Who Was Louis Leakey?
Paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, with wife Mary Leakey, established an excavation site at Olduvai Gorge to search for fossils. The team made unprecedented discoveries of hominids millions of years old linked to human evolution, including H. habilis and H. erectus. Leakey, an avid lecturer and author who also worked in primatology, died on October 1, 1972.
Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903, in Kabete, Kenya, and was raised by English missionary parents among the Kikuyu people. In 1921, he travelled to England to be educated in anthropology and archaeology at St. John's College, Cambridge University, ultimately earning his doctorate in African prehistory. He held fast to Charles Darwin's belief that humanity had originated from Africa, defying conventional beliefs that the species' origins were from Asia or Europe.
Union with Mary Leakey
Leakey returned to the continent of his birth to take up Eastern archaeological expeditions in the mid-1920s, later publishing work on his hominid discoveries. Leakey made his first trip to Olduvai Gorge, located in modern day Tanzania, in 1931. The site would eventually become one he was famous for.
Leakey married Mary Nicol in 1937. The two had worked together on Leakey's 1934 book Adam's Ancestors, for which Nicol provided archaeological illustration. Leakey again defied the conventions of his day by divorcing his first wife, with whom he’d had two children. Louis and Mary moved to Kenya and would have three children of their own.
As a professional couple, Mary was known for keeping to herself and being particular about the quality and accuracy of her findings; Louis was more of a showman and lecturer, comfortable pushing concepts to larger communities while facing criticism over his forthrightness and the legitimacy of his ideas.
After World War II, Louis became curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum in Nairobi, and worked with other organizations that focused on prehistoric research and inquiry. 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.
Major Finds at Olduvai Gorge
After having done previous excavation work at Olduvai, unearthing ancient tools and animal fossils, in 1959 the Leakeys began major excavations at the site. That year, during a time when Louis had the flu, Mary discovered a human fossil dubbed Zinjanthropus bosei that would be estimated to be around 2 million years old.
Then in 1960, their son Jonathan and the Leakey team made another major fossil find, that of Homo habilis, humanity's earliest discovered ancestor thus far. Louis Leakey, who also discovered a Homo erectus skull at the site, later theorized that H. habilis and Z. bosei represented separate, co-existing hominid lineages, a claim met with initial skepticism from peers. (Later findings would support Leakey in his assertion.)
The Olduvai discoveries were a sensation, greatly illuminating humanity's origins. Leakey turned away from excavations in Africa — with son Richard and Mary continuing his work — and focused on fundraising, lecturing and primatology, mentoring Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.
Legacy and Death
Mary and Louis Leakey reportedly had a strained relationship during the later years of their marriage, exacerbated by professional and personal tensions. Nonetheless, the Leakey family has continued to contribute greatly to the natural sciences, with Richard, his wife Meave and their daughter Louise all having worked in the fields of paleoanthropology and wildlife conservation.
Louis died on October 1, 1972, in London, England. He published many books over his lifetime, including The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya Colony (1931), White African: An Early Autobiography (1937), Mau Mau and the Kikuyu (1952) and Unveiling Man's Origins (1969), with Vanne M. Goodall.
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