L. S. B. Leakey

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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...

(The entire section is 3,150 words.)