L. S. B. Leakey Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Leakey’s lifelong examinations of the fossil remains near Lake Victoria and in the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa have provided clues as to the origin of the human species among prehistoric primates. This work, as well as his later support of the study of animal behavior in the wild, has significantly advanced understanding of both how evolution occurred and how prehistoric humans managed to survive and eventually to prevail.

Early Life

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born on August 7, 1903, in Kabete, Kenya, then a tiny Anglican missionary station in the East African Protectorate established by the British in 1894. His mother, Mary Bazett, was the daughter of a colonel in the Indian army, and his father, Harry Leakey, was an Anglican priest who had been born in France. Drawn to missionary work in Africa by inclination, training, and experience, the Leakeys set out, at the turn of the century, to Christianize the Kikuyu, a group that constituted the predominant tribe in the area where their mission station was located. Young Leakey began life there as something of a celebrity, for he was the first white child the Kikuyu had ever seen. The boy learned the Kikuyu language before he learned English, and until his family returned to England in 1910, his only playmates had been his sisters and Kikuyu boys. Leakey spent his boyhood hunting, trapping, exploring the countryside, and absorbing information about the flora and fauna of East Africa; indeed, Leakey always considered himself an African rather than an Englishman.

The boy’s education was perforce not what it might have been had the family lived in England. A governess, Miss Broome, tended to the basic education of the Leakey children, and she provided them with a solid grounding in the subjects, particularly mathematics, that were to prove most useful to Leakey in his career. An aunt in England sent young Leakey a book on the Stone Age in the British Isles, and it was this gift which kindled his lifelong passion for prehistory. He received his formal education in England, first at Weymouth College in Dorset and later at Cambridge University. Neither experience was especially gratifying to Leakey. At Weymouth College, he found himself alienated from the English boys, who seemed to him to be immature and incomprehensibly different from the Kikuyu youths with whom he had spent his formative years. Accordingly, he was never really integrated into the English public school system and later seemed to take a certain pride in managing to remain uncorrupted by that system. In any case, Leakey found Cambridge more congenial than Weymouth, and even though he was considered peculiar by some, he made a reasonable adjustment to university life.

While he was playing rugby in October, 1923, Leakey was kicked twice in the head in the course of a match. The resulting headaches and loss of memory were so severe that he had to leave Cambridge for a year. During that time he spent several months looking for the remains of dinosaurs in East Africa. In January, 1925, he returned to Cambridge to finish his education. After further difficulties, in part caused by his head injury, he won a first in modern languages, in French and Kikuyu. He then went on to win another first, a noteworthy distinction, in the second part of the tripos, in anthropology and archaeology. While some later cast doubt on the languages first—asserting that he had examined himself in Kikuyu, which in any event his critics did not consider a modern language—no one could gainsay his first in anthropology and archaeology. It was just as well, for it was in those disciplines that Leakey was to make his most remarkable contribution.

Life’s Work

To a great extent, Leakey’s career was shaped by the fact that he was not the scion of a wealthy English family. Sons of missionaries do not ordinarily have very much money, and he was no exception. Indeed, if most of his energy was expended on advancing the frontiers of paleoanthropology, then whatever energy he had left was devoted to raising the money to finance his field expeditions. In order to secure funding for his research in Africa during the decades after he left Cambridge, Leakey won fellowships and grants, wrote essays and books that produced modest royalties, gave lectures for minuscule fees, and even bartered African curios for such necessities as clothing. He also proved to be an excellent salesman for his beloved discipline, unfailingly persuading private benefactors, foundations, and such organizations as the National Georgraphic Society that his research was worthwhile and would deepen and broaden man’s understanding of the human prehistoric past. As a result of drive, skill, and luck in finding and displaying to greatest effect the artifacts he found in East Africa, Leakey managed to keep himself in the field.

After leaving Cambridge, Leakey soon began to concentrate on the two fossil sites that would make his international reputation. One was at Lake Victoria, where his discoveries of the fossil remains of various apes—at the time not thought to be of much importance—have subsequently been hailed as a vastly underrated achievement. The other, and more famous, site was at Olduvai Gorge in what is now Tanzania. It was at Olduvai that Leakey spent most of his time, and it was also there that he and his team discovered the fossilized remains of hominids that brought him worldwide renown.

The road to fame was not, however, a smooth one. Before he achieved stature as an anthropologist, Leakey suffered from two scandals that were to plague him through much of his career. One was personal but proved to have far-reaching professional overtones. The other was entirely professional and could well have destroyed the career of anyone less gifted and resilient than Leakey. The personal scandal involved the well-publicized divorce of Leakey from his first wife, Frida—which deeply disturbed his family and shocked English colonial society in East Africa—and Leakey’s public affair with a young student, Mary Nicol, whom he had met in 1933. After the divorce, the two were married and formed the most famous paleoanthropological team in history, a team whose work continues under the direction of their son Richard. In contrast, the professional scandal stemmed from Leakey’s tendency to let his enthusiasm overcome his caution, causing him to claim too much without thoroughly analyzing the evidence and carefully building a case to support his claims. Specifically, when Leakey discovered two hominid fossils, one consisting of pieces of a skull exhibiting a smooth forehead and the other the infamous “Kanam jaw,” he leapt to the conclusion, which he confidently asserted to the international scientific community, that he had discovered a representative of the true line from which modern man descended. His assertion was soon demolished by geologist Percy Boswell, who had earlier proved that Leakey’s estimate of the age of a fossil was absurdly exaggerated. In an article in the prestigious journal Nature, Boswell refuted Leakey’s claim to have discovered man’s oldest ancestor. Although Leakey was wounded by the critique and well aware of the damage it had done to his credibility, his stubbornness was such that even though he could not defend his claim for the “Kanam jaw,” he never relinquished his claim that the prehistoric source of Homo sapiens would be found in one of his fossil sites.

In time, Leakey decided to concentrate his attention on Olduvai Gorge rather than the Lake Victoria site. What attracted the Leakeys to Olduvai was the great abundance there of very primitive stone...

(The entire section is 3150 words.)