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Mary Leakey

AKA Mary Douglas Nicol

Born: 6-Feb-1913
Birthplace: London, England
Died: 9-Dec-1996
Location of death: Nairobi, Kenya
Cause of death: unspecified

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

Nationality: Kenya
Executive summary: Discovered Proconsul

Anthropologist Mary Leakey is best known for her work at Olduvai Gorge, especially her discovery of Zinjathropus Man (a.k.a. "Zinjanthropus bosei" or "Australopithecus boisei"), a discovery which indicated that human ancestors originated in Africa and that the human lineage stretched back farther than had previously been imagined. She is also associated with her famous husband and son archaeologists, Louis Leakey and Richard Leakey. Her co-discovery of the famed Laetoli footstep fossils pushed back the apparent date of human bipedalism to roughly three million years, and forced scientists to rethink the causal relationship between bipedalism and brain expansion.

She was born Mary Douglas Nicols on February 6, 1913 in London, England. Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a painter who specialized in landscapes. Because of his work the family moved often, and young Mary had the mixed fortune to experience life in a variety of towns and countries, including Switzerland, Italy, and France. Because of all the traveling her formal education was spotty. But her father supplemented her education, teaching her to write and sharing his interest in archaeology.

While they were in France the family visited the cave art in the Dordogne region, and they had the good fortune to meet prehistorians Father Abbe Lemozi and M. Elie Peyrony. Both allowed Mary was able to vist the sites of their investigations, further sparking her interest in the subject of archaeology. Unfortunately it was also during their stay in France that Mary’s father died quite suddenly. He was 58 years old, not a young man. But Mary was only thirteen years old. The trauma of this event, coupled with additional changes as she and her mother returned to London, launched a period of rebellion that caused her expulsion from two separate Catholic schools. Mary's side of the story was the schools were simply "wholly unconnected with the realities of life".

However, four years later however in 1930, she was studiously hard at work, auditing university courses in archaeology and geology, participating in archaeological digs, and working as a scientific illustrator. It was her illustrations for The Desert Fayoum, a book by anthropologist Gertrude Canton-Thompson, that caused her to cross paths with Louis Leakey at Cambridge in 1933. Caton-Thompson, with Mary had become friends, invited her to a dinner party in Louis Leakey's honor. At dinner the pair fell to talking and Leaky asked her to illustrate his forthcoming book, Adam’s Ancestors.

The following year, in 1934, Mary expanded her archaeological skills under the mentorship of excavation expert Dorothy Liddell. And later in the year she undertook her own excavation at Jaywick Sands, near Clacton in Essex. She also published her first scientific paper. Meanwhile, her relationship with Louis Leakey intensified, and took a most unprofessional twist. Although Louis already had a wife and child, with another child on the way, Louis and Mary launched an impetuous affair. The affair led to Louis divorcing first wife Frida in 1936.

Mary and Louis were married soon after and began their work together in Africa. Ultimately, they would spend the next twenty years digging through Africa’s famed Olduvai Gorge in search of proof of Louis’ pet theory -- an African origin for human ancestors. At last, in 1959, it was Mary who made the long hoped for discovery: hominid remains that predated any previously found. The breakthrough lent credence to the theory that Africa, not Asia was the cradle of humanity-- and it also indicated that humanity had a much more ancient lineage than had previously been suspected. Louis dubbed the celebrated fossil, "Zinjanthropus bosei" (since reclassified as "Australopithecus boisei").

Within a few years the fame that this discovery brought to the Leakey’s endeavor frequently kept Louis away from Olduvai, as lectured, raised funds, and networked. Relationships with other women also crept into his itinerary and this, as well as his travel placed a strain on the relationship. From the mid 60s or so onward the couple led essentially separate lives.

In 1978 Mary Leakey, along with her team of archaeologists, made another headline grabbing discovery -- fossilized footprints at Laetoli. Originally made in mud and then filled with ash from a volcano, the prints fossilized some 3 to 3.5 million years ago, leaving evidence of the passage of what appeared to be an upright, bipedal hominid, possibly Australopithecus afarensis. The discovery required major revisions in theories about human evolution because it showed that bipedalism may have predated brain expansion. In addition, the site also yielded a wealth of hominid and animal fossils, making it one of the richest finds ever.

Other significant finds by Mary Leakey included her 1961 find of what appeared to be the earliest tool user, Homo Habilis. Earlier, in 1948, she uncovered the fossilized teeth, jaws and half skull of an ancient ape ancestor, Proconsul africanus. The find foreshadowed her find, a decade later, of Zinjathropus bosei.

In 1983, after some forty-five years of active fieldwork, Mary Leaked retired, leaving the dig site camp at Olduvai Gorge for the relatively settled environs of Nairobi. She died in 1996 at the age of eighty-three, leaving the discipline of anthropology with the legacy of her example for scientific rigor and meticulousness, and boundless patience and persistence.

Mother: Cecilia
Husband: Louis Leakey (anthropologist, m. 24-Dec-1936, until his death)
Son: Jonathan (b. 1940)
Son: Richard Leakey (anthropologist, b. 1944)
Son: Philip (b. 1949)
Father: (d. 1926)

    University: University of London

Author of books:
Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979)
Disclosing the Past (1984, memoir)


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