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anthropologist best known for his work in the Olduvai Gorge
Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born at Kabete Mission, nine miles from Nairobi, Kenya, on August 7, 1903. His parents, Harry and Mary Leakey, were English missionaries to the Kikuyu tribe, and Louis spent the majority of his childhood in Kenya. By his teens he had learned to speak Kikuyu fluently and had been initiated as a member of the Kikuyu tribe. At 13 he discovered some ancient stone tools, and from that time he was determined to learn about the people who made them. He entered Cambridge in 1922, but was forced to withdraw in 1923 after a rugby accident. He was finally able to resume his studies in 1925, and received his degree in anthropology and archaeology in 1926. He began excavations in East Africa soon after graduating, and in 1930 he was awarded a Ph.D. for his work.
Leakey married Frida Avern, an Englishwoman he met in Africa, in 1928, who bore him two children. In 1932, Leakey discovered hominid fossils at Kanam and Kanjera (in Kenya) which he claimed represented the oldest true ancestors of modern humans. The finds brought him international acclaim, but when geologist Percy Boswell visited the sites in 1934 and 1935 (at Leakey's invitation) he was unable to verify Leakey's claims and issued a report that seriously damaged Leakey's reputation. He began an affair with Mary Nicol, a scientific illustrator, in 1933, and divorced Frida in 1936. The personal issues, combined with Boswell's report, led Leakey little choice but to leave his position at Cambridge in 1937 and return to Africa, relying on speaking fees to pay for his and Mary's archaeological work.
Leakey did intelligence work for Britain during World War II, in between his and Mary's archaeological research. In 1941 he was made honorary curator of the Coryndon Museum (now the Kenya National Museum), which though low-paying allowed him to continue his excavations; he became curator of the museum in 1945. In 1947 he organized the first-ever Pan-African Congress of Prehistory, at which he introduced scientists around the world to the work he and Mary had been doing in Kenya. The success of the Congress helped restore his reputation, and interest in his work began to grow. He began excavations at Rusinga Island in 1947, and in 1949 discovered the first-ever Pronconsul skull complete with a face.
Leakey is best known, however, for his excavations in Olduvai Gorge (now part of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania), which he began in 1959. That first year Mary Leakey found fossilized parts of the upper teeth and skull of a previously unknown hominid. The couple eventually uncovered enough pieces to create an almost complete skull. Although the skull was very similar in appearance to remains found by Raymond Dart in South Africa in 1924, Leakey was convinced the skull represented an entirely different human ancestor and named it Zinjanthropus boisei and dated it to about 1.75 million years ago, making it the oldest human ancestor ever found (according to Leakey). The find brought international acclaim to the Leakeys, and began a long-term relationship with National Geographic magazine, which also provided signifcant funding to help them expand excavations at Olduvai. By 1964 the Leakeys had found enough hominid fossils and associated artifacts to name another species, Homo habilis (handy man), the first human ancestor ever found associated with tools. Although Zinjanthropus boisei has since been reassigned to the classification Australopithecus boisei and is no longer considered a true ancestor of modern humans, the Leakeys' work at Olduvai Gorge remains important, and new excavations continue to be started on a regular basis.
By the 1960's most of the work at Olduvai was being done by Mary and son Richard., while Louis moved between a variety of projects around the world. It was Louis who encouraged Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees, Dian Fossey's with gorillas, and Birute Galdikas's with orang-utans. He helped start a primate research center, conducted excavations in Ethiopia, and helped in a search for ancient human remains at Calico Hills in California.
All the travel and work gradually took its toll on Leakey's health, and on October 1, 1972, he collapsed and died after suffering a massive heart attack. He is buried next to his parents, overlooking the Rift Valley. Mary continued working the Olduvai Gorge until her death, and Richard Leakey has gone on to become an internationally respected anthropologist in his own right.
Books by Louis Leakey
The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya Colony (1931)
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This page was last updated on 08/07/2018.