Mary Leakey

From Bones of Contention by Roger Lewin © John Reader

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the study of human origins has been synonymous with one name: Louis Leakey. Yet, as his son Richard Leakey observed, Louis's fame would not have been possible without his wife Mary.

When Mary Leakey (originally Mary Nicol) was little, her artistic father took her to see ancient cave paintings in France, inspiring her interest in both art and early humans. Her father died when she was still quite young, and the rebellious girl managed to get herself expelled twice. She didn't pursue an academic degree, but she began working on archaeological expeditions at the age of 17, and her intelligence eventually caught the attention of her future husband, already a well known researcher, who asked her to illustrate a book. Louis and Mary soon fell in love.

After a scandalous separation from his first wife, Louis took Mary Nicol to Africa, and they toiled for many years without much success. While Louis looked for fossils, Mary concentrated primarily on stone tools, although she made significant fossil finds. In 1948 she found Proconsul, a 16-million-year-old link between monkeys and apes. In 1959, Louis Leakey found sudden fame with the discovery of Paranthropus boisei, formally named after a benefactor (Charles Boise) and nicknamed Zinj, or "Nutcracker man." Academics and reporters usually mentioned as an afterthought that it was really his wife who found the fossil. (Louis, who was sick with a fever when she found it, joked that he immediately recovered when she told him about her find.) In 1978, Mary Leakey announced another remarkable find: the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania. Different parts of the Laetoli site were designated with different letters, and these prints were found at site G. The footprints provided definitive proof that hominids walked upright as much as 3.6 million years ago. The short stride lengths of the prints, however, demonstrated that the print makers walked on legs much shorter than those of most hominid species who evolved later.

Laetoli trackway replica from the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Momotarou2012 (some rights reserved)

Donald Johanson and Tim White included Mary Leakey's Laetoli hominids in their definition of the species Australopithecus afarensis. In fact, although the species is most frequently associated with Johanson's most famous fossil find, Lucy, the type specimen for the species is simply the mandible of an adult male from Laetoli. Relations between Mary Leakey and Johanson and White subsequently soured. Accounts differ as to who was in the wrong. In one version, Johanson and White reasonably believed Mary Leakey was happy to be a coauthor on their paper describing the species, and she demanded her name be removed from the author list at the last minute, prompting the destruction of an entire print run of the journal. In another version, Johanson and White ignored Mary Leakey's reasonable objections and used her name on their paper as a career-advancement strategy. Either way, Johanson's decision to name the species based on one location (Ethiopia) while designating a type specimen collected hundreds of miles away (Tanzania) might be euphemized as "unusual." Critics might also argue that the choice of type specimen smelled of colonialism. A type specimen is supposed to remain in the country where it was found. Because she wasn't officially the type specimen, Lucy was free to travel elsewhere, and spent years touring museums in the United States.

The trackway that became famous in the late 1970s wasn't the only Laetoli trackway Leakey's team found. In 1976, Peter Jones and Philip Leakey found a smaller set of tracks, just five consecutive prints, at Laetoli site A. At the time, Mary Leakey suggested the tracks might belong to a hominin, but one with an unusual gait. Soon eclipsed by the site G tracks, this smaller trackway was more perplexing, and reexamined in 2019. An international team compared the tracks to those of a bear, chimp, and human. The tracks didn't match any of the groups closely, but the team concluded they were closest to human prints, albeit a hominin who crossed one foot in front of the other before touchdown, like a model on a catwalk.

By the time Mary Leakey discovered the Laetoli footprints, her son Richard had made impressive discoveries of his own, including the oldest known examples of Homo sapiens, discovered in 1967 in the Omo River region of southern Ethiopia.

The passion that characterized Mary's early marriage to Louis Leakey gradually waned, and the couple assumed a businesslike relationship. Louis was often away managing other projects or raising funds, and Mary Leakey kept excavating at Olduvai Gorge until 1984, often coping with meager funds. Unlike her husband, she took a methodical approach to her work, and over the years, her careful analysis won her several honorary degrees, the Golden Linnaean Medal, and membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Mary Leakey's acceptance of her first honorary doctorate changed her relationship with Louis. Before she became Dr. Leakey, Mary often directed scientific inquiries to her husband, and kept quiet when she disagreed with his interpretations. Afterwards, she was more independent, though she still remained reticent. "I never felt interpretation was my job," she once remarked in an interview with Scientific American. "There is so much we do not know, and the more we do know, the more we realize that early interpretations were completely wrong." She just wanted to excavate.

Google's Doodle, published February 6, 2013

By the time Louis Leakey died in 1972, he and Mary had effectively been separated for years, and she wasn't always on the friendliest terms with her sons, either, though Richard did persuade his mother to avoid further collaborations in apartheid South Africa. As the years passed, she became known for liking animals far better than people. After she adopted her first Dalmatian for security when Louis had to be away, she adopted nearly the entire breed. Gaggles of Dalmatians followed her everywhere, and hyraxes roamed her dinner table, at liberty to munch on the meals of her sometimes-nervous human guests. When it came to her relationships with other people, her reputation is mixed. On the one hand, she reputedly maintained a "Stinkers' List" of individuals she couldn't abide, preferred dining alone to hanging around the campfire with her workers, and permitted neither singing nor idle chatter on her digs. Yet she retained a close circle of friends throughout her life, and her scientific contributions more than made up for her often prickly personality. Anthropologist Charles Musiba, who considers Mary Leakey a mentor, describes her personality as "gentle but no-nonsense."

In 1996, Mary Leakey died at the age of 83. On February 6, 2013, Google commemorated the centennial of her birth with a Google Doodle, featuring fossil footprints, shovels, brushes, and two specimens of her beloved Dalmatians.

Home | Goof Gallery | Timeline | Biographies | Evolution | References | Search | Email