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Meave Leakey and Nainoa Thompson to Receive Hubbard Medal, National Geographic’s Highest Honor: Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and Nepali Mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita Will Also Be Recognized at 2016 National Geographic Explorer Awards

On Thursday, June 16, an extraordinary group of individuals will be honored by the National Geographic Society at the 2016 Explorer Awards, presented by Rolex. Meave Leakey and Nainoa Thompson will receive the National Geographic Society’s oldest and most prestigious honor, the Hubbard Medal, for their outstanding contributions to scientific research, exploration and conservation. Leakey,...

On Thursday, June 16, an extraordinary group of individuals will be honored by the National Geographic Society at the 2016 Explorer Awards, presented by Rolex.

Meave Leakey and Nainoa Thompson will receive the National Geographic Society’s oldest and most prestigious honor, the Hubbard Medal, for their outstanding contributions to scientific research, exploration and conservation. Leakey, a paleoanthropologist best known for her nearly 50 years of pioneering research in Kenya’s Turkana Basin, redefined our understanding of humankind’s early ancestors as well as the roots of bipedalism. A master in the traditional Polynesian art of non-instrument navigating known as “wayfinding,” Thompson revived the ancient practice while advocating for ocean conservation and a sustainable future for our planet.

Lee Berger will accept the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award in recognition of his paradigm-shifting discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative uncovered deep in a South African cave. Mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, who was named National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year last February, will be recognized for her courageous efforts to help her fellow Nepalis after the devastating April 2015 earthquake in her country.

“Our honorees are true leaders in research, conservation and exploration,” said Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society. “They are amazing individuals who have surprised us, inspired us and given us hope. We salute their efforts, and we are privileged to share their stories and experiences with our global audiences.”


Named for the National Geographic Society’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the Hubbard Medal is given in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in exploration, discovery and research. In 1906, Robert E. Peary was the first to receive the Hubbard Medal for his exploration of the Arctic. This year’s recipients, Meave Leakey and Nainoa Thompson, will join the ranks of distinguished honorees, including Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn and Jane Goodall, among others.

Meave Leakey

Born in London in 1942, Leakey developed an interest in wildlife as a child. After obtaining degrees in zoology and marine zoology from the University of North Wales, she traveled to Kenya to work for Dr. Louis Leakey at his primate research center near Nairobi. At the same time, she was pursuing her Ph.D. in zoology, which she finished in 1968.

In 1969, Richard Leakey, whom she would later marry, invited her to join a field expedition on the eastern shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana to investigate the newly discovered paleontological site of Koobi Fora. That same year, she began working at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), where she served as head of the paleontology division from 1982 to 2001.

In 1989, Meave Leakey became coordinator of the NMK’s field research in the Turkana Basin. During her tenure there, her team made a number of unprecedented discoveries. In 1994, they uncovered remains of some of the earliest known hominins representing a new species, Australopithecus anamensis. The fossils, dating back more than 4 million years, also provided evidence that bipedalism — the ability to walk upright — had evolved half a million years before previously thought.

On a National Geographic-sponsored expedition in 1999, her team uncovered a 3.5-million-year-old skull and partial jaw belonging to a new genus and species of early hominin that Leakey and her colleagues named Kenyanthropus platyops. Announced in the journal Nature, this groundbreaking discovery significantly impacted contemporary views on human ancestry.

Leakey and her daughter Louise, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, continue to oversee research in the Turkana Basin, making annual expeditions there to recover and study important hominin and faunal remains. Leakey is currently director of field research at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI); a research professor at Stony Brook University’s Department of Anthropology and TBI; and a research affiliate at NMK. She is also a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and an African Academy of Sciences fellow

Nainoa Thompson

Charles Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, is an expert in the ancient Pacific Island tradition of wayfinding, a non-instrument method of navigating on long ocean voyages using the stars, swells and natural elements as guides. The first native Hawaiian to practice wayfinding since the 14th century, he studied under Micronesian master navigator Pius Mau Piailug of Satawal, Yap. In the 1970s, Thompson was part of an important movement among young Hawaiians committed to restoring cultural pride. He has since dedicated his life to teaching wayfinding to future generations, developing a method that combines the tenets of ancient Pacific navigation with modern science, fostering a renewed interest in Hawaiian heritage.

Nearly 40 years ago, Thompson made history when he navigated Hōkūleʻa, a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, 2,500 nautical miles from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti relying entirely on the art of Polynesian wayfinding. Today, Hōkūleʻa is on a three-year, 60,000-nautical-mile expedition around the world. The sail, known as the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, aims to encourage the global community to live sustainably by drawing upon the wisdom and teachings of ancient Polynesian culture. Upon its completion, the voyage will stop in 100 ports, 27 nations and 12 UNESCO Marine World Heritage sites. Along the way, Hōkūleʻa and her crew have met with a number of global peace and marine conservation leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle.

Thompson is a graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi, where he received a bachelor’s degree in ocean science. A member of the Ocean Elders, he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Exploration; the Unsung Hero of Compassion, presented by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on behalf of the organization Wisdom in Action; and the Native Hawaiian Education Association’s Manomano Ka ‘Ike (Depth and Breadth of Knowledge) Educator of the Year Award.


The Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award is bestowed on an inspiring individual whose actions, achievements and spirit personify leadership in exploration and reflect Rolex and the Society’s commitment to pursuing scientific breakthroughs and sharing them with the world. This year’s recipient, paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Lee Berger, led the expeditions that discovered and recovered fossils of a new species of human relative, Homo naledi. Berger is a research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Homo naledi discovery, the single largest fossil hominin find on the continent of Africa to date, not only sheds new light on the origins and diversity of our genus but may alter existing assumptions about human behavior. The announcement of the discovery garnered international media attention, including front-page coverage in more than 40 newspapers around the world. Berger was later named one of the world’s most influential people by TIME magazine.

From the outset of the initial Homo naledi expedition, Berger insisted on an open and accessible research process, recruiting younger scientists via Facebook and publishing his findings in an open-access journal.

Terry Garcia, chief science and exploration officer for the National Geographic Society, and Mounia Mechbal, vice president of communications, Rolex USA, will present Berger with his award at the evening ceremony.


The National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year is selected from a group of innovative adventurers whose extraordinary achievements in exploration, conservation, humanitarianism and adventure sports distinguished them over the past year. Mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita was chosen as the 2016 winner by the public. Considered one of the best women climbers in Nepal, Pasang Lhamu played a crucial and ongoing role in relief efforts after last year’s devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal. Using her social network, she raised money to buy and distribute supplies and mobilized local porters to reach remote villages. When not guiding clients up the highest peaks in the Himalaya and Andes, Pasang Lhamu, the first female mountaineering instructor in her country, is an advocate for girls education in disadvantaged Nepali communities.

The National Geographic Explorer Awards celebration is the culmination of this year’s National Geographic Explorers Week, an annual event at which National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, Fellows, Emerging Explorers, grantees and others affiliated with the National Geographic Society highlight findings from their research and fieldwork. Each year during Explorers Week, the Society presents its new class of Emerging Explorers, the next generation of scientists, innovators and storytellers pushing the boundaries of discovery, adventure and global problem-solving.

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