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The Leakey Family

Louis and Mary Leakey were monumental figures in the field of paleoanthropology and their groundbreaking discoveries helped shape our understanding of human origins. Now, the Leakey family is synonymous with the study of human evolution, with three generations making important contributions to science.

Louis Leakey

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) was a Kenyan-born paleoanthropologist who became one of the most iconic scientists of the twentieth century. In addition to his many fossil and stone tool discoveries, Louis Leakey was a passionate naturalist, a prolific writer, and a gifted showman with a talent for publicizing scientific discoveries to a broad public audience.

Leakey was born on August 7, 1903, at Kabete Mission near Nairobi, Kenya. His parents, Harry and Mary (Bazett) Leakey, were English missionaries to the Kikuyu tribe in the highlands west of Nairobi overlooking the Rift Valley. He spent the first sixteen years of his life in Kenya and grew up among the Kikuyu people. He spoke Kikuyu as fluently as English and developed a deep connection with the cultures and landscapes of the region. He also developed a keen interest in natural history, wildlife, and archaeology. This unique upbringing played a crucial role in shaping his wide range of interests and his future career.

After World War I, in 1919, Louis was sent to England to prepare for college. Louis began his university career at Cambridge University in 1922, but in October 1923 he suffered a serious rugby injury and a concussion that caused him to postpone his studies. During his time away from school, he was chosen to accompany a scientist named W.F. Cutler on an expedition to find dinosaur fossils in Tanzania. He returned to Cambridge and in 1926, he graduated with honors in anthropology and archaeology and began leading expeditions to East Africa, later earning a doctorate.1

Humanity’s African origins

Louis Leakey was a steadfast supporter of Charles Darwin’s idea that human evolution began in Africa. In the early 20th century, however, the European scientific community believed that Europe, or possibly Asia were the most likely cradles of humankind. In the face of great opposition and skepticism, Leakey dedicated himself to finding concrete evidence of our species’ African origins.

“Darwin had said, way back in 1875, that the origin of man will be found in Africa one day, and I believed it.” Leakey later reflected in a 1969 interview commissioned by The Leakey Foundation, “Even in 1929 I was saying that man would be here… I was a rebel. From then on I looked to see whether Darwin was right–and he was right. If Darwin had said we would find man in Africa and Darwin was a great man, and Africa was my home, I didn’t see why we shouldn’t prove it.”

In 1931, Leakey made his first expedition to Olduvai Gorge in what is now Tanzania. At Olduvai in the 1930s, he found ancient stone tools which were, at the time of discovery, the earliest artifacts ever found. He continued to work there for decades, making many significant finds in collaboration with his wife Mary Leakey.

Fossil discoveries

On July 17, 1959, after decades of searching, Mary Leakey made her famous discovery of Zinjanthropus boisei, now called Paranthropus boisei. What she found was a 1.8 million-year-old hominin with a massive jaw, huge molars, and most eye-catching of all, a bony crest at the top of its head, a feature that’s shared with gorillas, our close relatives. The Leakeys referred to it as “Zinj” or “Dear Boy.” The press nicknamed it “Nutcracker Man” because of its large jaws and teeth.

This discovery was a sensation, catapulting the Leakeys to world fame. Louis Leakey began touring the United States and Europe, making press appearances and giving lectures to capacity crowds. His skill as a speaker and his extraordinary ability to connect with others inspired a growing public interest in the science of paleoanthropology.

In 1960, Louis and Mary’s eldest son Jonathan made a discovery even more significant than Zinj. Working near the site where Zinj was found, he uncovered a humanlike jaw. The find was described in 1964 and named Homo habilis by Leakey and his colleagues Phillip Tobias and John Napier. Leakey believed Homo habilis was the first member of the actual human genus as well as the first true toolmaker. which Louis Leakey named Homo habilis – or “Handy Man” because he thought this hominin was a direct human ancestor and the maker of the stone tools at Olduvai Gorge. Though the interpretations of Leakey’s fossil finds were and still are controversial, their significance to the field of human origins is clear.

The Trimates

Louis Leakey’s influence extended beyond paleoanthropology. Leakey believed that we could not understand our own origins or behavior without understanding our closest living relatives–the other great apes. One of his lasting legacies is his mentorship of three prominent female primatologists, sometimes called the “Trimates” or “Leakey’s Angels.”

Leakey helped Jane Goodall begin her groundbreaking long-term chimpanzee research in Gombe, Tanzania in 1960. He mentored her and helped fund her first decade of work. “Without Louis getting me that first money to go, there would be no Jane studying the chimpanzees,” said Goodall. When Jane observed a chimpanzee named David Greybeard using a stick to fish for termites, she quickly sent a telegram to Leakey. He responded, “Now we must redefine tools, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.”

Similarly, Leakey encouraged Dian Fossey to study mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Fossey’s extensive research and passionate conservation efforts brought international attention to these endangered animals and provided new insights into their lives and behavior. Lastly, he supported Biruté Galdikas’s long-term study of orangutans in Borneo, which provided invaluable information on the behavior and ecology of these elusive apes. These studies not only expanded scientific knowledge but also highlighted the need for conservation efforts to protect our primate relatives.

The Leakey Foundation

In 1968, a group of Louis Leakey’s friends and supporters formed a nonprofit organization called the “L.S.B. Leakey Foundation for Research Related to Man’s Origins, Behavior & Survival,” now known as The Leakey Foundation. Inspired by Leakey, the founders created an organization dedicated to supporting multidisciplinary research and promoting public understanding of evolution. Through grants, scholarships, lectures, and educational programs, the foundation continues Leakey’s legacy of scientific inquiry and public engagement.

Legacy and impact

Despite increasing health challenges, Leakey kept up a rigorous schedule of travel, lecturing, and fundraising. He died from a heart attack on October 1, 1972, in London, England.

Louis Leakey radically changed the world’s understanding of our shared human story and firmly established Africa as the birthplace of our species. This once-controversial view is now widely accepted as true. His work provided critical evidence of our origins and advanced our . Leakey’s legacy is one of curiosity, discovery, and a profound commitment to understanding our place in the natural world. His work not only advanced our knowledge of human evolution but also inspired future generations to continue exploring the rich history of our species.

Mary Douglas Leakey

Mary Leakey (1913-1996) was one of the world’s most renowned archaeologists. She is credited with many important discoveries that changed our understanding of human evolution and is considered 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 Merle in Dordogne, France. Those childhood experiences sparked a lifelong passion for archaeology, driven by her intense curiosity about how early humans might have lived. The daughter of famous painter Erskine Edward Nicol, Mary displayed artistic ability from an early age. She had a special interest in the Stone Age, and she did expert illustrations of Stone Age tools and other artifacts. At seventeen, she joined the Hembury Dig in Devon, England, as an illustrator for the trailblazing female archaeologist Dorothy Liddell. She worked with Liddell for three seasons, building her skills and expertise in archaeology and scientific illustration. In 1933, she met Louis Leakey, and the two soon married.

Mary and Louis Leakey were an extraordinary team from the beginning. Mary Leakey was the organized, detail-oriented archaeologist, Louis Leakey was the exuberant visionary and spokesman.

The Leakeys began working together at various sites throughout Kenya and Tanzania in 1935. They worked in often harsh conditions with little to no money. In her autobiography, Disclosing the Past, Leakey describes the dry season at Olduvai Gorge, where the nearest source of fresh water is a spring that’s eighteen miles away. She recalled a time when the only available water was from a nearby mud hole which she said consisted of as much rhinoceros urine as drinkable water. 

In 1948, on Rusinga Island in Kenya, Mary Leakey made the first of her many important fossil discoveries. She found an 18 million-year-old fossil ape they called Proconsul africanus. The fossil consisted of half the skull, the upper and lower jaws, and all the teeth. It was an astounding find, but it wasn’t until the discovery of Zinjanthropus boisei in 1959 that the Leakey name became synonymous with the study of human origins. 

Working at Olduvai Gorge with her beloved Dalmatian dogs by her side, Leakey saw two large teeth protruding from the hillside and she uncovered the skull of an ancient human relative that she and her husband named Zinjanthropus boisei and nicknamed “Dear Boy.” Mary Leakey and her collaborator Kimoya Kimeu then began painstakingly reconstructing the skull from hundreds of fragments

After Louis Leakey died in 1972, Mary Leakey continued her work. In 1976 and 1977, Leakey made what she considered the most exciting find of her career. Roughly 30 miles south of the Olduvai Gorge at a site called Laetoli, Mary and her team found amazingly well-preserved hominin footprints in volcanic beds known as tuffs. The footprints seemed to match the fossils found in the same area that belonged to the species Australopithecus afarensis and they provided the earliest positive evidence of upright walking in the human lineage. The Laetoli footprints were the first discovery of their kind in the history of science and they sealed Mary Leakey’s status as a legendary archaeologist. 

Mary Leakey’s list of accomplishments is long and her body of work is extraordinary. Leakey discovered fifteen new fossil animal species and one genus. She was awarded four honorary degrees, including degrees from Oxford and Yale. She was given the Gold Medal of the Society of Women Geographers and the Linnaeus Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy. In 1962, she became the second woman in history to receive the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, which, together with The Leakey Foundation, helped to fund much of Mary Leakey’s fieldwork.

Mary Leakey continued her interest in and contributions to archaeology and paleoanthropology well into her retirement. She died on December 9, 1996, at the age of 83.

  1. Clark, John Desmond. 1973. Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, 1903–1972: Proceedings of the British Academy, 447–471. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy ↩︎

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