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

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    Following the success of Zinjanthropus, Louis began spending less and less time at Olduvai, which became Mary's domain. For most of the next 25 years she worked and lived there with her staff, her dogs and selected visitors. Until his death in 1972, Louis visited occasionally but spent most of his time traveling around the world, lecturing and raising funds to support an ever expanding list of research projects. Most notable were the field studies he launched of the living great apes: Jane Goodall's chimps, Dian Fossey's gorillas and Birute Galdikas' orangs.

    In 1978 Mary made what may have been her greatest find. Her team was re-exploring a site in Tanzania called Laetoli--40 years after Louis had incorrectly assumed that the absence of tools there implied that hominid fossils would not be found--when they discovered a trail of remarkably clear ancient hominid footprints impressed and preserved in volcanic ash. It was a stunning glimpse of the world 3.6 million years ago. If only Louis had lived to see it.

    A detailed scientific study of the Laetoli hominid fossils confirmed that they belonged to a new hominid species, best represented by the 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton I had discovered four years earlier at Hadar, Ethiopia. When I presented these findings in May 1978 at a Nobel symposium in Sweden, Mary had already agreed to be one of the coauthors on the scientific paper defining the new species, Australopithecus afarensis. A few months later, however, when the paper was being printed, she cabled me demanding removal of her name. I respected her wishes and had the title page redone. Like Louis, she did not believe Australopithecus was our ancestor; if her finds at Laetoli were our ancestors, they had to be Homo.

    It was a blustery, wintry afternoon in 1970 at the University of Chicago when I first met Louis and Mary's son Richard. He had just completed a preliminary presentation on his new finds from Lake Turkana (then Lake Rudolf). I told him I would be in Nairobi the next summer and wanted to see his exciting hominid fossils. A year younger than I, he had chosen, after becoming disenchanted with the safari business, to follow in his parents' footsteps. It appeared that he too possessed the "Leakey luck" and was well on the way to stardom in paleoanthropology.

    Our first meeting in Nairobi was cordial, and Richard dazzled me with remarkable specimens; a friendship was simmering. Beginning preparations for my research in Ethiopia's Afar region, I was a frequent visitor to Nairobi, and Richard offered suggestions and appeared supportive of my efforts. But our conversation always had a dimension of competition, and even though we offered each other advice, in retrospect it was as if we were looking for chinks in each other's armor.

    Both of us were strong in character and ultimately, almost inevitably, this led to our estrangement in 1981. We were the Young Turks of anthropology in those days, staunchly defending our interpretations of human evolution. Perhaps now, with the mellowing of age, it is time to break the silence.

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