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Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett (1903 – 1972) African-Born English Paleontologist and Anthropologist

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903 1972)
African-born English paleontologist and anthropologist

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903, in Kabete, Kenya. His parents, Mary Bazett (d. 1948) and Harry Leakey (18681940) were Church of England missionaries at the Church Missionary Society, Kabete, Kenya. Louis spent his childhood in the mission, where he learned the Kikuyu language and customs (he later compiled a Kikuyu grammar book). As a child, while pursuing his interest in ornithologythe study of birdshe often found stone tools washed out of the soil by the heavy rains, which Leakey believed were of prehistoric origin. Stone tools were primary evidence of the presence of humans at a particular site, as toolmaking was believed at the time to be practiced only by humans and was, along with an erect posture, one of the chief characteristics used to differentiate humans from nonhumans. Scientists at the time, however, did not consider East Africa a likely site for finding evidence of early humans; the discovery of Pithecanthropus in Java in 1894 (the socalled Java Man, now considered to be an example of Homo erectus ) had led scientists to assume that Asia was the continent from which human forms had spread.

Shortly after the end of World War I, Leakey was sent to a public school in Weymouth, England, and later attended St. John's College, Cambridge. Suffering from severe headaches resulting from a sports injury, he took a year off from his studies and joined a fossil-hunting expedition to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). This experience, combined with his studies in anthropology at Cambridge (culminating in a degree in 1926), led Leakey to devote his time to the search for the origins of humanity, which he believed would be found in Africa. Anatomist and anthropologist Raymond A. Dart's discovery of early human remains in South Africa was the first concrete evidence that this view was correct. Leakey's next expedition was to northwest Kenya, near Lakes Nakuru and Naivasha, where he uncovered materials from the Late Stone Age; at Kariandusi he discovered a 200,000-year-old hand ax.

In 1928 Leakey married Henrietta Wilfrida Avern, with whom he had two children: Priscilla, born in 1930, and Colin, born in 1933; the couple was divorced in the mid-1930s. In 1931 Leakey made his first trip to Olduvai Gorgea 350-mi (564-km) ravine in Tanzaniathe site that was to be his richest source of human remains. He had been discouraged from excavating at Olduvai by Hans Reck, a German paleontologist who had fruitlessly sought evidence of prehistoric humans there. Leakey's first discoveries at that site consisted of both animal fossils, important in the attempts to date the particular stratum (or layer of earth) in which they were found, and, significantly, flint tools. These tools, dated to approximately one million years ago, were conclusive evidence of the presence of hominidsa family of erect primate mammals that use only two feet for locomotionin Africa at that early date; it was not until 1959, however, that the first fossilized hominid remains were found there.

In 1932, near Lake Victoria, Leakey found remains of Homo sapiens (modern man), the so-called Kanjera skulls (dated to 100,000 years ago) and Kanam jaw (dated to 500,000 years ago); Leakey's claims for the antiquity of this jaw made it a controversial find among other paleontologists, and Leakey hoped he would find other, independent, evidence for the existence of Homo sapiens from an even earlier periodthe Lower Pleistocene.

In the mid-1930s, a short time after his divorce from Wilfrida, Leakey married his second wife, Mary Douglas Nicol; she was to make some of the most significant discoveries of Leakey's team's research. The couple eventually had three children: Philip, Jonathan, and Richard E. Leakey. During the 1930s, Leakey also became interested in the study of the Paleolithic period in Britain, both regarding human remains and geology, and he and Mary Leakey carried out excavations at Clacton in southeast England.

Until the end of the 1930s, Leakey concentrated on the discovery of stone tools as evidence of human habitation; after this period he devoted more time to the unearthing of human and prehuman fossils. His expeditions to Rusinga Island, at the mouth of the Kavirondo Gulf in Kenya, during the 1930s and early 1940s produced a large number of finds, especially of remains of Miocene apes. One of these apes, which Leakey named Proconsul africanus, had a jaw lacking in the so-called simian shelf that normally characterized the jaws of apes; this was evidence that Proconsul represented a stage in the progression from ancient apes to humans. In 1948 Mary Leakey found a nearly complete Proconsul skull, the first fossil ape skull ever unearthed; this was followed by the unearthing of several more Proconsul remains.

Louis Leakey began his first regular excavations at Olduvai Gorge in 1952; however, the Mau Mau (an anti-white secret society) uprising in Kenya in the early 1950s disrupted his paleontological work and induced him to write Mau Mau and the Kikuyu,inan effort to explain the rebellion from the perspective of a European with an insider's knowledge of the Kikuyu. A second work, Defeating Mau Mau, followed in 1954.

During the late 1950s, the Leakeys continued their work at Olduvai. In 1959, while Louis was recuperating from an illness, Mary Leakey found substantial fragments of a hominid skull that resembled the robust australopithecinesAfrican hominids possessing small brains and near-human dentitionfound in South Africa earlier in the century. Louis Leakey, who quickly reported the find to the journal Nature, suggested that this represented a new genus, which he named Zinjanthropus boisei, the genus name meaning "East African man," and the species name commemorating Charles Boise, one of Leakey's benefactors. This species, now called Australopithecus boisei, was later believed by Leakey to have been an evolutionary dead end, existing contemporaneously with Homo rather than representing an earlier developmental stage.

In 1961, at Fort Ternan, Leakey's team located fragments of a jaw that Leakey believed were from a hitherto unknown genus and species of ape, one he designated as Kenyapithecus wickeri, and which he believed was a link between ancient apes and humans, dating from 14 million years ago; it therefore represented the earliest hominid. In 1967, however, an older skull, one that had been found two decades earlier on Rusinga Island and which Leakey had originally given the name Ramapithecus africanus, was found to have hominid-like lower dentition; he renamed it Kenyapithecus africanus, and Leakey believed it was an even earlier hominid than Kenyapithecus wickeri. Leakey's theories about the place of these Lower Miocene fossil apes in human evolution have been among his most widely disputed.

During the early 1960s, a member of Leakey's team found fragments of the hand, foot, and leg bones of two individuals, in a site near where Zinjanthropus had been found, but in a slightly lower and, apparently, slightly older layer. These bones appeared to be of a creature more like modern humans than Zinjanthropus, possibly a species of Homo that lived at approximately the same time, with a larger brain and the ability to walk fully upright. As a result of the newly developed potassium-argon dating method, it was discovered that the bed from which these bones had come was 1.75 million years old. The bones were, apparently, the evidence for which Leakey had been searching for years: skeletal remains of Homo from the Lower Pleistocene. Leakey designated the creature whose remains these were as Homo habilis ("man with ability"), a creature who walked upright and had dentition resembling that of modern humans, hands capable of toolmaking, and a large cranial capacity. Leakey saw this hominid as a direct ancestor of Homo erectus and modern humans. Not unexpectedly, Leakey was attacked by other scholars, as this identification of the fragments moved the origins of the genus Homo back substantially further in time. Some scholars felt that the new remains were those of australopithecines, if relatively advanced ones, rather than very early examples of Homo.

Health problems during the 1960s curtailed Leakey's field work; it was at this time that his Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology in Nairobi became the springboard for the careers of such paleontologists as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in the study of nonhuman primates. A request came in 1964 from the Israeli government for assistance with the technical as well as the fundraising aspects involved in the excavation of an early Pleistocene site at Ubeidiya. This produced evidence of human habitation dating back 700,000 years, the earliest such find outside Africa.

During the 1960s, others, including Mary Leakey and the Leakeys' son Richard, made significant finds in East Africa; Leakey turned his attention to the investigation of a problem that had intrigued him since his college days: the determination of when humans had reached the North American continent. Concentrating his investigation in the Calico Hills in the Mojave Desert , California, he sought evidence in the form of stone tools of the presence of early humans, as he had done in East Africa. The discovery of some pieces of chalcedony (translucent quartz) that resembled manufactured tools in sediment dated from 50,000 to 100,000 years old stirred an immediate controversy; at that time, scientists believed that humans had settled in North America approximately 20,000 years ago. Many archaeologists, including Mary Leakey, criticized Leakey's California methodologyand his interpretations of the findsas scientifically unsound, but Leakey, still charismatic and persuasive, was successful in obtaining funding from the National Geographic Society and, later, several other sources. Human remains were not found in conjunction with the supposed stone tools, and many scientists have not accepted these "artifacts" as anything other than rocks.

Shortly before Louis Leakey's death, Richard Leakey showed his father a skull he had recently found near Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana) in Kenya. This skull, removed from a deposit dated to 2.9 million years ago, had a cranial capacity of approximately 800 cubic centimeters, putting it within the range of Homo and apparently vindicating Lea key's long-held belief in the extreme antiquity of that genus; it also appeared to substantiate Leakey's interpretation of the Kanam jaw. Leakey died of a heart attack in early October, 1972, in London.

Some scientists have questioned Leakey's interpretations of his discoveries. Other scholars have pointed out that two of the most important finds associated with him were actually made by Mary Leakey, but became widely known when they were interpreted and publicized by him; Leakey had even encouraged criticism through his tendency to publicize his somewhat sensationalistic theories before they had been sufficiently tested. Critics have cited both his tendency toward hyperbole and his penchant for claiming that his finds were the "oldest," the "first," the "most significant"; in a 1965 National Geographic article, for example, Melvin M. Payne pointed out that Leakey, at a Washington, D.C., press conference, claimed that his discovery of Homo habilis had made all previous scholarship on early humans obsolete. Leakey has also been criticized for his eagerness to create new genera and species for new finds, rather than trying to fit them into existing categories. Leakey, however, recognized the value of publicity for the fundraising efforts necessary for his expeditions. He was known as an ambitious man, with a penchant for stubbornly adhering to his interpretations, and he used the force of his personality to communicate his various finds and the subsequent theories he devised to scholars and the general public.

Leakey's response to criticism was that scientists have trouble divesting themselves of their own theories in the light of new evidence. "Theories on prehistory and early man constantly change as new evidence comes to light," Leakey remarked, as quoted by Payne in National Geographic. "A single find such as Homo habilis can upset long-heldand reluctantly discardedconcepts. A paucity of human fossil material and the necessity for filling in blank spaces extending through hundreds of thousands of years all contribute to a divergence of interpretations. But this is all we have to work with; we must make the best of it within the limited range of our present knowledge and experience." Much of the controversy derives from the lack of consensus among scientists about what defines "human"; to what extent are toolmaking, dentition, cranial capacity, and an upright posture defining characteristics, as Leakey asserted?

Louis Leakey's significance revolves around the ways in which he changed views of early human development. He pushed back the date when the first humans appeared to a time earlier than had been believed on the basis of previous research. He showed that human evolution began in Africa rather than Asia, as had been maintained. In addition, he created research facilities in Africa and stimulated explorations in related fields, such as primatology (the study of primates). His work is notable as well for the sheer number of findsnot only of the remains of apes and humans, but also of the plant and animal species that comprised the ecosystems in which they lived. These finds of Leakey and his team filled numerous gaps in scientific knowledge of the evolution of human forms. They provided clues to the links between prehuman, apelike primates, and early humans, and demonstrated that human evolution may have followed more than one parallel path, one of which led to modern humans, rather than a single line, as earlier scientists had maintained.

[Michael Sims ]



Cole, S. Leakey's Luck: The Life of Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, 19031972. Harcourt, 1975.

Isaac, G., and E. R. McCown, eds., Human Origins: Louis Leakey and the East African Evidence. Benjamin-Cummings, 1976.

Johanson, D. C., and M. A. Edey. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Leakey, M. Disclosing the Past. Doubleday, 1984.

Leakey, R. One Life: An Autobiography. Salem House, 1984.

Malatesta, A., and R. Friedland, The White Kikuyu: Louis S. B. Leakey. McGraw-Hill, 1978.

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