Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mary Leakey

Inspired by my recent trip to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology today’s WOD is British archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey. Born Mary Douglas Nicol on February 6, 1913. As a member of a family of famous anthropologists, Mary Leakey found some of the most important fossils, tools, and other records of early humans in Africa. Her discoveries helped shape our understanding of the origins of human beings. Because of her many important discoveries and her dedication to field research, she is considered a giant in the study of human origins.

Her father was a landscape artist and she spent much of her childhood in Europe, specifically southwest France, where she became very interested in prehistoric art and archaeology. As a child she frequently traveled to France with her parents. There, she visited a museum of prehistory and was allowed to participate in archaeological digs where she found ancient stone tools. She also visited the French caves at Font de Guame and La Mouthe, which are famous for their prehistoric paintings. She was very close with her father and was devastated when he died when she was only 13 years old. Her mother took her back to London to attempt to give her a formal education but Mary was quite rebellious and was promptly expelled from not one but two Catholic schools. Although she lacked a formal education, she managed to combine her inner artist with her love of archaeology and began working on archaeological digs as a scientific illustrator. By her late teens she had met many of the leading archaeologists of the day, and had already been drawn towards her future career.

This is when she met Louis Leakey, her rebellious nature continued as she began an affair with the then married Leakey. Leakey’s wife divorced him and in 1935 Mary visited Kenya and Tanzania with him. In 1936 they married and moved to East Africa where they formed a brilliant archaeological partnership spanning more than thirty years.

From then until about 1962 Louis and Mary faced trying circumstances together. Early in their relationship, he nursed her through double pneumonia. They had three sons: Jonathan in 1940, Richard in 1944, and Philip in 1949. The boys received much of their early childhood care at various anthropological sites. Whenever possible the Leakey’s excavated and explored as a family. The boys grew up with the same love of freedom their parents had. Mary would not even allow guests to shoo away the pet hyraxes that helped themselves to food and drink at the dinner table. She smoked very much, first cigarettes and then cigars, and dressed as though on excavation.

Mary worked with Louis for decades in many excavations. An important discovery of Mary's was the first fossil skull of the extinct Miocene primate Proconsul. Mary primarily worked as an archeologist rather than a physical anthropologist.

In 1959, Mary found the "Zinjanthropus" (Australopithecus boisei) fossil which was to propel the Leakey family to worldwide fame. From the mid-1960's, she lived almost full time at Olduvai Gorge, often alone, while Louis worked on other projects. She and Louis grew apart, partly because of his womanizing and partly because Louis was dividing his time between many other projects. In 1974, she commenced excavations at nearby Laetoli, and in 1976 her team found huge numbers of animal footprints that had been fossilized in ash deposited by a volcano. In 1978 they found what would be her greatest discovery, adjacent footprint tracks that had been left by two bipedal hominids.

Louis' death thrust Mary into the spotlight. In addition to her own research projects she had to take on the roles of fund-raiser, organizer, publicist and lecturer --- roles that Louis had always performed with enormous energy and enthusiasm. It was a challenge accepted with characteristic determination, and Mary soon established herself on the international scene, in constant demand as a lecturer and conference participant all over the world.

In 1983, Mary retired from active fieldwork. Due to the Political developments that wrought great changes in East Africa, Mary moved back to Nairobi with her beloved Dalmatians, to be closer to their family and to concentrate on her writing. However, her heart always remained firmly at Olduvai Gorge where she had lived for nearly 20 years on the edge of the Serengeti Plains --- surely one of the most beautiful wild places in the world.

She died in 1996 at the age of eighty-three. Although it was Louis Leakey who was the more charismatic and well-known figure, Mary became a famous scientist in her own right. Although she had never earned a degree, by the end of her life she had received many honorary degrees and other awards. It is generally agreed that Mary was a better scientist, far more meticulous and cautious than the often reckless Louis. Her prodigious achievements in archaeology make her a giant in the field.