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Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972)


British/Kenyan archaeologist and anthropologist who became famous for his academic work centered on human origins. Louis Leakey, his wife Mary, and their second son Richard made the key discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the first men. Richard Leakey and his wife, Maeve, sustain a family legacy of research that is now, with the work of their daughter Louise, three generations deep.

"To me it's a question of being able to look backward and give the present a root... To give meaning to where we are today, we need to look at where we've have come from." (Richard Leakey, in National Geographic, February 1998)

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born in Kabete, British East Africa, now Kenya. His parents, Mary Bazett and Harry Leakey, were missionaries of the Church of England. Leakey grew up with the Kikuyu tribe, learning their customs and language. Later in life he became a member of the Kikuyu age-group called Mukanda, "from which, I regret to say, not a few Mau Mau leaders have sprung" (in Mau Mau and the Kikuyu, 1952). When Leakey was twelve he found his first fossils, and knew that he wanted to be an archeologist. However, at that time Asia was generally considered to be the center of human evolution, not East Africa. Leakey graduated from Cambridge, and set out to prove Darwin's theory that Africa was humankind's homeland. At that time it was believed that early man originated in somewhere Asia. In 1926 Leakey received his doctorate in African prehistory.

Between the years 1926 and 1935 Leakey led a series of expeditions in East Africa in search of man's fossil ancestors. Despite attempts to dissuade him, he became interested in particular Olduvai Gorge, a 300-foot-deep, thirty-mile-long chasm not far from the Ngorongoro Crater. It was made famous by a German entomologist named Wilhelm Kattwinkel, who first discovered its value in 1911. Leakey dug at Olduvai two decades without finding anything especially significant, except animal fossils and flit tools, which on the other hand provided important evidence of human habitation.

Leakey's first marriage with Frieda Leakey ended in divorce in 1933, when he fell in love with 20-year-old Mary Douglas Nicol, the daughter of a landscape painter. They first met at a dinner party in London, and he asked her to make drawings for his book Adam's Ancestors (1934). Mary, who had attended lectures on archaeology at the London Museum and London University, traveled with him to Africa. They married in 1936, and had three children, Jonathan, Richard, and Philip. With his new professional and personal partner, Leakey collected early manmade tools, mostly made of basalt and quartzite, and fossilized bones of many extinct mammals. In 1948 she made their first big find, the skull of an ape called Proconsul africanus at Lake Victoria in Kenya. The remains of this 1.6-million-year-old distant human ancestor provided weight to the theory, that humans had originated in Africa, rather than in Asian.

When Louis Leakey began spending less and less time at Olduvai, and concentrated on raising funds and lecturing, the place became Mary Leakey's domain, where she worked most of the next 25 years. During her excavation at Laetoli, about 30 miles south of Olduvai, Mary Leakey found in 1978 fossilized hominid footprints. They looked so fresh that she said, "they could have been left this morning". Personally and professionally Mary and Louis lived separate lives from the mid-1960s. Her books include Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979) and an autobiography Disclosing the Past (1984). The best of her drawings, which he made while exploring a late Stone Age site, were published in a book in 1983.

In 1945 Leakey became the curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum at Nairobi. During World War II, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s he also served as a spy for the British government and acted as a translator in court in 1952-53 during the trial of Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the independence party. When the Mau Mau uprising forced him to stop his excavations at Olduvai, he wrote a book called  Mau Mau and the Kikuyu (1952), "in the hope that a brief summary of the more important Kikuyu customs, and a discussion of their break-down under the impact of European civilization in the short space of fifty years, may help to make the British understand two things: why and how the Mau Mau has come into being, and also how, when it has been suppressed, things can be improved so that such a state of affairs need never again disturb the peace of the land I love so much – Kenya." Leakey argued, that the movement was so dangerous because it offered an alternative faith, distant from both original Gikuyu values and the values of Christianity, which was able to make "many normally peace-loving Kikuyu into the fanatical, murdering maniacs that they have become under Mau Mau."

From the 1950s the Leakeys expeditions to Olduvai Gorge produced several important discoveries of early primate fossils, named Zinjanthropus (now called Australopithecus boisei), which Mary Leakey found in 1959 from the lowest and oldest excavation site. It has been said, that it was Mary who gave the team scientific validity. The discovery of "Zinj", also fondly referred to as "Dear Boy", made the Leakeys famous. Louis first believed that it was a "missing link" between humans and apes. He wrote an article for the National Geographic magazine and estimated that Zinjanthropus was 600,000 years old, in which he was wrong. Using a new method of dating, the carbon-14 technique, geophysicists from the University of California at Berkeley concluded that the site was 1.75 million years old. But the excavations brought to light a rich fossil fauna.

As a conservationist, Louis Leakey was active in promoting game preserves in East Africa. His interests and writings were wide, including all aspects of African natural history, primate behaviour and the origins of man. In the 1960s, Leakey devoted much of his time to the Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology in Nairobi. Among Leakey's academic protegees were Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas, and Jane Goodall, who became famous for her studies of the behavior of chimpanzees. Leakey stayed long periods at the London home of Vanne Goodall, Jane Goodall's mother.

In 1978 Mary Leakey found a trail of clear ancient hominid footprints of two adults and a child – some 3.5 million years old – impressed and preserved in volcanic ash from a site in Tanzania called Laetoli. They belonged to a new hominid species, best represented by the 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton, which was found at Hadar, Ethiopia, by Donald Johanson . "It is tempting to see them as a man, a woman and a child," Mary Leakey later wrote. The Lucy skeleton on the other hand arose a bitter debate. Mary and Richard Leakey criticized Donald Johanson for proclaiming a new species too hastily – the fossils could be a mix of several different species.

From 1961 to 1964 the Leakeys and their son Jonathan unearthed fossils of Homo habilis, "handy man", the oldest known primate with human characteristics and discovered in 1967 Kenyapithecus africanus. The Leakeys claimed that Homo habilis had walked upright and viewed it as a direct ancestor of modern humans. It had a brain almost 50 percent larger than that of the Australopithicenes. "Until then the idea that two hominids could occupy the same area at the same time had been unacceptable to most scientists," Mary Leakey wrote in Disclosing the Past (1984). Also evidence of human habitation in California, more than 50 000 years, old was found.

Louis Leakey died of a heart attack in London in 1972, at the age of 69. In the same year his son Richard Leakey, who directed National Museum of Kenya, reported the discovery of a 1.8 million-year old skull of modern humans from Koobi Fora, located on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya. Three years later he discoverd a skull of Homo habilis, which seemed to resemble one identified by his father. Leakey believed that "The Skull 1470" was 2.9 million years old. With the donation of a kidney from his brother Philip, Leakey survived kidney failure in the 1970s. In 1984 he and another paleontologist discovered a virtually complete Homo erectus skeleton. From his father he adopted the idea, that there were at least two parallel lines of human evolution, with one leading to modern humans. By the end of 1980s, Leakey had abandoned fossil hunting for wildlife conservation. President Daniel Arap Moi appointed him head of what is now the Kenya Wildlife Service. Leakey signed in 1994 amid politically motivated accusations of mismanagement, only to be reinstated by Moi 4,5 years later. In 1997 he was elected to a opposition seat in the parliament. As a result of an airplane crash in 1993, Leakey lost both legs below the knees, but he continued his scientific work. Mary Leakey died in Nairobi on December 9, 1996, at the age of 83.

For further reading: Leakey's Luck: the Life of L.S.B. Leakey 1903-1972 by S. Cole (1975); Human Origins: Louis Leakey and the East African Evidence by G.L. Isaac & E.R. McCown (1976); The Making of Mankind by Richard Leakey (1981); One Life by Richard Leakey (1983); Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1992); Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings by Virginia Morrell (1995). Anthropological findings and speculations have given much material for science fiction writing. Among the most outstanding works are Robert Graves's study The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), William Golding's The Inheritors (1955) and Björn Kurtén's Dance of the Tiger (1978). See Apeman, Spaceman, ed. by Leon E. Stover and Harry Harrison (1968); Anthropology through Science Fiction, ed. by Carol Mason, Martin H. Greenberg and Patricia Warrick (1974); Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction , ed. by Eric S. Rabkin and George Edgar Slusser (1987).

Selected works:

  • The Stone Age Culture of Kenya Colony, 1931 (illustrated by Frida Leakey)
  • Adam's Ancestors: The Evolution of Man and His Culture, 1934 (illustrated by Mary Leakey)
  • The Stone Age races of Kenya, 1935
  • Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, 1936
  • Stone Age Africa: An Outline of Prehistory in Africa, 1936
  • White African, 1937
  • The Miocene Hominoidea of East Africa, 1951 (with Wilfrid Le Gros Clark)
  • Olduvai Gorge: A Report on the Evolution of the Hand-Axe Culture in Beds I-IV, 1951
  • Mau Mau and the Kikuyu, 1952
  • Animals in Africa, 1953
  • Defeating Mau Mau, 1954 (with Peter Schmidt)
  • 'Finding the World's Earliest Man', 1960 (in National Geographic Magazine, September)
  • Olduvai Gorge 1951-1961: Vol. 1. A  Preliminary Report on the Geology and Fauna, 1965 (repr. 1967)
  • Unveiling Man's Origins, 1969 (with Vanne Morris Goodall)
  • Animals of East Africa: The Wild Realm, 1969
  • Olduvai Gorge, 1965-1967, 1970
  • By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1932-1951, 1974
  • The Southern Kikuyu before 1903, 1977
  • Olduvai Gorge, 2009 (5 vols., with Mary Leakey)

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