Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey
Louis Leakey (b. 1903, d. 1972) was a tireless promoter of the study of human origins, and exerted tremendous impact on the prevailing conception of early humans with his theoretical and paleontological work in the field.
In addition to the 20 books and over 150 articles he wrote in his lifetime, as well as the multiple fossil and stone tool discoveries that contributed so significantly to our understanding of the field, he was also largely responsible for convincing other scientists that Africa was the key location in which to search for evidence of human origins. Leakey’s early, controversial, yet unwavering position that Africa was the cradle of humanity has held up against modern scientific scrutiny, and is now universally accepted.
Louis was born on August 7, 1903 at Kabete Mission (near Nairobi), Kenya where his parents, Harry and Mary (Bazett) Leakey, were English missionaries to the Kikuyu tribe. Louis grew up speaking Kikuyu as fluently as English, and at age thirteen was initiated as a member of the Kikuyu tribe. He later (1937) wrote a definitive study of their culture.
Leakey began his university career at Cambridge University in 1922, but a rugby injury caused him to postpone his studies, and he left to help manage a paleontological expedition to Africa. He graduated with degrees in both anthropology and archaeology in 1926. After completing his degrees, Leakey began leading expeditions to Olduvai, a river gorge in Tanzania, where he found important fossils and Stone Age tools. In 1948 he reported finding a 20-million-year-old skull, which he named Proconsul africanus. Now considered to be too specialized to have been a direct ancestor of current ape and human populations, Proconsul is still considered scientifically valuable as a model for early human ancestors.
The first significant hominid fossil attributed to Leakey (a robust skull with huge teeth dated to 1.75 million years ago) was found by Louis’s collaborator and second wife, Mary Leakey. It was found in deposits that also contained stone tools, and Louis claimed it was a human ancestor and called it Zinjanthropus boisei (it is now considered to be a form of Australopithecus.)
Another important discovery was the 1964 reporting of Homo habilis (named by Louis, along with Phillip Tobias and John Napier), which Leakey believed was the first member of the actual human genus as well as the first true toolmaker. However, the interpretations of Leakey’s fossil finds are still controversial; their significance to the field of human origins is universally acknowledged.
Leakey also exerted influence in collateral areas, such as the emerging field of primatology. He was responsible for initiating Jane Goodall’s long-term field study of chimpanzees in the wild, and he helped obtain and coordinate funding for similar projects such as Dian Fossey’s work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Birute Galdikas-Brindamour’s work with orangutans in the Sarawak region of Indonesia.
Always a dynamic and energetic man, Leakey kept up a rigorous schedule of lecturing and fundraising. On route to a speaking engagement in London in 1972, Louis Leakey suffered a heart attack and died. Though he always had his detractors, Louis Leakey is considered to be a significant contributor to the understanding of our origins, and he radically changed the way we now view early humans. He strongly supported, in the face of great opposition, Darwin’s assertion that human evolution began in Africa; pushed back the known dates for the existence of various species; changed phylogenies to include the existence of parallel lines of evolution in the human family; and stimulated research in new fields like primatology, as well as generating interest and publicity for the study of human origins.
Mary Douglas Leakey
Mary Leakey (b. 1913, d. 1996) was one of the world’s most renowned hunters of early human fossils, credited with many discoveries that have changed the way scientists conceive human evolution. Together with her husband, Louis Leakey, she is considered to be a preeminent contributor to the field of human origins.
Born Mary Douglas Nicol, on February 6, 1913, she spent her early childhood traveling throughout Europe. During her travels she was exposed to prehistoric sites, such as the caves at Pech Merl in Dordogne, which influenced her to plan a career in geology and archeology; not a typical path for a woman at the time. She also showed artistic ability, and worked as an illustrator at the Hembury Dig in Devon, England at the age of seventeen. For two years she worked at the dig illustrating the archaeological progress. She had a special interest in the Stone Age, and she did expert illustrations of Stone Age tools and other artifacts. In 1937 she married Louis Leakey, whom she met through his request to illustrate a text of his.
In 1948 Mary found her first truly important fossil of her long career as an archeologist, Proconsul africanus. The fossil consisted of half the skull, the upper and lower jaws, and all the teeth. In 1959, she discovered a hominid skull (which she reconstructed from hundreds of fragments) that her husband Louis named Zinjanthropus bosei (later reclassified Australopithecus boisei), which first showed the great antiquity of hominids in Africa. Zinjanthropus bosei was dated to 1.75 million years ago, and that radically changed the concept of the timeline of human evolution. This find was also fortuitous for the Leakey’s, in that it drew attention and funding from the National Geographic Society, thus ensuring their continuing research.
In 1961 Mary found remains of a large brained hominid living at the same time as the Australopithecine, but belonging to the genus homo, called Homo habilis, the first tool user. After the death of her husband Louis in 1972, Mary went on in 1976 – 1977 to make what she considered the most exciting find of her career. About 30 miles south of the Olduvai Gorge at a site called Laetoli, Mary and her team found amazingly well-preserved hominid footprints in volcanic beds, known as tuffs. The footprints seemed to match the fossils found in the same area, belonging to the species Australopithecus afarensis (2.9 to 3.5 million years ago).
During this same time period, Mary and her team also found remains of 25 early hominids and an array of 15 new animal species, one of the most plentiful lot of fossil finds ever. Mary continued her interest and contributions to the field of paleontology well into her retirement. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 83.
The Leakey Family
Richard, Meave and Louise Leakey's efforts are now focused on a research station at Lake Turkana, called The Turkana Basin Institute. TBI will revitalize and strengthen research, offer opportunities for training, and serve as a new focus for scientists from all over the world to collaborate on long-term, intensive studies. International in scope and mission, the Institute is a significant development for the quest to understand man’s past.
Richard, Meave and Louise Leakey have and may continue to receive funding from The Leakey Foundation, however they do not receive priority funding during the grants process. For more information on the Foundation’s grants process, please visit the grants page.