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Louis & Mary Leakey: Changed the view of early humans

By HT School,

They made significant discoveries that broadened the scope and understanding of human evolution and origin in general.

They had a passion for studying prehistory and human evolution. IIllustration: Mohit Suneja

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903, in Kabete, Kenya, to English missionaries Harry and Mary Leakey. He grew up in Africa, surrounded by the Kikuyu tribe.

Leakey found some stone tools in 1916, when he was 13, and that fuelled his passion for studying prehistory. 

In 1926, he graduated in both anthropology and archaeology from the Cambridge University. He earned his doctorate in African prehistory. 

Mary Leakey was born on February 6, 1913, in London to Erskine Edward Nicol and Cecilia Marion (Frere) Nicol. The Nicols travelled to United States, Italy, and Egypt. Mary began to develop an enthusiasm for Egyptology during these travels. 

In 1925, when Mary was 12, the Nicols stayed at the Les Eyzies commune, when Elie Peyrony, a French archeologist and prehistorian, was excavating a cave. Mary was allowed to go through the dig’s remnants, sparking her interests in prehistory and archaeology. 

Mary’s father, an artist, loved Stone Age history and showed her archaeological sites in France. When she was 13, her father died. She was sent to Catholic schools in London. At 17 taking charge of her education, she attended lectures in archaeology. 

Louis Leakey’s career

In 1930s, it was believed humans originated in Asia, due to the remains of the so-called Java Man, but Louis Leakey held fast onto Charles Darwin’s theories that humans originated in Africa. In 1931, Leakey made his first visit to Olduvai Gorge (in modern-day Tanzania). He discovered fossils in 1932 at Kanam and Kanjera, Africa. He hailed these finds as proof of humanity’s origin on the African continent. 

Union with Mary Leakey 

Mary and Louis met in London in 1933. In 1935, she joined him in Tanzania during one of his expeditions. They married the following year after his divorce. His first wife, Frida, was a British teacher who discovered a gorge that was named FLK (Frida Leakey Korongo). He had two children with Frida.

Major finds 

In 1948, at Rusinga Island, Mary Leakey discovered the fossil remains of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans that existed more than 18 million years ago. 

In 1959, the Leakeys began major excavations at the Olduvai site. Mary discovered a human fossil dubbed Zinjanthropus boisei that would be estimated to be around 2 million years old.

In 1960, Leakey discovered a Homo erectus skull at Olduvai Gorge, and theorised that the two recent finds, H. habilis and Z. boisei, demonstrated distinct but co-existing hominid lineages. 

Further discoveries later supported Leakey’s opinion. In the 1960s, he turned over hands-on anthropological studies and archaeological excavations to Mary and some of his children. He focused on lecturing, writing, and mentoring younger scientists.

During her career, Mary discovered 15 new species of animals and one new genus. In 1962, the Leakeys won the Hubbard Medal, while Louis Leakey won the Prestwich Medal in 1969. Louis passed away in 1972 while Mary breathed her last on December 9, 1996.

Interesting facts

  • After Louis’s death, Mary became a leading scientist in her own right. She was elected as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979.  
  • Louis’s published many books in his lifetime including The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya Colony (1931), Adam’s Ancestors (1934), White African: An Early Autobiography (1937), Mau Mau and the Kikuyu (1952). 
  • Louis mentored younger scientists who were interested in primatology. These included Jane Goodall (for chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (for gorillas), and Birute Galdikas (for orangutans). 
  • In 2013, Mary was honoured by Royal Mail in the UK as one of six people selected as subjects for the ‘Great Britons’ commemorative postage stamp issue. Google celebrated her 100th birthday with a doodle. 
  • Louis and Frida’s only son, Colin, became a leading plant scientist in Britain. Louis and Mary’s sons, Richard became a conservationist; Philip a politician, and Jonathan a businessman. 
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