Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3150
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.
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.
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 tools. They understandably reasoned that very basic stone tools located in geological formations of great age must have been made by very primitive humans or human ancestors. In consequence, they spent more than thirty years, beginning in the mid-1930’s, collecting tools and searching methodically for the remains of those creatures who had made and used the tools. During that time, they suffered great privations, for that area of East Africa was very remote, and their ability to work depended entirely on the amount of supplies they could take with them to the site. Accompanying the privation, which neither Louis nor Mary seemed to mind, was the frustration, year after year, of finding virtually everything at Olduvai except the fossils for which they were searching. They found tools in abundance, and they also found notable deposits of the fossils of extinct animals, many of which were unknown before the Leakeys unearthed their remains, but the human ancestor for which Leakey sought eluded them.
They did, however, become thoroughly familiar with the geology of the Olduvai area, and Leakey continued to attract scientific attention and financial support by publicizing his discoveries, which were by no means inconsequential. World War II proved to be no more than an inconvenience to Leakey’s work, for while he was limited in the extent of his researches, he played an important role in the British war effort in the African interior by working for the African Intelligence Department, where he assisted the British government in curtailing German influence and activity in East Africa. Because of his African background and connections, he was able to make a contribution to the war effort that few could have made. Similarly, when the Mau Mau emergency erupted in Kenya in the early 1950’s, Leakey proved to be an invaluable intermediary between the leadership of the movement among the Kikuyu and British government authorities. While it is doubtful that officialdom appreciated Leakey’s part in ending the emergency—he tended to favor the formation of an independent Kenya under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, at whose trial he acted as interpreter—Leakey proved to be invaluable in ending the crisis, despite the fact that members of Leakey’s family were among those Europeans killed by Mau Mau terrorists.
At the end of World War II, Leakey, who had done voluntary work for the National Museum at Nairobi since the beginning of that conflict, became the museum’s director at a modest salary. The salary was small, but it was nevertheless important, for it ensured that the Leakeys would be able to finance annual field expeditions. Throughout the 1940’s and into the 1950’s, Leakey and his wife returned to Olduvai in search of the elusive evidence of a hominid toolmaker which could explain the presence of the primitive tools at Olduvai and shed light on the evolutionary process that has produced modern Homo sapiens. In 1959, the long search finally came to a triumphant end, bringing the Leakeys international recognition for their work.
Toward the end of the 1959 expedition to Olduvai, when Leakey was in his tent, ill with the malaria that periodically plagued him, Mary went into the field alone. While there, she discovered what had eluded them for nearly three decades, the skull of what appeared to be an Olduvai toolmaker. One account of Leakey’s response when Mary told him of her find is that he leapt out of bed despite his fever, overcome by the magnitude of the long-sought discovery. Another account has it that he was disappointed to see that the skull was a robust Australopithecene and not a Homo, which would have vindicated his oft-repeated assertions that the evolutionary ancestor of man had lived in East Africa more than one million years ago. Regardless of which account is true, there can be no disputing that the find made Leakey’s reputation and also made him something of a celebrity. He dubbed the skull Zinjanthropus boisei, the “boisei” in honor of Charles Boise, who had contributed funding at a crucial juncture in Leakey’s career, and soon came to refer to the skull privately as “Dear Boy,” while “Nutcracker Man” was a more common appellation because of the very large molars of the skull. Although it clearly is not a direct ancestor of modern man, but rather a dead end in the primate evolutionary process, “Zinj” (which means East Africa in Arabic), as it came to be called, remains the best example of its type ever discovered. First displayed at the Fourth Pan African Conference on Prehistory held at what was then Leopoldville, it proved a sensation, and it ensured Leakey’s stature as a premier paleoanthropologist.
“Zinj” was a first in many ways. It was, for example, not only the first more or less complete skull of its kind but also the first to be accurately dated by the now-standard potassium-argon dating process. Tests performed using that technique developed by Italian scientists indicated that “Zinj” was approximately 1.8 million years old, far older than had been estimated using less reliable scientific methods. An entirely new era had begun for physical anthropology and the study of prehistory.
Despite his age and the infirmities which plagued him toward the end of his career, Leakey remained active both in the field and on the lecture circuit. The discovery of “Zinj” in 1959 was followed by what was in some ways an even more significant find in 1962. Then, Leakey announced to the world in his inimitable fashion the discovery of what he claimed were true Homo fossils, and very ancient ancestors of modern man indeed, that were dated at 1.75 million years, fully three times what was then estimated as the age of Homo. These creatures came to be called Homo habilis, or “handy man,” at the suggestion of Raymond Dart, who had first brought to light the Australopithecenes in South Africa. There were four such partial skulls, named Johnny’s Child, Cindy, George, and Twiggy, and although their condition was fragmentary, that did not stop Leakey from insisting, primarily on the grounds that their brain capacity was estimated at 642 centimeters, that they were Homo and not merely hominid. Leakey’s insistence that the fossils were those of true ancestors of man provoked controversy that remains largely unresolved; in any case, the discovery served to confirm Leakey’s place in modern paleoanthropology.
After the discoveries of Zinjanthropus boisei (subsequently renamed Australopithecus boisei) and Homo habilis, Leakey, who was by then in ill health, turned his attention to the study of living creatures. Too ill to engage in field observation of primates, he encouraged and supported work by others, and the results have been nearly as important as the work he did earlier in his career on prehistory. Leakey supported and encouraged the work of Dr. Cynthia Booth, who with Leakey founded the Tigoni Primate Research Center to study monkeys. At approximately the same time, Leakey hired a young woman, Jane Goodall, as his secretary at the museum, and she went on, through his support, to become an international authority on the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild. Toward the end of his life, Leakey also encouraged Dian Fossey in her arduous study of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat at some twelve thousand feet of elevation. It was also toward the end of his career that Leakey’s earlier work at Lake Victoria on prehistoric monkeys came to be recognized by scientists as of equal importance to his discoveries of “Zinj” and Homo habilis, for those Miocene apes provided as much information about the evolution of modern apes as the fossil discoveries of hominids revealed about human origins.
Leakey’s physically demanding life caught up with him in London on October 1, 1972. He had traveled there from Nairobi, en route to the United States for one of his perennial lectures, when he found himself so tired that he could not meet a commitment to speak on the British Broadcasting Corporation airwaves. While dressing on the morning of Sunday, October 1, 1972, Leakey suffered a heart attack. He died within hours. His body was returned to Kenya for interment, and he was buried beside his parents at Limuru.
L. S. B. Leakey was not a practitioner of one of the more traditional sciences such as physics, biology, or chemistry; thus, it is more difficult to assess the significance of his contribution to the advancement of knowledge. Much of what he discovered, particularly the hominid fossils unearthed at Olduvai Gorge, for which he made extravagant claims, cannot be compared reasonably or accurately to discoveries that lend themselves to more precise scientific definition. Still, Leakey’s long career as a field paleoanthropologist has undoubtedly produced the answers to many questions thought unanswerable when he began his work. Knowledge of both prehistoric man and animals, as well as many living creatures, has been dramatically expanded through his efforts. A volatile individual whose genius lay as much in his power to inspire others as it did in his ability to perform outstanding scientific feats, Leakey both advanced anthropology as a discipline and brought it to the public attention in a way that had never been done before. He was an almost perfect blend of entrepreneur and serious scientist.
Cole, Sonia Mary. Leakey’s Luck: The Life of Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. This is the only full-scale biography of Leakey. Written by a friend and colleague at the request of Mary Leakey, it is scarcely the panegyric that might be expected from someone so close to the subject. Forthright, well written, frequently witty, and quite clear about Leakey’s limitations as well as his virtues, this work stands as a model for biographies. A tendency on the part of the author to assume more detailed knowledge of paleoanthropology than is likely to be encountered in the average reader is counterbalanced by an accessible portrait of Leakey as a thoroughly human, understandable character.
Johanson, Donald C., and Maitland A. Edey. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. While focusing on Johanson’s discovery of the “Lucy” fossilized skeleton remains and its implications for the course of human evolution, this book is valuable for the context it offers for the earlier work of Leakey. Leakey’s achievements are duly recorded, and a professional analysis is offered. Gives an admirable summary of the work of the Leakeys.
Leakey, Louis S. B. White African. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1937. An autobiographical account of the first thirty years of Leakey’s life. Despite its obvious and expected inclination to explain and vindicate the actions of the author, it is well worth reading for the wealth of information it provides about colonial and missionary life in East Africa, as well as for what it reveals about the author’s perceptions of himself during the formative years of his life.
Leakey, Louis S. B. By the Evidence. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. The second installment of Leakey’s autobiography, covering the period from 1932 to 1952. Published posthumously, this volume does not include Leakey’s views on the discoveries at Olduvai for obvious reasons of chronology. It does, however, have much information about his activities during World War II and provides an excellent base for understanding the importance of the unique position he held in East Africa.
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