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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Our Neighbor, Australopithecus: The Anthropology of Mary Leakey

The 1960s and early 1970s were the Rock Star era of palaeoanthropology, when each year seemed to bring a stunning new glimpse into the early development of man, and being a top anthropologist was to be a household name on par with Buzz Aldrin or Leonard Bernstein. And while individual superstars like Donald Johanson shone meteorically from time to time in the firmament, the era as a whole belonged to one ruling dynasty, the Leakey clan: first Louis, then his son Richard and daughter-in-law Meave, then their daughter Louise, and through it all the guiding rigor of Mary, discoverer of the Laetoli footprints, the first Proconsul africanus skull, and the Zinjanthropus specimen.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), born Mary Douglas Nicol, is the patron saint of misbehaved youths. Her father was a painter who traveled the world in search of subjects, bringing his family with him. As such, Mary’s youth was full of exotic locations, visits to ancient cave paintings, and no formal schooling of any kind. Her parents twice attempted to place her in a proper learning environment, each experiment ending in quick disaster as Mary pushed herself to misbehave outrageously in order to secure an expulsion from the dread confines of school. She never passed a single examination in all of her life, but her time as a wild vagabond child gave her something more valuable than good marks – curiosity untrammeled by schooling, and a heart free of narrow national prejudice.

When she finally made up her mind to work in anthropology, she made the unprecedentedly bold move of asking Oxford if she could attend university there in spite of never having had any actual classes, to which they answered a quite patient but firm In No Way. Undaunted, Mary wrote to every anthropologist of note carrying out field work in England, volunteering her services, until she was finally accepted by the great Dorothy Liddell (1890-1938) to help on the 1930 Hemburg dig, a British Neolithic site of growing importance. While gathering practical experience, she also made a name for herself as a deft and accurate illustrator of stone artifacts, in which capacity she was introduced to Louis Leakey (1903-1972).

Ten years her senior, and already a rising star in the anthropological community for his work at Lake Elmenteita, he was also positively stuffed with that fatal attribute, charisma. Mary and Louis soon fell in love, a fact complicated by the small problem that Louis was already quite married, with a baby on the way. In a move that stunned the academic community, Louis left his wife and newborn child to live with Mary in a romantically ramshackle house with a garden, but without indoor plumbing. He wrote and she illustrated, and together they worked towards their mutual ambition: a return to Africa.

And it was Africa that was to be their home from 1935 through the rest of their careers, living in whatever temporary structures their at first pitifully meager finances could scrape together, out under the East African sky. Amid a growing menagerie of personal pets that included an ever-present fleet of Dalmatians, but also at various times a wildebeest that thought it was a dog, a baboon, a cheetah, various hyraxes, and every type of snake ever, Mary and Louis worked at Olduvai Gorge and other sites throughout Kenya and Tanzania, finding assortments of stone tools and taking in the great rock paintings of Africa as they were before their vandalism became a routine fact of African life in the 1970s. Working on the slimmest of budgets, they dragged on piecemeal from year to year, through the Second World War, and into 1948, when Mary made her first big discovery – the skull of a Proconsul africanus (now classified as Proconsul heseloni), a Miocene era primate that flourished some 14 to 23 million years ago, and which carried a mixture of ape and monkey-like physical characteristics, and a larger than average brain.

The find created a sensation, with a herd of photographers waiting to snap photos of Mary as she returned to England with the small skull. With fame came the first trickling of steady funding, allowing the Leakeys to expand their work at Olduvai, and Mary to undertake a three month project in 1951 to record the rock paintings of Tanzania. These were vibrant slashes of art, each painted over top of the last, and it was Mary’s intention to trace and reproduce the most singular of these samples of ancient art in their last full vibrancy. For three months, she compiled hundreds of paintings, later reproduced in her majestic Africa’s Vanishing Art (1983), each a whisper of the world as ancient man saw it. Returning to the site two decades later, Mary noted that most of the paintings had been defaced or simply destroyed, leaving only her pile of illustrations to speak their story.

If Proconsul was Mary’s first hit, and the rock paintings her follow up Legitimate Artist album, 1959 brought the mature work that solidified her status as a paleoanthropological superstar, the discovery of a skull (designated OH 5 or “Dear Boy”) Louis controversially decided was different enough from the Paranthropus samples it most closely resembled to deserve its own genus, naming it Zinjanthorpus boisei (now known as Paranthropus boisei or, according to those who doubt the uniqueness of the entire Paranthropus genus, as Australopithecus boisei) in honor of the Leakey’s most generous patron, Charles Boise.

Zinj featured abnormally large sized cheekbones indicating a powerful bite capacity, and an unusually small size for the protrusion at the back of the skull that joins up with the neck vertebra. Small in brain capacity but still, as Mary would later dramatically discover, bipedal, Zinj appeared an experiment in evolution that ultimately didn’t have what it took to thrive. In a further dramatic flourish, a Homo habilis skull, hand, and foot were discovered nearby soon after, establishing against all established wisdom that the early hominin Australopithecus and archaic human Homo habilis were contemporaries, both walking the plains of East Africa some 1.8 million years ago.

It was a vastly important find, only rivaled by Johanson’s Lucy discovery and her own Laetoli work a decade and a half later, and it allowed Louis to kick his fundraising genius into full swing while Mary built up regular facilities for permanent work at Olduvai. And that was where the sadness began, for while Louis was away, Mary was working, and their son Richard was steadily attempting to make his own name as an anthropologist, the family grew steadily apart, seeing each other rarely, and looking critically upon each other’s occupations. Louis was the toast of the California trendy set, given to broad scientific speculation, and prone to starting up new projects that required new sources of funding instead of concentrating on the work he had directly before him, tendencies which Mary couldn’t abide as she saw them working against her own rigorous scientific standards and dividing Louis’s attention, culminating in the tragic farce of his Calico Hills excavations, into which he positively poured funding and publicly declared on very loose evidence that they represented dramatic proof of humans in the Americas a hundred thousand years ago (the accepted date at the time being around twelve thousand years, and the current around fifteen thousand years), and fumed at Mary for not supporting him.

In addition to his profligacy in beginning new scientific projects from nothing, Louis was similarly immoderate in his appetite for young women, and carried out countless affairs during the course of his marriage to Mary, who was left on her own keeping the Olduvai excavations efficiently running while Louis roamed the world, overstated the nature of her work, supped with the wealthy, and sought women half (and eventually a quarter) his age for sex and companionship. Little surprise, then, that those who visited Olduvai reported Mary as an uncompromising but brilliant and scientifically rigorous director with an acerbic wit, little faith in humanity outside a chosen few who weren’t on her “Stinker’s List,” and a tendency to drown her sorrows at night in heavy alcohol consumption.

Her son Richard, meanwhile, was hardly a comfort during these hard times. As Mary continued working at Olduvai into her sixties, Richard told her that she should retire in words that were, according to Peter Jones, less than diplomatic: “Mary, listen, forget it. Why don’t you just calm down and stop trying. Don’t get yourself in trouble. You’ve done all you can do. You’re on the shelf.” Harsh words from a son who seemed more interested in not having his mother’s work reflect poorly on his own than in what actually would make her happiest, but they did not secure their objective, and instead just motivated Mary to push all the harder, investigating a new site some thirty miles to the south of her Olduvai camp. This new work at Laetoli resulted in 1974 in the discovery of a Homo-appearing jawbone that was some one million years older than existing Homo specimens (and which would lie at the core of a sprawling nomenclature battle between herself and Lucy-discoverer Don Johanson, who sought to absorb it into his own system for ancient man), and culminated in 1978 in one of the greatest, and most stunning, anthropological discoveries of the Twentieth Century, the Laetoli footprints.

Three and a half million years ago, there was a period of a few hours when a layer of volcanic ash was rained gently upon, rendering all of the footprints of the creatures who had walked that stretch of ground in that brief amount of time as permanent cement casts. Mary and her workers discovered, in and amongst some 9,525 sets of animal tracks, a line of unusually long hominid footprints, then another smaller set next to it, extending for dozens of feet through the solidified ash. Upon closer inspection, Mary’s team saw that, within the abnormally long tracks, there was a third, smaller set of prints. What they had was, in essence, the echo of two adults and a child, walking across the African plain together, 3.5 million years ago, the child following in one of the adults’ footsteps, as modern primates do when under stress, and modern children do just for the fun of it. It was a totally improbable, beautifully human find that not only proved the bipedalism of Australopithecus, but captured the imagination of the world. In that 80 foot track, we could all see something of ourselves, of our inherent, instinctual, and ancient need for each other, and our continuity even with extinct branches of our distant past.

Work at the Laetoli site continued through 1981, and included the discovery of fifteen new animal species, but in 1982 a thrombosis that left Mary blind in one eye combined with the endless pressure to secure funding for her work, and the declining political situation in Tanzania to convince her that it was perhaps time to retire after all, and return to the home she had shared with Louis in Nairobi, which she did in 1983. She continued working on her exhaustive account of her two decades at Olduvai, composed her memoirs in 1984, and lived with her dalmatians and memories in Nairobi until her death in 1996.


Mary’s autobiography, Disclosing the Past, is an interesting book. It swings between passages of unchecked enthusiasm for the landscape of Africa, with the beauty of its animals and prehistoric past, and sections describing people which offer little more warmth than “He was a good anthropologist, and we are also still in touch.” That’s part of the charm of the book, I think, just how insistently non-sentimental it can be at times, in a perfect reflection of Mary’s oft-expressed indifference/active aversion to, people. Mary frankly talks about being underwhelmed by the arrival of her first son, and rarely manages an enthusiasm for a human on the level that she regularly evinces for volcanic ash layers. In the book, she’s an emotional fortress who gets her work done even when those closest to her are manifestly betraying her confidence. For an outside perspective, Virginia Morell’s Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings (1995) is a full and engaging account of the feuds and triumphs of the Leakeys up to the early 1990s.

This episode was originally published as the 23rd column in the Women In Science series, in 2014.


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