The Leakey Family
Without the groundbreaking — and backbreaking — efforts of
Louis, Mary and Richard, the story of how we evolved would still
be largely untold
By DONALD C. JOHANSON for Time Magazine
Leakey's enthusiasm for Africa and the search for earliest man
were infectious. Speaking before a packed lecture hall in his
staccato-like voice, punctuated by rapid inhales, he cast a
spell, making each listener believe he was speaking only to him
or her. His following in America was cultlike. Consumed with
devotion and swept up in his charisma, many developed a desire
to follow somehow in his footsteps, to please him.
No wonder Leakey became the patriarch of a family that dominated
anthropology as no family has dominated a scientific field
before or since. Not only did Louis, his wife Mary and their
second son Richard make the key discoveries that shaped our
understanding of human origins, but they also inspired a
generation of researchers (myself included) to pick up where
they left off.
I recall with great fondness my first visit to Nairobi in 1970
when Louis ceremoniously led me to the room housing the crown
jewels of human evolution. Every fossil took on a mythical cast
as he waxed eloquent about how it revealed some magic moment of
our origins. Here he was, the grand master, sharing his passion,
knowledge and intuition with a new disciple. He was often like
that: generous, open, supportive, always trying to win new
converts to his way of working, his way of interpreting the
Born in Kenya of English missionaries, Louis was initiated by
tribal elders into the native Kikuyu society. As a young man he
was adventurous, impulsive, driven, ruggedly handsome and
romantically African. Fresh out of Cambridge, Louis set out to
prove Darwin's theory that Africa was humankind's homeland--and
to discover evidence for his own belief that true man, Homo, had
a very ancient origin.
In 1933, when Louis met and fell in love with 20-year-old Mary
Nicol, he already had a family, but in flagrant disregard of the
social norms of the time, he divorced. The synergy of Louis and
Mary's union was obvious from the outset. In contrast to Louis'
charming, gregarious, outgoing nature, Mary was shy, reserved,
socially uncomfortable and, in her own words, not very fond of
other people. Mary preferred to carefully evaluate scientific
evidence before reaching any conclusions; Louis, on the other
hand, was often impulsive and cavalier in his proclamations.
Rigorous in her approach, intensely focused and remarkably
diligent, Mary quickly set new standards in the study of African
prehistory, culminating in her stunning monographs on the
archaeology of Olduvai Gorge.
It was Mary's 1959 discovery of the Zinjanthropus cranium at
Olduvai that captured worldwide attention and made the Leakeys a
household name. Building on this find, Louis and Mary attracted
a multidisciplinary team of specialists to work at Olduvai and
launched the modern science of paleoanthropology, the study of
It was then, after decades of the Leakeys' working in isolation
and operating on shoestring budgets, that the National
Geographic Society agreed to support and promote the "Leakey
legacy." Louis was, for Geographic, everything it could have
wished for in an African adventurer. He was the self-proclaimed
Following the success of Zinjanthropus, Louis began spending
less and less time at Olduvai, which became Mary's domain. For
most of the next 25 years she worked and lived there with her
staff, her dogs and selected visitors. Until his death in 1972,
Louis visited occasionally but spent most of his time traveling
around the world, lecturing and raising funds to support an ever
expanding list of research projects. Most notable were the field
studies he launched of the living great apes: Jane Goodall's
chimps, Dian Fossey's gorillas and Birute Galdikas' orangs.
In 1978 Mary made what may have been her greatest find. Her team
was re-exploring a site in Tanzania called Laetoli — 40 years
after Louis had incorrectly assumed that the absence of tools
there implied that hominid fossils would not be found — when
they discovered a trail of remarkably clear ancient hominid
footprints impressed and preserved in volcanic ash. It was a
stunning glimpse of the world 3.6 million years ago. If only
Louis had lived to see it.
A detailed scientific study of the Laetoli hominid fossils
confirmed that they belonged to a new hominid species, best
represented by the 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton I had
discovered four years earlier at Hadar, Ethiopia. When I
presented these findings in May 1978 at a Nobel symposium in
Sweden, Mary had already agreed to be one of the coauthors on
the scientific paper defining the new species, Australopithecus
afarensis. A few months later, however, when the paper was being
printed, she cabled me demanding removal of her name. I
respected her wishes and had the title page redone. Like Louis,
she did not believe Australopithecus was our ancestor; if her
finds at Laetoli were our ancestors, they had to be Homo.
It was a blustery, wintry afternoon in 1970 at the University of
Chicago when I first met Louis and Mary's son Richard. He had
just completed a preliminary presentation on his new finds from
Lake Turkana (then Lake Rudolf). I told him I would be in
Nairobi the next summer and wanted to see his exciting hominid
fossils. A year younger than I, he had chosen, after becoming
disenchanted with the safari business, to follow in his parents'
footsteps. It appeared that he too possessed the "Leakey luck"
and was well on the way to stardom in paleoanthropology.
Our first meeting in Nairobi was cordial, and Richard dazzled me
with remarkable specimens; a friendship was simmering. Beginning
preparations for my research in Ethiopia's Afar region, I was a
frequent visitor to Nairobi, and Richard offered suggestions and
appeared supportive of my efforts. But our conversation always
had a dimension of competition, and even though we offered each
other advice, in retrospect it was as if we were looking for
chinks in each other's armor.
Both of us were strong in character and ultimately, almost
inevitably, this led to our estrangement in 1981. We were the
Young Turks of anthropology in those days, staunchly defending
our interpretations of human evolution. Perhaps now, with the
mellowing of age, it is time to break the silence.
Much like his father, Richard has strong opinions and is often
hasty to make pronouncements about his discoveries. This was
especially true when he presented, in 1972, a Homo skull that he
believed was 2.9 million years old. Adhering to his father's
belief in very early Homo, this find, older than all
Australopithecus fossils then known, was a welcome and stunning
endorsement of Louis' views. Louis and Richard had been feuding
over museum matters, and this discovery brought them together
again in a final meeting shortly before Louis died. He spent his
last days comforted by the knowledge that he had been proved
correct. Since then, however, the skull has been correctly dated
to 1.8 million years; despite Louis and Richard's objections,
most anthropologists today believe Australopithecus is indeed
one of our ancestors.
Richard, meanwhile, continued his rise to prominence. Fossil
finds such as the astonishingly complete 1.6 million-year-old
skeleton of an African Homo erectus (Homo ergaster to some) and
the Black Skull have added immeasurably to our knowledge of
human origins. His career benefited from best-selling books, a
television series on human evolution and popular lecture tours.
Paleoanthropology has not been his only passion, however. He
will probably be best remembered in Africa for founding an
opposition political party in Kenya in 1995, after which he
suffered public humiliation, including being beaten with leather
whips. But Richard has proved astonishingly resilient. Even
after a life-saving kidney transplant in 1979 (a gift from his
estranged brother Philip) and the partial loss of both legs in a
1993 plane crash, he continues to exude confidence.
In 1989 President Daniel arap Moi appointed Richard head of what
is now the Kenya Wildlife Service. Richard raised hundreds of
millions of dollars and revamped Kenya's approach to wildlife
conservation, heavily arming antipoaching units and instituting
a controversial edict permitting the shooting of poachers on
sight. He resigned in 1994 amid politically motivated
accusations of corruption, racism and mismanagement — only to be
reinstated by Moi four and a half years later.
Nevertheless, the Leakeys will forever be synonymous with
paleoanthropology and even today show all signs of being alive,
well and contributing productively to the field. Richard's wife
Meave, a trained zoologist, and their eldest daughter Louise are
currently leading teams to northern Kenya, where hominids in
excess of 4 million years old are being found. The stage is set
for the first family of anthropology to continue well into the
Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey
The British anthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey
(1903-1972) made major contributions to the study of prehistoric
The parents of L. S. B. Leakey were British missionaries who
settled at Kabete, Kenya, near Nairobi, in 1901. Leakey was born
on Aug. 7, 1903, in Kabete, where he formed lifelong friendships
with boys of the Kikuyu tribe, with whom he grew up. He is
probably the only white man to have been initiated from youth to
manhood in a Kikuyu ceremony.
After World War I Leakey went briefly to school at Weymouth
College, Dorset, England, and in 1922 he entered St. John's
College, Cambridge University. In 1923 he organized an
expedition of the British Museum to search for dinosaurs in
In 1926, after qualifying in anthropology at Cambridge, Leakey
organized and led four East African archeological expeditions.
During the third expedition, in 1931, after some very important
discoveries of the earliest known (at that time) stone tools at
Olduvai, Leakey discovered fossils of human remains at Kanam and
Kanjera in Kenya. His claims concerning these fossils, which
included the idea that Homo sapiens lived in East Africa at the
end of the Middle Pleistocene, were contested by many of his
colleagues, and it was only in 1969 that the claims received
In 1937 Leakey temporarily ceased to study prehistory in order
to spend 3 years working on a monograph of the Kikuyu tribe.
During World War II (1939-1945) he served as officer in charge
of civil intelligence in Nairobi.
Leakey always strongly supported Charles Darwin's theory that
both man and the great apes originated on the African continent.
For 40 years he and his teams patiently excavated at the
prehistoric site at Olduvai Gorge on the eastern Serengeti
Plains of Tanzania. In 1959 at Olduvai a fossil hominid skull
was discovered, which he named Zinjanthropus . In 1960 even more
important fossil fragments were discovered. These and a skull
found in 1962 at Olduvai were made the types of a new species of
man, Homo habilis. In 1962 Leakey also discovered a skull of the
type Homo erectus, previously known only in China and Java.
Other sites excavated by Leakey include the Lower Miocene sites
on Rusinga Island and Songhor, which have yielded remains of
protoman dating back 20 million years, and the site at Fort
Ternan, where Kenya pithecus wickeri was discovered. This
hominid lived about 12 million years ago.
In 1964 Leakey organized a team in the United States to excavate
near the Calico Mountains in southern California. He and his
team discovered evidence that man lived in America more than
50,000 years ago.
Leakey's publications include New Classification of Bow and
Arrow in Africa; The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya; Adam's
Ancestors; The Stone Age Races of Kenya; Stone Age Africa; Kenya
Contrasts and Problems; White African; A Contribution to the
Study of the Tumbian Culture in Kenya (with W. E. Owen);
Tentative Study of the Pleistocene Sequence and Stone Age
Cultures of N. E. Angola; Mau Mau and Kikuyu; Defeating Mau Mau;
The Miocene Hominoidea of East Africa (with Le Gros Clark); The
Pleistocene Fossil Suidae of East Africa; First Lessons in
Kikuyu; Olduvai Gorge, vol. 1, 1951-1961; Animals of East
Africa; and Unveiling Man's Origins (with Vanne Goodall).
On Oct. 1, 1972, Leakey died in London.
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