Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett

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Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett

(b. Kabete, Kenya, 7 August 1903; d. London, England, 1 October 1972)

archaeology, human paleontology, anthropology.

Leakey was the son of Canon Leakey of the Church Missionary Society in Kenya and was brought up with the native Kikuyu. After attending Weymouth College he went to St. John’s College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in archaeology and anthropology and took his Ph.D. in African prehistory. He then became a research fellow of the college and, in 1966, an honorary fellow. His interests in prehistory and ethnology were stimulated by M. C. Burkitt and A. C. Haddon. He was a member of the British Museum East African Expedition to Tanganyika in 1924 and from 1926 led his own East African archaeological research expeditions. Leakey’s important discoveries about the prehistory of East Africa and his discovery of early hominids were published in The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya (1931), The Stone Age Races of Kenya(1935), and Stone-Age Africa (1936).

His archaeological and paleontological work did not detract from his interest in Kenya and its politics, an interest which his close association with the Kikuyu made him particularly well equipped to pursue, as can be seen from his autobiographical White African (1937. The results of his research for the Rhodes Trustees into the customs of the Kikuyu tribe (1937-1939) are in press. At the outbreak of World War II he was in charge of special branch 6 of the Criminal Investigation Department in Nairobi; he continued as a handwriting expert to the department until 1951.

At the end of the war he returned to his archaeological and paleontological researches, as curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum, Nairobi (1945-1961), and later as honorary director of the National Centre of Prehistory and Paleontology in Nairobi, and on behalf of various research foundations. He founded the Pan-African Congress on Prehistory, of which he was general secretary (1947-1951) and president (1955-1959). On periods of leave during the war Leakey and his second wife, the former Mary Douglas Nicol, discovered the Acheulean site of Olorgesailie in the Rift Valley. He continued his researches after the war. His work on the Miocene deposits of western Kenya produced among other discoveries the almost complete skull of Proconsul africanus, the earliest ape yet found.

Financed largely by the National Geographic Society of Washington, Leakey and his family, beginning in 1959, undertook large-scale work at Olduvai. There, in their first season, Mary Leakey found the skull of Australopithecus (Zinjmuhropus) boisei; and in 1960 their son Jonathan discovered the first remains of Homo habilis, a hominid dated by the potassium-argon method at 1.7 million years. Also in 1960 Leakey discovered the skull of one of the makers of the Acheulean culture at Olduvai, which he named Homo erectus. These remarkable researches have been published and are still being published in a series of books entitled Olduvai Gorge. After his death his work was continued by his wife and his son Richard, who just before his father’s death was able to show him the remains of a human being found on the shores of Lake Rudolf below a tufa dated at 2.6 million years.

Charles Darwin speculated that Africa might be the continent where man had emerged; and Leakey’s fieldwork seems to have shown this guess to be a sound one. After his death the Kenya authorities established a museum and research institute which they propose to call The Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory.

A man of very wide interests and a great lover of both domestic and wild animals, Leakey was a trustee of the National Parks of Kenya and of the Kenya Wild Life Society and president of the East African Kennel Club. An enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, he was keen to demonstrate flint knapping, a technique he had learnt from Llewellyn Jewitt’ account of the methods used by the nineteenth-century flint forger Edward Simpson, and from watching the knappers at Brandon in Suffolk. He traveled extensively, lecturing to large European and American audiences, and worked tirelessly to disseminate knowledge of his discoveries. His enthusiasm, it was claimed, often carried him to extremes. Although intolerant of opposing views that he considered ill-informed, he realized that, in his field, it was necessary to be a competent archaeologist, human paleontologist, zoologist, anatomist, and geologist’and hardly anyone could be expert in all of them. Many of his discoveries were controversial but his persistence and faith were amply justified. No one has hitherto contributed more to the direct discovery of early man and his ancient culture.


A complete list of Leakey’s published works will appear in his biography, now being written by Sonia Cole. On his early life, see White African (1937);a sequel is in press.

In addition to works cited in the text, Leakey’s books include Adam’s Ancestors (London, 1934); Kenya: Contrasts and Problems (London, 1936); The Miocene Hominoidea of East Africa (London, 1951), written with W. E. Le Gros Clark;Oldurai Gorge (Cambridge, 1951); Mau Mau and the Kikuyu (London, 1952); Animals in Africa (London, 1953), a book of photographs by Ylla to which Leakey contributed the text; and Defeating Mau Mau (London, 1954).

Glyn Daniel

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey

views updated May 29 2018

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey

The British anthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) made major contributions to the study of prehistoric man.

The parents of L. S. B. Leakey were British missionaries who settled at Kabete, Kenya, near Nairobi, in 1901. Leakey was born on Aug. 7, 1903, in Kabete, where he formed lifelong friendships with boys of the Kikuyu tribe, with whom he grew up. He is probably the only white man to have been initiated from youth to manhood in a Kikuyu ceremony.

After World War I Leakey went briefly to school at Weymouth College, Dorset, England, and in 1922 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge University. In 1923 he organized an expedition of the British Museum to search for dinosaurs in southern Tanganyika.

In 1926, after qualifying in anthropology at Cambridge, Leakey organized and led four East African archeological expeditions. During the third expedition, in 1931, after some very important discoveries of the earliest known (at that time) stone tools at Olduvai, Leakey discovered fossils of human remains at Kanam and Kanjera in Kenya. His claims concerning these fossils, which included the idea that Homo sapiens lived in East Africa at the end of the Middle Pleistocene, were contested by many of his colleagues, and it was only in 1969 that the claims received official acceptance.

In 1937 Leakey temporarily ceased to study prehistory in order to spend 3 years working on a monograph of the Kikuyu tribe. During World War II (1939-1945) he served as officer in charge of civil intelligence in Nairobi.

Leakey always strongly supported Charles Darwin's theory that both man and the great apes originated on the African continent. For 40 years he and his teams patiently excavated at the prehistoric site at Olduvai Gorge on the eastern Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. In 1959 at Olduvai a fossil hominid skull was discovered, which he named Zinjanthropus . In 1960 even more important fossil fragments were discovered. These and a skull found in 1962 at Olduvai were made the types of a new species of man, Homo habilis. In 1962 Leakey also discovered a skull of the type Homo erectus, previously known only in China and Java. Other sites excavated by Leakey include the Lower Miocene sites on Rusinga Island and Songhor, which have yielded remains of protoman dating back 20 million years, and the site at Fort Ternan, where Kenya pithecus wickeriwas discovered. This hominid lived about 12 million years ago.

In 1964 Leakey organized a team in the United States to excavate near the Calico Mountains in southern California. He and his team discovered evidence that man lived in America more than 50,000 years ago.

Leakey's publications include New Classification of Bow and Arrow in Africa; The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya; Adam's Ancestors; The Stone Age Races of Kenya; Stone Age Africa; Kenya Contrasts and Problems; White African; A Contribution to the Study of the Tumbian Culture in Kenya (with W. E. Owen); Tentative Study of the Pleistocene Sequence and Stone Age Cultures of N. E. Angola; Mau Mau and Kikuyu; Defeating Mau Mau; The Miocene Hominoidea of East Africa (with Le Gros Clark); The Pleistocene Fossil Suidae of East Africa; First Lessons in Kikuyu; Olduvai Gorge, vol. 1, 1951-1961; Animals of East Africa; and Unveiling Man's Origins (with Vanne Goodall).

On Oct. 1, 1972, Leakey died in London.

Further Reading

Leakey's White African: An Early Autobiography (1937; with new preface, 1966) deals with his early years. An account of Leakey and his work is contained in Robert Silverberg, Man before Adam: The Story of Man in Search of His Origins (1964). A useful background work is Edward Bacon, Digging for History: Archeological Discoveries throughout the World, 1945-1959 (1961). □

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey

views updated May 29 2018

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey


British Kenyan Archaeologist and Anthropologist

Whenever a scientist makes a discovery that challenges the established information of his or her time, the result is predictable—controversy. This was certainly the case during the illustrious career of anthropologist Louis Leakey.

Born on August 7, 1903, to British missionaries stationed in Kabete, just outside Nairobi in Kenya, Leakey grew up with the Kikuyu people of that area. He played with their children, learned their customs and culture, and received his early schooling from his parents.

He later returned to England, where he attended Cambridge University and majored in anthropology. When his initial schooling there was completed in 1926, he applied for and received a position to join an archaeological mission in Tanzania, where he put his childhood experiences to good use. When the assignment was completed, he returned to Cambridge for additional studies and in 1930 received his Ph.D. in African prehistory. He was also elected a fellow of St. John's in Cambridge.

When this phase of his education was completed, Leakey returned to Tanzania and entered into what would be the future site of his important discoveries. He focused on the Olduvai Gorge, where he uncovered numerous animal fossils and primitive stone tools. He had always believed that Africa was the home of the earliest men on earth, and the artifacts and bones he found confirmed that opinion. When he published his first book, The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya Colony, St. John's College gave him a grant that enabled him to continue his studies in Olduvai Gorge. He subsequently discovered the oldest-known skeletal remains of Homo sapiens. Although his academic associates refuted his claim, Leakey eventually uncovered even older skulls whose age could be verified.

Returning to England, Leakey was disappointed to learn that his reputation had suffered because of the controversial results of his early finds. He held a conference at Cambridge soon after his return, and the solid evidence he produced caused the objectors to revise their opinions and accept his discoveries as genuine.

Although Leakey's academic career was flourishing, his personal life became increasingly strained. While married to Frida Avern (a fellow Briton whom he had met in Africa), Leakey fell in love with Mary Nicol (1913-1996), a scientific illustrator. He pursued this affair even though he had a son and his wife was pregnant with their second child. In spite of these deterrents, Mary went to Africa with Leakey and, when he returned to England in 1935, she also returned and lived openly with him. Frida filed for divorce in 1936, enabling Louis and Mary to marry.

In 1945 Leakey accepted the curatorship of the Coryndon Museum in Kenya. The pay was very low but it meant he could continue his research in Kenya. As a team, the Leakeys were remarkably successful. They found an important Miocene ape fossil in 1948—important enough for them to secure funding for additional research.

Later, Leakey was instrumental in starting both Jane Goodall (1934- ) and Dian Fossey (1932-1985) on their impressive research projects in Africa. He also became involved with a primate research center, an Ethiopian dig, and a dig in California where there were rumors of ancient human remains at Calico Hills. However, Leakey is best remembered for his great discoveries of hominid fossils in his favorite site—the Olduvai Gorge.

Leakey's last years were spent traveling, mostly in America, where he was a popular speaker and public personality. He died in England in October 1972.

A few days prior to Leakey's death, his son, Richard Leakey (1944- ), from whom he had been long estranged, showed him a new fossil skull (ER 1470). This fossil reinforced Louis Leakey's early beliefs that the genus Homo had its own long history and was not a descendant of the so-called "missing link." Although his last years had been difficult, this reconciliation with his son made his final days especially meaningful.


Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett

views updated May 18 2018

Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett (1903–72) English palaeoanthropologist and archaeologist, who discovered fossils in East Africa that proved man to be older than previously thought. In 1931, Leakey began to research Olduvai Gorge, n Tanzania. Working with his wife Mary (1913–96), he found animal fossils and tools. Mary Leakey continued working in East Africa, often with her son Richard Leakey.


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