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Leakey, Mary Douglas Nicol

LEAKEY, MARY DOUGLAS NICOL

(b. London, United Kingdom, 6 February 1913; d. Nairobi, Kenya, 9 December 1996),

paleoanthropology, Paleolithic archaeology, early hominid stone toolmaking.

Kenyan archaeologist and paleoanthropologist, particularly noted for her work on the earliest stone toolmaking traditions at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, Mary Leakey’s name is invariably linked with that of her charismatic husband Louis Leakey; but although the careers of the two were almost inextricably intertwined over more than forty years, Mary’s contribution was a clearly distinctive one. Indeed it is fair to observe that Mary Leakey was the mainstay of the pathbreaking work in East African ancient prehistory that the two carried out together from the 1930s onward.

Early Interest in Archaeology . Mary Douglas Nicol was born in London on 6 February 1913, to Erskine Nicol and Cecilia Marion Frere. On her maternal side she traced her ancestry to the eighteenth-century British antiquarian John Frere (who had presciently recognized the great antiquity of the stone tools found near his home at Hoxne, in Suffolk), while her father was a well-known and widely respected painter. Mary thus moved in privileged social circles from an early age. Traveling widely with her peripatetic parents to exotic locales in Europe and Africa, Mary rapidly developed a devotion to both drawing and prehistory. Early on she became fascinated with the Ice Age decorated caves of France’s Vézère Valley, and later fondly recalled crawling through the cave of Pech Merle with the renowned French prehistorian Abbé Lemozi, in search of some of the greatest art of the Pleistocene epoch.

At school, Mary was an unenthusiastic student whose imagination readily strayed from the classroom to far-flung archaeological sites where her imagination and gift for drawing could bring alive the past. The beginnings of her ambition to become an archaeologist can be traced back to a visit with her mother to Stonehenge in the 1920s. To the end of her life Mary vividly recalled the nearby Neolithic site of Windmill Hill that was nominally under the control of the gentleman archaeologist Alexander Keiller, but where the excavations themselves were run by his sister-in-law Dorothy Liddell. It was meeting Lid-dell that first convinced the young Mary Nicol that a career as a professional archaeologist might be attainable.

As the child of an affluent English family Mary was expected to attend a university, her mother’s choice being Oxford (her father having died in 1926 when Mary was thirteen). However, in light of her mediocre academic record the eminent Oxford geologist William Johnson Sollas strongly discouraged her mother from pursuing this idea. In her autobiography Mary herself noted the irony when, in 1981, Oxford joined many other universities in presenting her with an honorary doctorate in recognition of her lifetime of contributions to the archaeological sciences. Undeterred by her failure to gain formal university admission, Mary continued doing what she loved most, digging and drawing, while also attending lectures at the University of London and at the London Museum. She worked at numerous archaeological sites, her first major experience of excavation being at the Roman site of Verulamium, under the direction of Mortimer Wheeler. Mary then moved in the early 1930s to the Neolithic site of Hembury in Devon, where the excavations were run by the same Dorothy Liddell who had originally inspired her ambition to be an archaeologist. In early 1933 the drawings of flint tools Mary had done for Liddell caught the attention of British archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who set her to work illustrating stone tools from the Egyptian region of the Faiyûm for her book The Desert Fayum (1934). And it was Caton-Thompson who shortly thereafter introduced Mary Nicol to Louis Leakey, as a potential illustrator for the latter’s book Adam’s Ancestors (1934).

Mary’s final “training” season as a young archaeologist came in 1934 at Jaywick, near Clacton in Essex. Mary had already become intrigued by the primitive Clactonian stone tools years earlier, and Jaywick was a site run by Kenneth Oakley, who was principally a geologist, although he later became best known for his seminal work on Paleolithic archaeology, Man the Toolmaker (1949). The two worked well together, and Jaywick became the first archaeological site for which Mary assumed full responsibility, although in 1934 she also began work with Louis Leakey at Swanscombe. During the three seasons that Mary Nicol worked with Liddell, she took a short break to work at Meon Hill, an Iron Age and Saxon site; and in early 1935, on her way to join Leakey on an expedition to East Africa, she even dug at Oakhurst Shelter in South Africa with Astley John Hilary Goodwin. Thus by the middle of the 1930s Mary had already gained experience in the archaeology of a gamut of periods of prehistory ranging from the early Paleolithic to post-Roman times, and had been exposed to a variety of techniques of excavation. And despite her lack of formal qualifications she had already interacted extensively with many of the leading English-speaking archaeologists of the day.

Louis Leakey and Kenya . When Mary first met Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey in 1933, Louis was married to his first wife Frida and was working at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Rapidly Mary and Louis became close, and in 1936 Louis was divorced by Frida in an atmosphere of scandal that brought his career at Cambridge to an end. At the end of 1936 Mary and Louis were married, and shortly thereafter they moved to Kenya, where Louis had been born, where his family still lived, and where he had already carried out several paleontological expeditions. Thus was born a scientific partnership that was to last until Louis’s death in 1972 and that was symbolized by the joint work the couple conducted over decades at Olduvai Gorge, in northern Tanzania, where the German geologist Hans Reck had initially discovered a human skeleton (Olduvai Hominid 1, now known to be only 17,000 years old) in 1913. They had first visited Olduvai together in 1935, when Mary discovered two hominid skull fragments (Olduvai Hominid 2 [OH2]); on the same expedition they also visited the nearby site of Laetoli, to which Mary was ultimately to devote the final years of her career.

Louis Leakey’s principal employment when the couple returned to Kenya in 1937 was on a study of the Kikuyu tribe financed by the Rhodes Trust, but Mary soon set to work excavating the Neolithic site of Hyrax Hill, though by the end of the year she had shifted her attention to the Late Stone Age site of Njoro River Cave. Shortly thereafter World War II intervened, although it did not alter the Leakeys’ path. For her part Mary contrived to continue her archaeological activities, including the discovery of the famous implement-rich surface at the Acheulean site of Olorgesailie; and in 1940 Louis assumed the curatorship of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, which was thereafter their base. During the war years Mary Leakey also made her first visit to Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, where in 1948 she discovered the only known cranium of the Miocene hominoid Proconsul africanus. By 1948 the Leakeys’ numerous hominoid finds at Rusinga had already garnered considerable press attention, and had led to financing from the entrepreneur Charles Boise, whose generosity was also to make possible an important survey and documentation of East African rock art, and a serious return to Olduvai.

During the period from 1951 to 1958 the Leakeys, accompanied by their three sons—Jonathan, Richard, and Philip—and a pack of Dalmatians, focused their efforts on the gorge’s Bed II, in which Mary had found the OH2 fossils. Numerous artifacts and mammalian fossils were found, but only a couple of hominid teeth. However, in 1959, after spending most of the season at Laetoli, the group began to survey Bed I of the gorge. On July 17, near the bottom of Bed I, Mary discovered Olduvai Hominid 5, the famous Zinjanthropus boisei (now Australopithecus boisei) cranium. Two years later Louis Leakey and colleagues shocked the paleoanthropological community by announcing that dating by the new potassium/argon method had shown this specimen to be a previously unimaginable 1.7 million years old.

The publicity attendant on this and subsequent spectacular finds (including the type materials of Homo habilis in 1964) vastly increased the financial support available to the Leakeys for their fieldwork; and while Louis described most of the Olduvai hominid fossils, starred in numerous documentaries, and went on extensive speaking tours, Mary stayed for increasing amounts of time at the gorge and quietly made progress on understanding its archaeology. As early as 1931 Louis had reported the existence in the lowest levels of the gorge of crude stone artifacts that had acquired the designation “Oldowan” by virtue of their provenance. Higher in the section were found more complex bifacially flaked artifacts comparable to “Acheulean” implements from Europe, but usually made from finegrained volcanic materials rather than the flints and cherts more familiar to European archaeologists. In 1966 Mary published a characterization of the various implement types she recognized within the Oldowan culture, noting the preponderance among the tools of “choppers,” fist-sized cobbles altered by the knocking-off of a few flakes— although subsequent researchers have concluded that the small sharp flakes that Mary regarded mostly as “waste” may in most cases have been the primary products the toolmakers sought. Significantly, Mary observed the frequent presence at hominid activity sites of “manuports”— stones deliberately carried in by hominids from remote source areas.

This preliminary review was followed in 1971 by the magisterial Olduvai Gorge, vol. 3, Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960–1963, a massive volume in which Mary Leakey analyzed nearly forty thousand artifacts and twenty thousand fossil animal bones from the bottom two layers of the gorge, and documented the twenty or so hominid fossils by then known from Olduvai. She showed how Oldowan tools in the most ancient rock layers exposed in the sides of the gorge yielded higher up to a “Developed Oldowan A” industry and then to a “Developed Oldowan B,” and how toward the upper part of Bed 2 the Acheulean intruded. She analyzed the associations in the deposits of stone tools with animal and hominid fossils, and suggested that some occurrences represented “living floors,” where hominids had lived and butchered animal carcasses. At one site she suggested that a ring of stones represented the remains of a windbreak deliberately constructed by early hominids. And although later work has cast doubt on some of her detailed interpretations, Mary Leakey’s meticulous documentation in this work of the archaeology of Olduvai Gorge set a new standard by which all future research of the kind would be judged.

As soon as she completed work on this volume Mary set out for Olduvai again, this time to work on the uppermost Beds III and IV. And she left without her by then ailing husband. As the Leakey family’s biographer Virginia Morell has observed, “Olduvai was very much her project now” (1995, p. 318). In 1972 Louis Leakey died, and Mary’s career once again took a new turn. In 1974 she returned to Laetoli, where she and her team found several upper and lower jaw bones and other fragmentary hominid fossils now known to date between about 3.7 million and 3.5 million years ago. Her coworkers made these specimens the type materials of the species Australopithecus afarensis (to which the Ethiopian “Lucy” skeleton is also assigned), but Leakey herself refused to make the assignment to Australopithecus and withdrew from authorship of the new species.

The Laetoli Beds, within which these fossils were found, consist of a succession of volcanic ashfalls on a relatively treeless open plain, and the most unusual finding in the area consists of diverse animal trackways, first identified in 1976. Some of these tracks were made by hominids, and the most spectacular discovery of this kind was made in 1978. In that year were found the 80-feet-long trails left by at least two individuals who strode across the open landscape after a rainfall that had moistened fresh ash to the consistency of wet cement. Although their exact interpretation is still disputed, the footprints were unquestionably made by upright bipeds: a unique confirmation that on the ground at least hominids were moving around on their hind feet by 3.5 million years ago. Unsurprisingly, there are no stone tools in the ancient deposits at Laetoli, since stone tools do not occur elsewhere until about 2.6 million years ago at the earliest. However, in younger deposits in the Laetoli region a cranium some 120,000 years old is associated with Middle Stone Age tools.

Over a career of more than sixty years Mary Nicol Leakey compiled an extraordinary record of discovery and achievement not only as an archaeologist but as a paleontologist. She was, in other words, a true paleoanthropolo-gist, whose legacy lives on not only in her many publications and in the fossils and artifacts she discovered, but in the dynasty she and her husband Louis founded. For not only did her son Richard follow her into a distinguished career in paleoanthropology, but Richard’s daughter Louise has now picked up the mantle too.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

WORKS BY LEAKEY

With Louis S. B. Leakey. Excavations at the Njoro River Cave: Stone Age Cremated Burials in Kenya Colony. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.

Olduvai Gorge. Vol. 3, Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960–1963. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971. Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man. London: Collins, 1979.

Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

Disclosing the Past: An Autobiography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

With John M. Harris, eds. Laetoli: A Pliocene Site in Northern Tanzania. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

OTHER SOURCES

Leakey, Louis S. B. By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1932–1951. New York: Harcourt, 1974.

Leakey, Richard. One Life: An Autobiography. Salem, NH: Salem House, 1984.

Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Roe, Derek Arthur. The Year of the Ghost: An Olduvai Diary. Bristol, U.K.: Beagle, 2002.

Ken Mowbray Ian Tattersall

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Leakey, Mary

Mary Leakey

Born: February 6, 1913
London, England
Died: December 9, 1996
Nairobi, Kenya

English archaeologist

Mary Leakey was a major figure in the uncovering of East African prehistory, best known for her excavations (digging for fossils) of some of the earliest members of the human family, their footprints, and their artifacts (any tools, weapons, or other items made by humans).

Early life

Mary Douglas Leakey was born Mary Douglas Nicol in London, England, on February 6, 1913. She was the only child of Erskine Nicol, a landscape painter, and Cecilia Frere Nicol. Much of her childhood was spent traveling abroad with her parents, except during World War I (191418; a war that involved many countries in the world including France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, and their allies fighting against Austria-Hungary, Germany, and their allies) when her family spent the time in England. At the house of her mother's aunts and grandmother in London she was first introduced to dogs, marking the beginning of her strong affection for animals, an important part of her life. After the war, Mary's family resumed its annual cycle of European travel, followed by a return to London in summer to sell the paintings that her father produced on their travels.

Education and early career

Mary's early education was largely informal, although she did attend school in France for a short time. Her father taught her to read and some mathematics, and he also inspired her interest in the natural world and in archaeology (the study of ancient human life based on the things that were left behind). While living in the Dordogne region in France, near many prehistoric caves, Mary was exposed to Paleolithic (over 2.5 million years ago; the first period of the Stone Age, a time when stone tools were used by humans) archaeology which, combined with her artistic talents, formed the basis of her career. Her father died in France in 1926. Mary and her mother returned to England, where she unhappily attended several convent schools in Kensington and Wimbledon. Mary was an independent person and was expelled twice from school for her spirited behavior.

Between 1930 and 1934 Mary took part in excavations at Hembury, Devon, and attended lectures in geology (the branch of science involving the study of the Earth) and archaeology at London University and the London Museum. She also began drawing stone tools for publication. She was introduced to Louis Leakey (19031972) as a possible artist for his book Adam's Ancestors and was hired. They were married in 1936 and had three children, Jonathan, Richard, and Philip.

Archaeological discoveries in Kenya

Mary moved to Kenya with Louis and worked with him in East Africa for much of her career. She introduced modern archaeological techniques to East Africa. Her initial East African excavations were the Late Stone Age sites at Hyrax Hill and Njoro River Cave, and she was the first person to describe the important dimple-based pottery from East Africa. She also worked at a number of other sites, including Olorgesailie, which was famous for its great number of middle Pleistocene (commonly known as the Ice Age) hand axes. She also worked with Louis on several East African ape sites, and she was instrumental in the recovery of many fossil ape remains. In 1951 Leaky studied and recorded the beautiful Late Pleistocene Tanzanian rock paintings that years later formed the basis of her book Africa's Vanishing Art. Although she is best known for her association with human fossil sites, she considered her work on the rock paintings one of the highlights of her career.

In spite of Mary Leaky's primary interest in art and artifacts, Mary Leakey was best known for her amazing ability to find fossils and for her excavations at two of the most famous hominid (dealing with any of the primate families) fossil sites in East AfricaOlduvai Gorge and Laetoli, both in Tanzania. Beginning in 1960 she established a permanent base camp at Olduvai Gorge from which she directed excavations. The previous year Leaky had discovered the first hominid example from that site, "Zinjanthropus boisei," whom she and Louis nicknamed the "nutcracker man" because of its huge jaws and molar teeth. "Zinj" is now recognized as the type specimen of Australopithecus boisei, an extinct (no longer in existence) side branch of the genus Homo. She soon found another hominid more closely related to modern humans, Homo habilis or "Handy Man," providing evidence of coexisting hominid groups one to two million years ago in East Africa. Leakey's research at Olduvai lasted more than twenty years and in spite of many fossil finds focused mainly on the specific descriptions of the archaeology. She initially detailed the archaeology of Beds 1 and 2 and later, more recent levels, contributing greatly to the understanding of Pliocene-Pleistocene (an ancient time period) lifeways.

In 1974 Leakey began well-organized excavations at Laetoli, which produced australopithecine (relating to an extinct form of hominid) skeletal remains the same year. Two years later the first of several sets of bipedal (having two feet) hominid footprints were discovered at the site, proving skeletal evidence for bipedalism (the walking on two feet) at a very early date. The footprints were made as australopithecines walked, in at least one case together, through an ash fall from a nearby volcano. These finds caught the attention of the world, as they "humanized" the discoveries of our distant relatives. Like many East African early hominid sites, Laetoli was well dated and provided evidence that full bipedal movement, a major human milestone, was achieved by 3.75 million years. While she never accepted the contribution of the Laetoli hominids to Australopithecus afarensis, she recognized them as the earliest definite hominid sample known at the time. Laetoli produced a number of skeletal elements of Pliocene australopithecines, but ironically, given Leakey's primary interest, no stone artifacts were ever found in these early beds.

Later life

Mary Leakey, in addition to her research, found herself assuming many of Louis's more public roles after she was widowed in 1972. She spent considerable time traveling to give lectures, raise funds, and receive many honors from institutions around the world. Although she always considered herself primarily an archaeologist, and her professional life was of greatest importance to her, she remained involved with her family and was very close to her children and grandchildren. In 1983 she retired to Nairobi, Kenya, to be nearer to her family. There, she continued to work on her manuscripts until her death in December of 1996.

For More Information

Heiligman, Deborah. Mary Leakey: In Search of Human Beginnings. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1995.

Leakey, Mary. Disclosing the Past: An Autobiography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Leakey, Mary. Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man. London: Collins, 1979.

Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

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Mary Douglas Leakey

Mary Douglas Leakey

Mary Douglas Leakey (1913-1996) was a major figure in the uncovering of East African prehistory, best known for her excavations of some of the earliest members of the human family, their footprints, and their artifacts.

Mary Douglas Leakey was born in London on February 6, 1913. She was the only child of Erskine Nicol, a landscape painter, and Cecilia (nee Frere). Much of her childhood was spent traveling abroad with her parents except during World War I when her family spent the time in England. At the house of her maternal aunts and grandmother in London she was first introduced to dogs, marking the beginning of her strong affection for animals, an important personal component of her life. After the war, Mary's family resumed their annual cycle of continental travel, followed by a return to London in summer to sell the paintings that her father produced on their travels.

Mary's early education was largely informal, although she did attend school in France for a short time. Her father taught her to read and some mathematics, and he also inspired her interest in the natural world and in archaeology. While living in the Dordogne region in France, Mary was exposed to Paleolithic archaeology which, combined with her artistic talents, formed the basis of her career. Her father died in France in 1926. Mary and her mother returned to England, where she unhappily attended several convent schools. Between 1930 and 1934, she took part in excavations at Hembury, Devon, and attended lectures in geology and archaeology at London University and the London Museum. She also began drawing stone tools for publication. She was introduced to Louis Leakey as a potential artist for his book Adam's Ancestors and was hired. They were married in 1936 and had three children, Jonathan, Richard, and Philip.

Mary moved to Kenya with Louis and worked with him in East Africa for much of her career. She introduced modern archaeological techniques to East Africa. Her initial East African excavations were the Late Stone Age sites at Hyrax Hill and Njoro River Cave, and she was the first person to describe the important dimple based pottery from East Africa. She also worked at a number of other sites, including Olorgesailie, which was famous for its abundance of middle Pleistocene Acheulean hand-axes. She also worked with Louis on several East African Miocene ape sites, and she was instrumental in the recovery of many fossil ape remains. In 1951 she studied and recorded the beautiful Late Pleistocene Tanzanian rock paintings that years later formed the basis of her book Africa's Vanishing Art. Although she is best known for her association with human fossil sites, she considered her work on the rock paintings one of the highlights of her career.

In spite of her primary interest in art and artifacts, Mary Leakey is best known for her exceptional ability to find fossils and for her excavations at two of the most famous hominid fossil sites in East Africa— Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli, both in Tanzania. Beginning in 1960, she established a permanent base camp at Olduvai Gorge from which she directed excavations. The previous year she had discovered the first hominid specimen from that site, "Zinjanthropus boisei," whom she and Louis nicknamed the "nutcracker man" because of its huge jaws and molar teeth. "Zinj" is now recognized as the type specimen of Australopithecus boisei, an extinct side branch of the genus Homo. She soon found another hominid more closely related to modern humans, Homo habilis or "Handy Man," providing evidence of contemporary hominid groups one to two million years ago in East Africa. Leakey's research at Olduvai lasted over 20 years and in spite of many fossil finds focused mainly on the specific descriptions of the archaeology. She initially detailed the archaeology of Beds 1 and 2 and later, more recent levels, contributing greatly to the understanding of Plio-Pleistocene lifeways.

In 1974 she began systematic excavations at Laetoli, which produced australopithecine skeletal remains the same year. Two years later, the first of several sets of bipedal hominid footprints were discovered at the site, corroborating skeletal evidence for bipedalism at a very early date. The footprints were made as australopithecines walked, in at least one case together, through an ash fall from a nearby volcano. These finds caught the attention of the world as they "humanized" the discoveries of our distant relatives. Like many East African early hominid sites, Laetoli was well dated radiometrically and provided evidence that full bipedal locomotion, a major human hallmark, was achieved by 3.75 million years. While she never accepted the allocation of the Laetoli hominids to Australopithecus afarensis, she recognized them as the earliest definitive hominid sample known at the time. Laetoli yielded a number of skeletal elements of Pliocene australopithecines, but ironically, given Leakey's primary interest, no stone artifacts were ever found in these early beds.

In addition to her research, Mary Leakey found herself assuming many of Louis' more public roles after she was widowed in 1972. She spent considerable time traveling to give lectures, raise funds, and receive many honors from institutions around the world. Although she always considered herself primarily an archaeologist and her professional life was of utmost important to her, she remained involved with her family and was very close to her children and grandchildren. In 1983 she retired to Nairobi to be nearer to her family. There, she continued to work on her manuscripts until her death in December of 1996.

Further Reading

Further readings on Mary Leakey are best found in her own work. In addition to many professional articles and monographs she wrote several popular books, including Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979), Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania (1983), and Disclosing the Past: An Autobiography (1984). □

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Leakey, Mary Douglas

Mary Douglas Leakey, 1913–96, British archaeologist, b. London as Mary Douglas Nicol; wife of Louis Leakey and mother of Richard Leakey. She had little formal education, but a fascination with archaeology led to her supervising her first dig in England in 1934. Several years after she met Louis Leakey in England she began work with him at Olduvai Gorge (now in Tanzania). In Africa she made some of anthropology's most significant finds. In 1948 she discovered a 20-million-year-old skull of Proconsul africanus (see Proconsul); in 1959 she discovered a hominid fossil (Zinjanthropus) believed to be 1,750,000 years old. Her work Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960–63 (1971, Vol. III of Olduvai Gorge, 1951–1961, 6 vol., 1965–94) contains a detailed analysis of the thousands of 2-million-year-old stone tools from that site. In 1978 she supervised excavations at Laetoli, Tanzania, where a set of footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash were uncovered. These indicate a 3.6-million-year-old hominid—presumablyAustralopithecus)—walked upright. Mary Leakey employed her artistic talents in her book Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania (1983).

See her autobiography, Disclosing the Past (1984), and her account of her investigations, Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979); see also V. Morell, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings (1995).

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