For Most of the 20th century and into the 21st century there has been a family working in some of the most desolate parts of the world changing our understanding of what it means to be human, and changing the face of paleoanthropology. Paleoanthropology is the study of human evolution which includes the excavation and examination of hominid and hominin fossils, ancient stone tool, and other paleontologist evidence for a further understanding of our origins. And with the major contribution of the Leakys’ and other anthropologists they were able to debunk the held beliefs that humans evolved in Europe or Asia, a simple straight line of human evolution from earliest to modern, humans had recent ancestry, and the brain expanded as humans evolved and then eventually walked upright. Each was eventually disproved. But not easily and not quickly. And the contribution of the Leakys’ have helped paved the way to further understanding by setting up a fossil record of hominins in East Africa.
It is hard to quantify the contribution Louis Leakey made to paleopanthropology and science. Throughout his life he wrote 20 books and 150 articles about paleo, anthropology as well as the pros and cons of British imperialism in Kenya. He was born and grew up in Kenya. His parents were English missionaries to the Kikuyu tribe. He was a happy kid that made friends with the other kids in the Kikuyu tribe, some of whom where for his entire life. By the age of thirteen he actually became a member of the Kikuyu tribe. Later in life he was actually tasked with recording the traditions and history of the Kikuyu tribe. His love from an early age for animals and prehistory would set him on a career course for anthropology. And while looking for animals he discovered ancient tools that inspired his belief in African origins. He would later get his education in England. which proved hard at first since the education system in Kenya was different. And for a time he was an outsider since he came from a different part of the world. He would eventually get his degrees in anthropology and archaeology from Cambridge University. And for the rest of his life he would fossil and stone tool hunt for further understanding of our past. Facing much opposition at the time for his position on human ancestry in Africa would prove true under scientific scrutiny and Africa was eventually placed as the birthplace of humanity.
Mary leaky is a world renowned hominin fossil hunter. And is credited with many discoveries that sharked the understanding of human evolution at the time. She was a well accomplished women for her time and she didn’t even graduate from high school! She was born in England in 1913, then Mary Nicol. Her parents were artists and they lived a nomadic lifestyle around Europe. Her father loved archaeology and prehistory and he would take her to museums, paleolithic sites like cave paintings, and would even take her to sites they could participate in and found paleolithic tools and blades. This influenced her to seek a career in archaeology. She would get expelled from numerous schools and by the end was left to her own devices. She would seek her own education and informally attend lectures in London about archaeology and participate in archaeological digs. She proved her artistic ability was useful for being the illustrator of anthropologists books by drawing the stone tools and other artifacts found. At a dinner party after the Royal Anthropological Institute a friend of Mary introduced her to Louis so she could possibly be the illustrator of his next book. This would start a long relationship, both personally and professionally.
Their entire career now would be focused on East Africa in the Great Rift Valley. The area
is unique because of the divergent plates that border and created the Red Sea. The plates movement (faults) would eventually make the Great Rift Valley and expose sedimentary layers (strata) that are millions of years old. Three major sites the Leakey team discovered or used would put Africa on the map for human origins. Olduvai Gorge proved invaluable in understanding human evolution. Tools like Oldowan (used by Homo habilis and possibly by later Australopithecus) and Acheulean (used by Homo erectus). And the discovery Australopithecus boisei and the earliest species in our genus Homo habilis. Ologesailie had a wealth of Acheulean tools. The fossils of animals found there indicate they where butchered with the aid of these hand axes. And based on the one hominin discovered there ,decades after Louis and Mary were there, they were made by Homo erectus and they did not live there where they made the tools and butchered the animals for their meat. And the site of Laetoli which proved to be Marys most exiting discoveries where the 89 foot long trail of preserved footprints of animals (some extinct like the three toed horse) but also of human footprints! They where dated to be 3.6 million years putting the timetable back for when our ancestors first practiced in bipedal locomotion.
This is just a small glimpse on how Louis and Mary put Africa on the map for human origins. And how they brought inspiration to future anthropologists and laid a path for future paleoanthropologists to interpret there discoveries as science progresses and the fossil record increases.
As their name grew and they could acquire funding from there success, Louis also helped assist other anthropologists by supporting them and offering funds to support there research. One popular example are Leakey’s Angles. Three primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas. Leakey wanting to know more about existing hominids and there behavior, and apply to what the behavior might have been to extinct hominids and hominins.
One of their three sons Richard Leakey followed in his parents footsteps along with his wife Meave to make spectacular findings in places like Turkana Basin, where his team discovered an almost complete Homo erectus called Turkana Boy. Richard and Meave’s daughter, Louise, today continues the Leakey tradition and is a paleoanthropologist in East Africa.