Leakey, Louis and Mary

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Leakey, Louis and Mary

Anthropologists Louis Leakey 1903-1969 Mary Leakey 1913-1996

Louis and Mary Leakey were a husband-and-wife anthropology team that contributed much to the modern understanding of human origins. Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born in 1903 outside Nairobi, Kenya. He was sufficiently integrated into the local life there that he was accepted as one of the tribe of the Kikuyu people and learned their language first. To fulfill the foreign-language requirement at Cambridge University, Leakey was permitted to test himself on Kikuyu, as nobody else was qualified. At Cambridge, he specialized in archaeology and anthropology, receiving a Ph.D. in 1930. He discovered what he considered to be the oldest known human fossils in 1931, but a combination of poor notes and a shoddy understanding of geology prevented him from reliably identifying them.

This error precipitated a series of strong criticisms of Leakey's methods from a number of sources. His former colleague Martin Pickford suggested Leakey "broke records in misreporting the discovery context of important fossils and stone tools" over the course of forty years. Nevertheless, Leakey conducted numerous significant digs at Olduvai Gorge and was the first to characterize Homo habilis, a human ancestor. Mary Leakey discovered "Zinjanthropus" (Australopithecus boisei ), an extinct hominid species that brought them worldwide fame. Louis disdained what he perceived to be unnecessary measuring and statistical analysis by his contemporaries; he was much more interested in experiments of an occasionally crackpot nature. Naked, he charged a pack of hyenas to steal their prey and chewed off a hunk of the carcass to see if a modern human could do so. He thought zebra fat could cure tuberculosis; he wanted to flood the Sahara and make an ocean.

By contrast, Mary, who never earned an advanced degree, was a much more meticulous scientist and eventually gained greater respect in the field. They had met while she was illustrating his Adam's Ancestors. As a couple they encouraged Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in primate research. Together the Leakeys established that the upright posture of later protohumans led to free hands, and therefore to tool making. Louis began to travel more from Africa, lecturing and womanizing despite being in poor health, while Mary stayed behind in Olduvai Gorge and Nairobi. The pair grew distant. Louis died in 1969, and Mary died in 1996 at the age of 83.

Ian Quigley


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

Pickford, Martin. Louis S. B. Leakey: Beyond the Evidence. London: Janus, 1997.

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