The Legacy of Louis Leakey

The search for the explanation of human origins is the goal and often life long commitment of many Anthropologists. Every time a major discovery is made we move closer to discovering a piece of the puzzle that is human evolution. Major contributions have been made by a number of men and women. Some of the more famous names like Raymond Dart, and Tim White are known for the huge discoveries they made. However, no name is more famous in the search for human origins then Leakey. The Leakey legacy began with Louis Leakey more then seventy years ago when he graduated from Cambridge University.
Mary Leakey became part of the legacy with her marriage to Louis in 1934. Richard Leakey, son of Mary and Louis, and his wife Meave Leakey further added to the accomplishments of his family by following in his parents footsteps. It is the amazing dedication of each member in the Leakey family that separates them from other anthropologists, and makes them the greatest contributors in the search for an explanation to our past. Louis Leakey was born near Nairobi, Kenya in 1903. His birth was the beginning of a family legacy in Archeology that still continues today. Some people say he was born to be an archaeologist.
L. Leakey went to school at Cambridge University, majoring in Anthropology. After graduating in 1926, Leakey got a job as an African expert on an archaeological mission to Tanzania. Afterward, he returned to Cambridge to continue his studies of Anthropology. While studying again at Cambridge Louis began to develop his view that early man had developed in Africa. Louis left Cambridge returning again to Tanzania to study the Olduvai Gorge and the Homo sapiens skeleton. He was amazed with his work at Olduvai but decided he could always come back so he left to go on his own expeditions.

Louis Leakey was now 23 and studying many sites where he found many interesting things, such as tools, bones and other artifacts. A few years of this fieldwork gained Leakey honorable recognition from other archaeologists, and subsequently he was awarded with a two year Fellowship at St. John”s College in England. Louis was now a very busy man, he published his first book The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya Colony during this time. Also, while working at St. John”s Leakey got a grant to return to Olduvai Gorge. Louis Leakey was beginning to become a big name in the world of Archeology.
Working at Olduvai Gorge he discovered the oldest Homo sapiens in the world. However, many people had begun to contradict his theories on human origins and their roots in Africa. Louis continued to make discoveries in Africa where he found older skulls that could be proved of their age. On returning to England, Louis was shocked to find out that his reputation was in great danger. However, these doubts did not last long after he argued his reputation back at a conference in Cambridge. People were once again starting to believe in his discoveries.
Louis Leakey”s problems were not over after the conference in Cambridge. In 1936 he encountered financial problems, so he was forced to write his autobiography, White Africa. That book along with another, about the Kikuyu culture, was enough to bring him out of debt. At this same time he met his wife to be, Mary Nicol. Mary was also interested in human origins and would go on to further enhance the Leakey legacy (see later section focused on Mary Leakey). In 1939 Leakey became a Civilian Intelligence Officer for the Kenyan government, and was later drafted to the African Intelligence Department.
At the end of WWII his work included collecting information for the government as a spy. In June of 1947, Leakey returned to Archaeology at an excavation site on Rusinga Island. He discovered the first Proconsul skull with a complete face in 1949. Unfortunately for Leakey this was not the missing link, but it was a link between monkey and ape. The discovery also blessed Louis with an increase of research funds. With the much-needed money Leakey continued work at Rusinga where he found more artifacts, and more Proconsul remains.
In 1951 Louis decided to return to the site were he began his work. He and Mary went back to the Olduvai site, here he searched for the man that created tools. This is where Louis would make his greatest discovery. In 1959 his excavations paid off, Leakey and his wife found a new skeleton that he called “Zinj”. The skeleton was put on display at the fourth Pan African Congress where it caused madness among the people there. It also caused Louis and Mary some new worldwide fame, and a considerable amount of money to continue excavation work at Olduvai.
In his final years Louis worked at the Corynkon Museum and Mary took over the excavation with Louis visiting in all of his free time. Louis died in 1972 of a heart attack at the age of 69. Louis had only begun to uncover the many mysteries that the Leakeys are known for. His wife Mary continued the work he started and began her own legacy with many new discoveries. Mary D. Leakey was born Mary Nicol on February 6, 1913 in London, England. She lived a difficult childhood which saw her growing up in a number of different countries, and finally in Dorgogne.
It was there at the age of eleven that her interest was sparked in prehistory after meeting Abbe Lemozi, who was excavating at the Cavrerets. Upon her father”s death in 1926, Mary”s life changed drastically. Her mother sent her to Catholic convent after convent where she was repeatedly expelled. Although Mary”s childhood education was not all that impressive, she vowed to earn a degree in prehistory after seeing the caves of Dorgogne. As a result of amazing determination, she began attending lectures at the University of London concerning archaeology and geology.
Mary”s first opportunity to enter the field occurred when her incredible drawing skills were discovered by Dr. Gertrude Canton-Thompson who asked her to illustrate her book The Desert Fayoum. Dr. Canton-Thompson changed Mary”s life forever by arranging for her to meet Louis Leakey while he was giving a talk at the Royal Anthropologists Institute. Mary impressed him with her illustrations from The Desert Fayoum and he in turn asked her to illustrate his book, Adam”s Ancestors. Her acceptance was the beginning of a relationship that only grew from there.
In May of 1934, Mary began her first important excavation at Hembury Fort in Devon. Mary learned many things from her leader Dorothy Liddell, who was an expert in excavation techniques. In the September of the same year, Mary began her own excavation at Jaywick Sands near Clacton in Essex and also published her first scientific paper. Mary joined her husband to work at Olduvai Gorge from 1935 to 1959. Together they worked to reconstruct many Stone Age cultures dating as far back as 100,000 to two million years ago.
Their documentation of stone tools covered primitive stone-chopping instruments to multi-purpose hand axes. In 1947, Mary and Louis unearthed a Proconsul africanus skull on Rusinga Island. The twenty million-year-old skeleton led to Mary and Louis jointly being awarded the Stopes Medal from the Geological Association. Mary continued work with her husband making numerous discoveries. In 1959 they discovered a 1. 75 million-year-old Australopithecus boisei skull. Not long after that discovery, a less robust Homo habilis skull and bones of a hand were found.
Both fossils were believed to be of stone-tool peoples. Continued efforts blessed them with the uncovering of a Homo erectus cranium in 1965. The sample is thought to be one million years old. Mary made her first trip to the United States in March of 1962, when she and Louis once again jointly receive honors with the Gold Hubbard Medal (the highest honor from the National Geographic Society). Mary continued her amazing career by earning her first Honorary Degree from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Mary”s life was turned upside down in 1972 when Louis died. Mary decided to continue the work her husband loved so much, and proceeded on with work at Olduvai and Laetoli. It was at Laetoli where she discovered Homo fossils more than 3. 75 years old, fifteen new species and one new genus. Mary”s greatest achievement was the discovery of the famous Laetoli hominid footprint trail, which was left in volcanic ashes 3. 6 million years ago. Mary and her staff worked for years to uncover the footprint. The find at Laetoli was huge in the argument for bipedalism in hominids.
The years that followed were filled with research at Olduvai and Laetoli, the follow-up work and preparing publications. Mary retired in 1984, and spent the rest of her time writing until her death in 1996 at the age of 83. Mary”s death could have signified the end of the Leakey legacy. However, Mary and Louis”s son Richard has followed right behind his parents and continued the Leakey tradition. Richard Leakey was raised by the world”s best-known archaeologists. He grew up observing and tracking Africa”s rich diversity of wildlife while his parents were discovering ancient pre-human bones in Tanzania”s Olduvai Gorge.
Richard left high school at the age of seventeen to begin a career working with wildlife and leading a photographic safari company. Richard eventually began to focus more on Archaeology and in 1968 he made his first important fossil finds when his team uncovered unusually well preserved ancient human remains in Kenya”s Lake Turkana region. In the same year, Leakey, then only 23, was hired as director of the National Museum of Kenya which, over the course of 21 years, he was to build into one of the most respected museums in Africa.
In 1984, Richard and his “Hominid Gang” of fossil hunters discovered fragments of a boy”s skull that were more then 1. 5 million years old. They soon unearthed virtually the entire skeleton of what was dubbed the “Turkana Boy”, which is recognized as one of the most significant paleoanthropological discoveries of all time. In 1970, Richard married Meave Leakey who he had worked with for about a year at the Koobi Fora site on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. They had two children, Louise and Samira, in 1972 and 1974 respectively. Meave became the final ingredient in the Leakey legacy.
As well as continuing with the fieldwork at Turkana, Meave”s research has focused on the evolution of east African fossil mammals and mammalian faunas as documented in the Turkana basin. Meave became the coordinator of the National Museum”s palaeontological field research, when Richard Leakey left his job as Director of the National Museum to take over the management of Kenya”s wildlife. She has focused her work on sites between 8 and 4 million years old. Her work led to the 1994 discovery of the earliest known hominids. These finds represent a new species, Australopithecus anamensis, likely an ancestor of afarensis.
Richard and Meave still to this day are carrying on the Leakey tradition of excellence in Archaeology. Louis, Mary, Richard, and Meave Leakey truly are the greatest Anthropologists to ever share one name. Between them they have made countless discoveries which each dramatically contributed to our understanding of human origins. The Leakey tradition is one of dedication, honor, and amazing accomplishment. Their involvement in our search for an explanation of human evolution has truly become a legacy. The Leakey legacy will always be remembered as the greatest contribution to the search for answers.

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