Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey
Paleontologist, archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey was born at Kabete, Kenya on August 7, 1903. His British parents were missionaries sent to live among the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe. Leakey was the first white baby the Kikuyu had ever seen and he learned their language before he could understand English. He was secretly initiated as a member of the tribe at the age of thirteen and remained a champion of the Kikuyu (and an expert on their culture) for the rest of his life.
As a child, Leakey was interested in ornithology. While out looking for birds in the Kenyan wilderness, he instead discovered stone arrowheads and tools. These early finds became the impetus for what would prove to be a lifelong passion for the study of human origins. In 1924, while a student at Cambridge, Leakey was injured while playing Rugby; on medical advice he took a leave of absence. During this time away from his studies, he joined his first archaeological expedition. Following this experience, Leakey led four fossil-hunting expeditions in East Africa over the next ten years. Leakey’s decision to search in Africa was revolutionary. At that time, most authorities believed instead that Asia was the premier hunting ground for humanity’s origins. Leakey steadfastly held to his conviction on this point, and time has proven him correct.
Leakey was married to Mary Douglas Nicol in 1936. Mary Leakey shared her husband’s enthusiasm and drive to find fossil evidence of our human past. She became an indispensable partner in Leakey’s field research endeavors and was personally responsible for many of the spectacular finds credited to the Leakey team.
The Leakey’s first important African discovery (in 1948) was the skull of a Miocene hominoid, which Louis named Proconsul africanus. It is now believed that this ape-like creature lived from approximately 23 to 14 million years ago and was likely a common ancestor of both humans and other primate species.
Many of the Leakey’s most famous discoveries were found in northern Tanzania, at Olduvai Gorge. Because of its unique geological history, this area is particularly rich in fossil remains. In addition to evidence of human origins, Leakey excavations uncovered over 100 different forms of extict animal life at Olduvai Gorge. The first important discovery at Olduvai, which Louis named Zinjanthropus boisei, was uncovered by Mary Leakey on July 17, 1959. Now known as Australopithecus boisei, this find was a watershed moment in the history of paleontology, vindicating the Leakey’s decision to work at Olduvai and adding an important stage to the hominid lineage as it was then known. Another find in 1960 eventually led Leakey and his team to announce the new species Homo habilis or “handy man.” Leakey believed that this species was a direct human ancestor. Debate over the proper interpretation of many Leakey finds continues today, but no one questions Louis Leakey’s enormous contribution to human knowledge about the rise of our species.
In addition to his paleoanthropological research, Louis Leakey influenced and assisted researchers in many related fields. He inspired (and found sponsors for) field studies of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas Brindamour.
Louis Leakey died of a heart attack in London on October 1, 1972. He had spent almost half-a-century contributing to our understanding of the origins of humankind.