Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey
(1903 - 1972)
Few people have had more impact on the study of human origins than the brilliant, passionate, energetic, eccentric and occasionally erratic Louis Leakey. 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.
Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903 at Kabete Mission, nine miles from
Nairobi, Kenya. His parents, Harry and Mary Leakey, were English missionaries to the Kikuyu
tribe, and despite brief stays in England during his childhood, Louis grew up more African than English. He played with Africans, learned to hunt, spoke Kikuyu as fluently as English, and was
initiated as a member of the Kikuyu tribe. At 13, after discovering stone tools, he was seized with a passion for prehistory and decided that he would learn about the people who made them. 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 1922 he started studies at Cambridge, but a rugby accident the following year left him unable to study, and he left to help manage a paleontological expedition to Africa. He was 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. He returned in 1925 to resume his studies, and graduated brilliantly in anthropology and archaeology in 1926.
Leakey dug at Olduvai two
decades without finding anything especially significant. In 1928 Louis had married Frida Avern, an Englishwoman he had met in Africa. While in England in 1933, he met Mary Nicol, a scientific illustrator,
and soon started an affair with her despite the fact that he had one young child and a pregnant wife. Mary joined him for his next expedition to Africa,
and returned home to live with him in 1935. In 1936, his wife Frida filed for divorce, and Louis and Mary married late that year. The scandals over his personal life and the Kanam and Kanjera fiascos effectively destroyed Louis' promising academic career at Cambridge. Without a steady job, he got a small income from speaking and writing, and in 1937 he returned to Africa to do a massive ethnological study of the Kikuyu tribe.
During the Second World War Louis performed intelligence work, but in between his wartime responsibilities he and Mary continued to do archaeological work. In 1941 he was made an honorary curator of the Coryndon Museum (later the Kenya National Museum), and in 1945 he accepted a poorly paid position as curator of the museum so that he could continue his paleontological and archaeological work in Kenya. In 1947, Louis organized the first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory, a successful event which helped restore his reputation and introduced many scientists to the large amount of important work that the Leakeys had accomplished since the Kanam/Kanjera debacle.
He and Mary continued to excavate at many sites during the 1950s, especially Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Although the discovery of an important Miocene ape fossil in 1948 had given them some attention and led to more funding, money constraints always limited the amount of work they could do. Nevertheless, they continued to make significant discoveries. With Mary he collected early manmade tools, mostly made of basalt and quartzite, and fossilized bones of many extinct mammals. His first major discovery was the jaw of a pre human creature called Proconsul. In 1945 Leakey became the curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum at Nairobi. 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. As a conservationist, 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.
Through the 1950s, Louis and Mary's marriage suffered, mostly from Louis' philandering, but they stayed together, mostly because of their children. In 1959, Mary found their first significant hominid fossil, a robust skull with huge teeth. It was found in deposits that also contained stone tools and Louis, typically, inflated its importance by claiming it was a human ancestor and calling it Zinjanthropus boisei. To everyone else, it seemed markedly unhuman, and most similar to robust australopithecines. Even so, it was a major find that gave them tremendous publicity. The discovery of "Zinj" made the Leakeys famous. The National Geographic magazine printed the first of many articles about the Leakeys and their finds, and gave a large amount of funding which allowed the Leakeys to greatly increase the scope of their excavations at Olduvai. Within a few years they had found many more hominid fossils, including some that were far more plausible human ancestors and toolmakers than Zinj.
In the 1960s, Mary continued to concentrate on Olduvai Gorge, while Louis flitted between many other projects. Most notably, he was responsible for initiating Jane Goodall's decades-long field study of chimpanzees in the wild, and the similar projects of Dian Fossey (for gorillas) and Birute Galdikas (for orangutans). In 1964, Louis, along with Phillip Tobias and John Napier, named the new species Homo habilis. Although originally controversial, habilis would eventually be widely accepted as a species.
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. "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 kept wandering off from Olduvai Gorge. He was also involved with a primate research center, excavations in Ethiopia, and a search for ancient humans at Calico Hills in California (this last was considered almost a crackpot idea by most scientists), among others. In addition he was doing a lot of travelling, speaking, and fund-raising, much of it in America where he was tremendously popular. On top of everything, his health was rapidly failing, and he was plagued with serious medical problems. He collapsed and died of a heart attack in England in October 1972, aged 69.
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