Leakey, Mary Nicol (1913–1996)

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Leakey, Mary Nicol (1913–1996)

English archaeologist whose discovery of the Zinj skull and the Laetoli footprints furthered understanding of the origins of humanity. Born Mary Douglas Nicol in London, England, on February 6, 1913; died in Kenya on December 9, 1996; daughter of Cecilia (Frere) Nicol and Erskine Nicol (a landscape painter); attended private schools; married Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (an archaeologist), on December 24, 1936 (separated 1968); children: Jonathan Leakey (b. 1940); Deborah Leakey (b. 1943); Richard Leakey (b. 1944, a renowned paleontologist); Philip Leakey (b. 1949).


Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society (1962), with Louis Leakey; Prestwick Medal of the Geological Society of London (1969), with Louis Leakey; Gold Medal of the Society of Women Geographers (1975); Linnaeus Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy (1978); Elizabeth Blackwell Award (1980); Bradford Washburn Award (1980).

Father Erskine Nicol died (1926); undertook first archaeological field work, Hembury Fort (1930); met Louis Leakey (1933); asked to illustrate Louis Leakey's book Adam's Ancestors (1933); directed first dig at Hembury (1934); traveled to Africa (1935); returned to England (September 1935); Louis Leakey secured funding from the Rhodes Trust (1936); traveled to Africa (1937); excavated Hyrax Hill (1937); excavated the Njoro River Cave (1937); Louis Leakey appointed curator of the Coryndon Museum, Nairobi, Kenya (1940); excavated Ngorongoro (1940); attended first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory and Paleontology (1947); secured funding from the Royal Society (1947); excavated Rusinga Island (1948); discovered Proconsul africanus (1948); secured funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological research (1951); recorded Tanzanian rock paintings (1951); excavated the Olduvai Gorge (1951–58); discovered Zinj (July 17, 1959); Tanzanian government issued postage stamp honoring Mary and Louis Leakey (1965); separated from her husband (1968); death of Louis Leakey (October 11, 1972); elected member of the British Academy (1973); discovered early hominid footprints at Laetoli (1976).

Selected publications:

"Notes on the Ground and Polished Stone Axes of East Africa," in Journal of East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society (1943); "Report on the Excavations at Hyrax Hill, Nakura, Kenya Colony," in Transactions of the Royal Society (South Africa, 1945); "Primitive Artifacts from the Kanapoi Valley," in Nature (1966); "Cultural Patterns in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania," in After the Australopithecines (K.W. Butzer and G.L. Isaac, eds. The Hague: Mouton, 1975); "3.6 Million YearsOld Footprints in the Ashes of Time," in National Geographic (1979); Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (London: Collins, 1979).

Mary Leakey was born in London, England, on February 6, 1913, the only child of Cecilia Frere Nicol and Erskine Nicol, a popular landscape painter of Scottish descent. Mary inherited her father's talent for drawing, which later proved invaluable in her career. Her great-great-grandfather was John Frere, the late-18th-century geologist and archaeologist who first connected artifacts with extinct animals. Mary Leakey wrote, however, that she was unwilling to "stretch faith in genetic inheritance" and attributed her principle archaeological influence to her father, who was an amateur Egyptologist.

For most of the year, the family traveled on the Continent. Each summer was spent in London, where Erskine Nicol held an annual exhibition of his work. Aside from a brief sojourn at an elementary school in France, Leakey received little formal education; her father taught her to read and write. While in France, she visited the famous cave paintings of the Dordogne region, met Elie Peryony, and began to collect Paleolithic tools, which were not considered of value by the local museum at Les Eyzie. Abbé Lemozi, an avid amateur archaeologist and friend of the family, accompanied Leakey on visits to the cave paintings of Pêch Merle.

National Geographic Society">

Louis could interpret finds, sometimes beyond the obvious, but it was Mary who really gave that team scientific validity.

—Gilbert Grosvenor, chair of the National Geographic Society

Mary Leakey's father died when she was 13 years old. Upon the family's return to England, her mother sought to further her daughter's education, but Leakey's tutors found her uncooperative and rebellious. She was also expelled from two convent schools. Since she "had never passed a single exam, and clearly never would," recalled Leakey, the chances of her being admitted to a university were non-existent. If Mary Leakey rebelled against the strictures of formal education, however, she thrived on independent learning. She set herself a rigorous course of self-study, which included sitting in on geology lectures at London University. She also attended the lectures of Sir Mortimer Wheeler at the British Museum.

In 1930, Leakey undertook her first archaeological field work at Hembury Fort, a Neolithic site in Devon, and published several drawings of the finds. Her efforts came to the attention of archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson , who asked Mary to illustrate a book on Egyptian excavations, The Desert Fayoum. In 1933, Caton-Thompson invited her to attend a lecture being given by Louis S.B. Leakey at the Royal Anthropological Institute. A fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, Louis Leakey was an experienced archaeologist with three African expeditions to his credit. He asked Mary to illustrate his forthcoming book Adam's Ancestors.

What began as a professional collaboration soon blossomed into romance. She and Louis, she wrote, shared a fascination for "wild places, working in the field, and being alone among wild animals." However, Louis was ten years her senior and married, and his wife Frida Leakey was expecting their second child. At length, Louis broke the news to Frida, and reports of the impending divorce scandalized the Cambridge community. Mary was repeatedly asked to abandon the relationship for the sake of Louis' career. Deeply in love, she refused.

By 1934, Mary Leakey was directing her first archaeological dig at Hembury. A hominid skull was unearthed the following year, and the find resulted in her first publication. In April 1935, she joined Louis in Tanzania. Her first trip to Africa had a profound impact. "Africa," she later wrote, "had cast its spell." A year after the couple returned to England in September 1935, divorce proceedings were initiated (October 19, 1936), and Frida Leakey obtained custody of her two children. On December 24, 1936, Mary and Louis Leakey were married in Wares, England. By this time, it was clear that Louis' professional association with Cambridge University was at an end. The young couple planned to settle in Africa and pursue archaeological research. Because of his fluency in Kikuyu, Louis was able to secure funding from the Rhodes Trust for a two-year study of the Kikuyu tribe.

While he conducted his research on the Kikuyu, Mary Leakey began a dig at Hyrax Hill, a lava ridge about a half mile long, in Kenya. There, she discovered a Neolithic settlement and 19 burial sites. The Kenyan government declared the site a national monument, and several years later erected a museum nearby. In 1937, the Leakeys were invited to excavate a cave at the Njoro River, which yielded many Elementeitan artifacts. Among the finds were bowls, weapons, tools, and beads. At the Njoro River Cave, they also uncovered evidence of ritual cremation; each person was buried with a bowl, a mortar, and a pestle. The first archaeological site in Kenya to be dated using the radio-carbon method, its age was estimated by the Leakeys to be 960 bce.

During World War II, Louis Leakey, like many British scholars, was employed by British intelligence; he smuggled guns to guerrillas in Ethiopia. In 1940, he also became the curator of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi, and was the first curator to make the museum accessible to all races. Later, he became the curator of the National Museum of Kenya. For much of the war, Mary Leakey conducted research at Ngorongoro in northeast Tanzania, and at Olorgesailie in Kenya, using Italian prisoners of war as laborers. The Olorgesailie site yielded several cleavers and axes used for the slaughter of large mammals. She also unearthed the remains of 50 giant baboons, and theorized that they had been cornered and killed by early hominids. Eventually, the site was declared a national park. In 1947, the first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory and Paleontology was hosted by Louis Leakey in Nairobi. An excursion to one of Mary Leakey's digs was organized, and as a result the Royal Society in London agreed to fund her research for one year.

Working on Rusinga Island in the northeast corner of Lake Victoria in 1948, Mary Leakey made a spectacular discovery. She unearthed the skull, jaws, and teeth of what came to be known as Proconsul africanus. At the time, there was great speculation that the find represented the "missing link" in the evolution between apes and humans. Proconsul africanus was the first early ape skull ever discovered. Louis described the unearthing of the skull in his journal:

Returned to the ape skull with Mary, Heselon, Nderitu and Zadok and got it out. It is very broken up and large parts are missing, but we have the whole jaw, most of the face, including the orbit on one side of the frontal and bits of parietal…. The form of frontal in an adult is almost infantile, as I fully expected it would be if, as I have argued so often, modern apes are very specialized in respect of supra-orbitals.

Mary reconstructed the fragmented skull with such skill that Louis remarked: "Mary has got it

together perfectly, although many of the pieces were about the size of a match-head." Although Proconsul africanus did not prove to be a direct descendant of early hominids, the international press coverage surrounding the discovery persuaded the Kenyan government to fund Mary Leakey's research for the next several years.

In 1950, the Leakeys and their four children visited Europe and toured the recently discovered cave paintings at Lascaux, in France. Louis Leakey was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University, an irony which would not have been lost on him given his past difficulties with Cambridge. As well, the couple met Alexander Wenner-Gren, founder of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. The foundation's agreement to fund Mary's research in 1951 gave her an opportunity to investigate Tanzanian rock paintings, which she had originally begun to record in 1935. The painted rocks depicted hunting scenes, humans dancing, bathing, and playing music. "No amount of stone and bone could have yielded the kinds of information that the paintings gave so freely," she noted. Leakey concluded that the artwork formed part of a cultural tradition dating back to the Paleolithic period. She was anxious to record the paintings before they were destroyed by local inhabitants, who chipped off pieces in the belief that they were magic. These paintings appeared in her book Africa's Vanishing Art.

From 1951 until 1958, Leakey and her husband devoted the bulk of their energies to the excavation of Bed II of the Olduvai Gorge, near the Kenya-Tanzania border. In 1959, they decided to refocus their efforts on Bed I. While walking her Dalmatian on July 17, 1959, Mary Leakey noticed a bone protruding from the surface of Bed I. It turned out to be part of a jaw bone. After painstaking work, she recovered a skull subsequently christened "Zinj" from the Arabic word for "Africa." The skull also became known as "Nutcracker Man" because of its large teeth. The find caused an international sensation. Contemporary scientists believed that the human species had evolved in Asia only a few hundred thousand years before. The discovery of Zinj proved them wrong. The skull was found to be 1.75 million years old.

International fame also brought controversy. Louis initially classified the skull as a new genus of the Homo family, the progenitors of Homo erectus. Noted paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias disagreed. Instead, Tobias argued that the skull was from the earliest hominid period, Australopithecus. Thus, the skull came to be known as Australopithecus boisei. In December 1965, the Tanzanian government issued a postage stamp showing Zinj, along with Mary Leakey and Louis in the background.

In both Beds I and II, Mary Leakey unearthed other human remains which where contemporary, although different from Australopithecus boisei. These proved a puzzling find. Bed I also yielded the foundation of a dwelling, and she discovered tools which ranged from 2 to 8 million years of age. These discoveries were of decisive importance, wrote Jerrie McIntyre:

Until these discoveries, few anthropologists believed that two hominid groups—an early Homo species and a robust australopithecine—could occupy the same territory at the same time. Both Louis and Mary Leakey attributed the toolmaking ability they had formerly credited to A. boisei to the largerbrained … hominids capable of "precision grip." The toolmaker was christened Homo habilis by Louis Leakey, Phillip Tobias, and John Napier; but some authorities still regard fossils from this group as gracile or "advanced gracile" Australopithecines.

As Louis' international reputation grew, his research became increasingly unorthodox, and his interests focused almost exclusively on spectacular finds. Unlike her husband, Mary Leakey preferred to work quietly behind the scenes and maintained a more conservative theoretical approach. "Not a careful scientist," writes John S. Major, "Louis invariably claimed too much credit for his finds made by Mary and others on his team, and he ascribed too much significance to each find." He also had a series of affairs. This caused friction between the two, and the Leakeys separated in 1968. Louis Leakey died of a heart attack on October 11, 1972.

At the Laetoli Beds, 30 miles from the Olduvai Gorge, Mary Leakey in 1976 made one of the most important finds in archaeological history. She and her assistants uncovered hominid footprints in the volcanic ash. The footprints were "so sharp," she wrote, "that they could have been left this morning." This discovery proved that early hominids were walking upright between 3.5 and 3.8 million years ago. By 1979, Leakey and her team had excavated 80 feet of the prehistoric trail and determined that three hominids had been present. As well, they unearthed the remains of 25 early hominids, though no tools were found.

Mary Leakey's findings shed new light on work being done by Donald Johanson, the discoverer of "Lucy," the most complete Pliocene hominid skeleton yet to be unearthed. Excavated in Ethiopia, "Lucy" is over 3 million years old, and Johanson claimed that she had been bipedal. A spirited debate arose within the archaeological community, however, concerning the mobility of early hominids. As Kenneth Feber and Michael Park note, Mary Leakey's work at Laetoli had important implications for Johanson's research:

Even at this point some differences of opinion existed about just how bipedal these early hominids were. Estimates were based on inference from the structure of the bones; no one had actually seen them walking around. In 1976, however, the next best thing was unearthed. A group led by Mary Leakey uncovered a set of footprints at Laetoli…. The nature of the prints and their orientation to each other show no difference from the prints made by people today.

Unlike many of her archaeological colleagues, Leakey received her professional training in the field, rather than the classroom. She was a persistent and devoted archaeologist, with an eye for detail. Unfortunately, for many years her work was overshadowed by that of her husband, who was arguably the poorer scientist of the two. It was not until after his death that Mary Leakey emerged as an archaeologist of international stature in her own right. As Stephen Jay Gould commented, Mary Leakey has been the "unsung hero" of archaeology. Notes Charles Moritz:

The name Leakey is synonymous in most people's minds with the successive dramatic discoveries of fossilized hominid bones and stone artifacts that have, over the years, pushed the true origins of man further and further back in prehistory.

In 1982, Mary Leakey lost the vision in her left eye due to thrombosis. As a result, she curtailed her field research. Nonetheless, her son Richard Leakey, his wife Meave Leakey , and their daughter Louise Leakey , continue the family tradition. Richard is the curator of the National Museum of Kenya and founder of the Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory. As of 1985, he was a member of the Kenyan Parliament, as well as assistant minister of Foreign Affairs.

Unlike her husband, Mary Leakey "never believed that knowledge of the past would help us to understand and possibly control the future…. Nature," she wrote, "will take its course, and man's activities will follow an irreversible pattern." Nevertheless, her contributions led to a more profound understanding of early human development. They also serve to remind us of the common ancestry which we all share. Mary Leakey died in Kenya on December 9, 1996, age 83. "Louis Leakey enjoyed the limelight whether he was being applauded or criticized," said Gilbert Grosvenor, chair of the National Geographic Society. "Mary preferred a quieter life. Olduvai Gorge was probably heaven on earth to her."


"African Queen," in People Weekly. December 23, 1996.

Cole, Sonia. Leakey's Luck. London: Collins, 1975.

Feber, Kenneth L., and Michael Alan Park. Human Antiquity. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1989.

Gacs, Ute, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, and Ruth Wienberg, eds. Women Anthropologists. CT: Greenwood, 1988.

Irwin-Williams, Cynthia. "Women in the Field: The Role of Women in Archaeology before 1960," in Women of Science. G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett. By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1931–1951. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Major, John S. "The Secret of 'Leakey Luck'," in Time. August 28, 1995.

Moritz, Charles. Current Biography Yearbook 1985. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1985.

suggested reading:

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

Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions. Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Leakey, Mary Nicol (1913–1996)

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