Anthropologists: 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

  • Louis 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 past. 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 human origins.

    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 white African.

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