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Louis Leakey

AKA Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey

Born: 7-Aug-1903
Birthplace: Kabete, Kenya
Died: 1-Oct-1972
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, All Saint's Church Cemetery, Nairobi, Kenya

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Anthropologist

Nationality: Kenya
Executive summary: Discovered Homo Habilis

Famed for his work at Olduvai Gorge, Louis Leakey is best remembered for his early pioneering work in the field of paleontology. Along with his wife Mary Leakey he contributed groundbreaking theories and discoveries that radically altered our understanding of the path of human evolution. Ideas established by Leakey include an African genesis for humanity, multiple and parallel lines of development within human evolution, and the relevance of primatology to understanding the human story. His work brought great public attention to the field and fueled a great public interest in human evolution.

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903 at the Kabete Mission in Kenya, nine miles from Nairobi. His parents, Mary and Harry Leakey, were English missionaries working among the Kikuyu tribe. Louis grew up playing with Kikuyu children. He spoke their language as fluently as he spoke English and he learned to hunt. At the age of thirteen he was initiated into the tribe. Thus, although the family made occasional visits to England, young Louis grew up identifying more as an African than as an Englishman.

When he was thirteen Louis had discovered some stone tools. The resulting interest in prehistory eventually led to his entering Cambridge University in 1922, intent on learning more. But he was injured in rugby and was forced to postpone his studies. So he returned for a time to Africa, taking up the management of a paleontological expedition. But he returned to Cambridge in 1925, resumed his formal studies, and by 1926 had graduated with degrees in both archaeology and anthropology.

Thereafter he began his own expeditions, traveling into Tanzania to explore the fossil rich strata of Olduvai Gorge. His work attracted admiration and in 1930 he was awarded his Ph.D. At the same time, his views were deemed a bit odd for the times. That is, while prevailing wisdom held that humanity had originated in Asia (as indicated by the Java Man remains and similar fossils), Louis Leakey was obsessed with the notion, originally put forth by Charles Darwin, that man had in fact arisen in Africa. In 1932 it appeared that he had found fossil evidence to support this claim however, and he rushed into publication with the good news. It was greeted with praise by many, but other remained staunchly skeptical. To accommodate these, he invited geologist Percy Boswell to return to Africa with him (a couple years later) to verify his claims. Unfortunately however, Leakey was not able to reliably identify the site of his finds, and Boswell's verification of the geological strata could be done. In addition, the error made Leakey look scientifically sloppy and possibly inept. The incident hurt his credibility considerably and destroyed any whatever weight once given to his theories.

Meanwhile, Louis had earlier married Frida Avern, in 1928. They had a child together and in 1933, while Frida was pregnant with their second child, Louis was introduced to a young illustrator, Mary Nicol. She had been recommended to him for work on his upcoming book, Adam's Ancestors. She was shy, intelligent, and fascinated with archaeology and paleontology. Louis on the other hand was young, ruggedly handsome, and tremendously charismatic. The resultant affair ended Louis' marriage to Frida (1936), and launched what would eventually prove to be a very mutually beneficial partnership.

In the short term however, Louis' reputation at Cambridge was not helped by having a (then) scandalous affair with a younger woman. And funds were running low. In 1937 he returned to Africa and launched himself into a full scale ethnological study of the Kikuyu. By 1945, with funds still in short supply and a wife and now two young sons to support, Leakey took the position of curator at the Coryndon Memorial Museum in Nairobi (later renamed the Kenya National Museum). At the same time, from the late 30s through the early 50s, he worked for the British government, purportedly to stop the spread of anti-British propaganda. And in the 1952-53 trial of independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, Leaky served as a translator. Another side project was his involvement in the creation of East African game preserves. Of more significance to Leakey's career, he also organized, in 1947, the first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory. The tremendous success of this venture did much to improve his damaged reputation.

Meanwhile, Louis and Mary were still making pilgrimages to Olduvai and nearby parts of Tanzania to collect fossils and stone tools and make observations of local wildlife and geology. In 1948 Mary made an encouraging discovery: the fossilized teeth, jaws and half skull of an ancient ape ancestor, Proconsul africanus. Although not quite the missing link they were hoping for, it did at least hint that they were probably on the right trail. But it was another decade before they found what they had really been hoping for: a genuine early non-ape, proto-human, that appeared to belong somewhere in humanity's ancient lineage.

Louis tentatively dated the fossil at 600,000 years old. But later testing, back in England proved it to be in fact three to four times that old. The Leakeys were elated, and the National Geographic Society was considerably excited as well. They supplied not only more funding, but they also sent photographers and filmmakers aplenty to document and publicize the find. The publicity and praise brought attracted more than funds and stauts however. It also attracted enthusiastic young researchers from a diversity of scientific disciplines, launching the modern science of paleontology.

Over time, Mary continued to delve deeper into her work, making new archaeological discoveries, writing extensively about them, and setting rigorous standards for research at Olduvai. Louis meanwhile branched out more into public relations: lecturing, writing, fundraising, and recruiting young anthropologists to join them in their work, or in related topics of investigation. Passionate, charismatic, he was responsible for recruiting Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, for helping to launch the career of Biruté Galdikas, among others. Many working in the field today credit him for inspiring them to follow their own passion, and to doggedly seek out answers about our past and our relationship to other living creatures.

In 1972, Louis Leakey died in London at the age of 69. But shortly before his passing, his son Richard, with whom relations had become somewhat strained, showed him a remarkable skull unearthed at Koobi Fora. Since dated at 1.8 million years old, the skull belonged to an early human ancestor in the genus homo, suggesting, as Louis had long suspected, that human beings had not descended from Australopithecines after all. While this conclusion is still hotly debated within paleontology, what has become accepted fact is that the human family tree is much more complicated than previously believed. This new view within anthropology, of many different lines of evolutionary divergence and experimentation, was fueled in large part by the discoveries made by the Leakeys, and from work done by those they inspired. Finally, although some of his finds have been reinterpreted in later years, they have not lost their significance. And Leakey's belief in an African genesis, once considered dubious and eccentric, is now widely accepted.

Father: Harry Leakey (missionary)
Mother: Mary Leakey (missionary)
Wife: Frida Avern (m. 1928, two children)
Daughter: Priscilla
Son: Colin
Wife: Mary Leakey (anthropologist, b. 1913, d. 1996)
Son: Jonathan (b. 1940)
Son: Richard Leakey (anthropologist, b. 1944)
Son: Philip (b. 1949)

    University: BS Anthropology, Cambridge University (1926)

    Risk Factors: Malaria

Author of books:
Adam's Ancestors (1934)
Stone-Age Africa (1936)
White African (1937, memoir)
Olduvai Gorge (1952)
Mau Mau and the Kikuyu (1952)
Olduvai Gorge, 1951–61 (1965)
Unveiling Man's Origins (1969, with Jane Goodall)
Animals of East Africa (1969)
By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1932-1951 (1974, memoir)


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