. New geologic and climate data for the first time present a picture of how Lake Turkana has evolved over the last four million years, showing how the presence of water has always been critical to our evolution.

Because the search for clues is both a scientific and deeply personal journey, Leakey also takes a sample of his own DNA to send to the Genographic Project, a genetic mapping initiative, which will reveal his deep ancestral past and trajectory out of Africa. The cameras are there as he learns the results.

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Watch Richard Leakey's Life and Work in Kenya on PBS. See more from Bones of Turkana.

Follow famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and his wife, Meave, daughter Louise and their colleagues as they work in the arid northern regions of Kenya’s Turkana Basin to unravel the mysteries of human evolution. While one of the Leakeys’ goals is to demonstrate the complexity and truth of human evolution, they also seek to show how the qualities that we proudly call human were all born in Africa. The story that emerges in the film is exciting, emotional, contemplative, occasionally funny and, in the end, transforming. This is Africa at its most beautiful and harshest.
Human Evolution and Why It Matters: A Conversation with Leakey and Johanson