Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mary Leakey, Archaeologist and Anthropologist

Mary Leakey's discoveries in archaeology changed our theories of human development forever, radically reshaping our ideas of how long humans have existed and where and how we lived.

"You only find what you are looking for, really, if the truth be known." ~ Mary Leakey

Mary Leakey was born Mary Nicol on February 6th, 1913 in London, England. Her father was Erskine Nicol, a successful landscape painter with a passion for archaeology. He shared this love with Mary, and together they went on expeditions in Europe, including visits to the Dordogne and Les Eyzies, regions rich with prehistoric art and archaeological sites.

They viewed cave paintings at Fond de Guame and La Mouthe, and stone tools being studied by French prehistorians; these sights and experiences digging, drawing, and investigating early history lit a fire in Mary, and she became intrigued.

As she describe later in her autobiography, "For me it was the sheer instinctive joy of collecting, or indeed one could say treasure hunting: it seemed that this whole area abounded in objects of beauty and great intrinsic interest that could be taken from the ground."

Mary's interest in the worlds she explored with her father would be lifelong, but she was only 13 when he died. Mary had learned to draw, read, and excavate from her father, eschewing traditional schooling to travel and learn in the field, but after his death, everything changed.


Mary moved with her mother, Cecelia Frere, back to London where a more traditional schooling was attempted, but Mary was not used to this and did not take to it - she was expelled from two Catholic schools before her mother decided those institutions were not the best fit for her daughter.

Historians describing this phase call Mary "rebellious" and state that her mother "gave up," but really it is not surprising when you consider the schooling Mary was accustomed to, and that she was a 13-year old who had just lost the parent she held most dear.

From there, Mary built on her education by attending classes and lectures at universities, though she did not take them for credit - that was not the purpose, as far she she was concerned. She visited museums and archaeological sites and at the age of 17 assisted in a dig in southern England, directed by archaeologist Dorothy Liddell. She continued her education in the manner that she preferred: by listening and learning from others, and getting hands-on experience in the field.

Working with Dorothy Liddell was especially motivating for Mary, as Dorothy offered proof that a woman could succeed in archaeology. Mary began sketching some of the stone tools uncovered at the dig, and the drawings were viewed by Gertrude Caton-Thomas.

Impressed, Gertrude asked Mary to sketch some tools that had been discovered in Egypt and paid her for her time. This was the first time Mary earned money through her love of archaeology.


Gertrude introduced Mary to Louis Leakey, an anthropologist working in Africa. Louis was working on a book entitled Adam's Ancestors (1934), and he asked Mary to illustrate it. The two worked closely on the dig site, sharing their mutual love of archaeology, and a deeper relationship soon developed. They married in 1936 and would become a famous husband-wife team.

Mary and Louis Leakey examine the palate of "Zinjanthropus"
The couple had three sons. Remarking on his mother, Richard E. Leakey said, "Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father's career. He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician. He was much more excitable, a magician." He added "The thing about my mother is that she is very low profile and very hard working."

This regarding a woman who was described as never having the patience for formal education.

After the wedding Mary and Louis moved to Africa, following an excavation project of Louis's at the Olduvi Gorge, a ravine in what is now Tanzania, East Africa.


Mary uncovered such finds as cremation grounds, ancient tools, and pottery, introducing modern archaeological techniques to African fieldwork, but for many years the results were elusive. The couple visited Tanzania and Kenya, searching for the evidence of early humans. Funding for their efforts was hard to come by; like their fossils, it was sparse, but all that changed in 1948 when Mary made the first of her more famous discoveries.

She uncovered a perfectly preserved skull and facial bones of a hominoid, Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans that later developed into two separate species. The fossil was believed to be more than 18 million years old, and for scientists it provided "the missing link," as it was a tree-dwelling monkey with a bigger brain than anything else found from that same era.

The Leakey's continued their work at the Olduvi Gorge for many years and would uncover over 100 extinct forms of animal life but the next most significant find was made by Mary on July 17th, 1959.

While Louis rested inside that day recovering from a bout of the flu, Mary discovered a partial skull of a human ancestor, jutting out of the earth. Prior to this find, scientists believed that human-like creatures had only existed for several thousand years on earth - Mary's find offered proof that they were at least 1.75 million years old.

The fossil was named Zinjanthropus boisei. The artifact showed that the species was equipped with a small brain but large teeth and jaws, with muscles so thick they had to be anchored at a ridge along the top of the skull. It was later found to be closer to 2 million years old, an indication of how long the species had lived in Africa. It was the first such skull to be found in that region.

Mary described what the discovery of the skull meant to the field of archaeology, and for the Leakeys professionally. "For some reason, that skull caught the imagination. But what it also did, and that was very important for our point of view, it caught the imagination of the National Geographic Society, and as a result they funded us for years. That was exciting."

Trails in the Mud

Not satisfied with one find that shattered the beliefs of anthropologists and archaeologists everywhere,  in 1979 Mary made an another highly significant discovery, that of a 89-ft long trail of early human footprints.

March 26, 1981: Mary with fiberglass cast of a portion of a trail
made by 3 hominids 3.6 million years ago.
Photo by Lyn Alweis, The Denver Post
The footprints were discovered at Laetoli, and were most likely made by three of our ancestors as they walked on a soft bed of ash after a light rain. The remarkably well-preserved trail proved conclusively that hominids of that day were practicing bipedal locomotion, and were dated to about 3.6 million years of age, much earlier than previously thought by scientists.

Mary retired from active fieldwork in 1983, then moved from the Olduvi Gorge to Nairobi. She lived there for 20 years and continued to make valuable contributions to science by writing articles about her discoveries, and publishing her autobiography. She died at the age of 83, in 1993.


"I'd rather be in a tent than in a house."

"I dug things up. I was curious. I liked to draw what I found."

Regarding what it was like to be a woman in her profession: "'What was it like to be a woman? A mother? A wife?' I mean that is all such nonsense. I was never conscious of (my gender). I am not lying for the sake of anything. I never felt disadvantaged."

  • Mary Leakey Biography, Biography.com Editors, Biography.com, 2016
  • Mary Leakey, Leakey: A Century of the Family in East Africa, Leakey.com, 2016
  • Mary Leakey: Unearthing History - Scientific American, Marguerite Holloway, ScientificAmerican. com, December 16, 1996

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