9th December 1996 the Death of Mary Leakey

Mary Leakey

No matter who we are and what we think, the beautiful truth is that we are all children of Africa. It was in no small part the painstaking work of Mary Leakey that revealed this. For more than 50 years under hot African skies, archaeologist Mary grubbed around in the earth searching doggedly for clues that would reveal the truth about human physical and cultural evolution. And, man, did she find them.

Born in London on 6 February 1913, Mary was rubbish at school; she couldn’t even pass exams in French, in which she was fluent having spent much of her childhood in France. Aged 12 her passion for prehistory was ignited when in the Dordogne, she was wowed by cave paintings. Unqualified in anything and unable to get into university, she had only a talent for drawing and an insatiable curiosity in prehistory. Unregistered, she attended university archaeology lectures and joined various archaeological digs.

“I dug things up. I was curious, and I liked to draw what I found,” she later said.

Her illustrations would lead to her meeting and falling for archaeologist Louis Leakey. In 1936, after Louis’ messy divorce, they finally married and had three sons, Jonathan, Richard and Philip, all of who would make their mark in the field of archaeology. But it was not to be the easiest of marriages. Louis was a womaniser and basked in self-publicity.

It was Mary and Louis’ discoveries in East Africa which made the Leakey name synonymous with hominoid archaeology. She fell in love with Africa, loved living in tents, and at various excavations in Kenya and Tanzania, she simultaneously raised her sons, kept a pack of dogs, smoked cigars, quaffed single malt and dug and dug and dug and dug.

At Olorgesailie, near Nairobi, she unearthed numerous handaxes and fossils and realised that she had found a place where early hominids had actually once lived and thrived 100,000 to two million years ago. She was on to something. Each new find, publicised by Louis with lectures, broadcasts and after-dinner speeches, seemed to be proving that East Africa was indeed the cradle of humanity. Mary’s methodical evidence-gathering, her scientific cataloguing, report-writing and sheer bloody hard work backed-up all Louis’ flashy raconteuse.

Her spectacular finds include: the skull of Proconsul africanus, a fossil ape; a 1.8 million-year-old skull of Australopithecus boisei, the so-called nutcracker man because of his huge teeth and jaws; and the bones of Homo habilis surrounded by stone tools. Reconstructing the bones, she revealed that Homo habilis was dextrous and had a brain big enough to make and use tools. It was a sensation and blew out of the water any theories that the origins of modern humans were to be found in Asia.

From 1968 until Louis’ death in 1972, Mary and Louis lived separate lives. He loved celebrity lecture tours and fundraising, while she loved only digging at Olduvai in Tanzania, which had by this time become her home, as it was to so many of our human ancestors. Mary had worked most of her life in Louis’s shadow but her most remarkable discovery came in 1978 when her team spotted, quite by chance, what she thought might be footprints of a human ancestor.

And so on 2 August 1978, on hands and knees, Mary spent hours with a paintbrush and toothpick to carefully reveal the well-preserved imprints of heel, toes and arch. Exposed by erosion, she deduced that the tracks had been made by an early bipedal hominid. She stood up, lit a fine Havana and declared: ”Now this really is something to put on the mantelpiece!”

The trail of footprints went for 75 feet. Two or three people had walked here 3.7 million years ago; a large one, perhaps male, a smaller one, maybe female and a tiny one, possibly their child. Like a bushman tracker, she read the prints and noted that at some point the female had stopped and turned before continuing. Perhaps she sensed a lurking predator or heard a thunderclap? The footprints remain the earliest known traces of human behaviour and they established that hominids were walking upright far earlier than previously supposed.

”This motion, so intensely human, transcends time,” Mrs. Leakey wrote, ”a remote ancestor – just as you or I – experienced a moment of doubt.”

The story of how we Homo sapiens evolved is still being drafted by scientists. It’s a long story, but there is no doubt that Mary wrote the first chapter. We dig you, Mary.

[Written by Jane Tomlinson]

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