Mary Leakey

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Mary Leakey
Mary Leakey.jpg
Leakey in 1977
Born Mary Douglas Nicol
(1913-02-06)6 February 1913
London, England,
United Kingdom
Died 9 December 1996(1996-12-09) (aged 83)
Nairobi, Kenya
Nationality British
Fields Paleoanthropology
Known for Zinjanthropus fossil; Laetoli footprints
Notable awards Hubbard Medal (1962)
Prestwich Medal (1969)
Spouse Louis Leakey

Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996) was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the first fossilised Proconsul skull, an extinct ape now believed to be ancestral to humans. She also discovered the robust Zinjanthropus skull at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, eastern Africa. For much of her career she worked with her husband, Louis Leakey, at Olduvai Gorge, where they uncovered fossils of ancient hominines and the earliest hominins, as well as the stone tools produced by the latter group. Mary Leakey developed a system for classifying the stone tools found at Olduvai. She discovered the Laetoli footprints, and at the Laetoli site she discovered hominin fossils that were more than 3.75 million years old.

During her career, Leakey discovered fifteen new species of other animals, and one new genus.

In 1972, after the death of her husband, Leakey became director of excavations at Olduvai. She maintained the Leakey family tradition of palaeoanthropology by training her son, Richard, in the field.



Mary Leakey was born Mary Douglas Nicol on 6 February 1913, in London, to Erskine Edward Nicol and Cecilia Marion (Frere) Nicol. He worked as a painter specialising in watercolor landscapes. The Nicol family would move from place to place, visiting numerous locations in the US, Italy, and Egypt, where Erskine painted scenes to be sold in England. Nicol developed an amateur enthusiasm for Egyptology during his travels.

Leakey was a direct descendant of antiquarian John Frere and cousin to archaeologist Sheppard Frere, on her mother's side. The Frere family had been active abolitionists in the British colonial empire during the 19th century, and established several communities for freed slaves. Three of these communities were still in existence when Leakey published her 1984 autobiography: Freretown, Kenya; Freretown, South Africa; and Freretown, India.

The Nicols spent much of their time in southern France and young Mary became fluent in French. She identified with the adventurous spirit of her father, going for long walks and explorations with him and having long talks; she had less sympathy for her mother, and disliked her governess. In 1925, when Mary was 12, the Nicols stayed at Les Eyzies at a time when Elie Peyrony was excavating one of the caves there. Peyrony was not excavating scientifically during that early stage of archaeology and did not understand the significance of much of what he found. Mary received permission to go through his dump and it was there that her interest in prehistory and archaeology was sparked. She started a collection of points, scrapers, and blades from the dump and developed her first system of classification.[1]

The family then moved to Cabrerets, a village of Lot, France. There she met Abbé Lemozi, the village priest, who befriended her and became her mentor for a time. The two toured Pech Merle cave to view the prehistoric paintings of bison and horses.[2]


In the spring of 1926, in Mary's thirteenth year, her father died of cancer; and Mary with her mother returned to London. Cecilia sold Erskine's paintings and moved to a boardinghouse in Kensington. She placed Mary in a local Catholic convent to be educated, following the example of her own life; Mary later boasted of never passing an examination there.[3] Although she spoke fluent French, Mary did not excel at French language studies, apparently because her teacher frowned upon her provincial accent. She was expelled for refusing to recite poetry, and later expelled from a second convent school for causing an explosion in a chemistry laboratory.[4] After the second expulsion, her mother hired two tutors, who were no more successful than the nuns. After the unsuccessful tutors, her mother hired a nanny.

Mary Nicol's particular interests centred on drawing and archaeology. Formal university admission was impossible with her academic record. (Her mother contacted a professor at Oxford University about possible admission; after being informed to not waste her time applying, Mary had no further contact with the university until it awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in 1951.)

The small family moved to Kensington, where, though unregistered, Nicol attended lectures in archaeology and related subjects at the University College and at the London Museum where she studied under Mortimer Wheeler.[5]

Nicol applied for a number of excavations to be held in the summer. Wheeler was the first to accept her for a dig—at St. Albans at the Roman site of Verulamium. Her next dig was at Hembury, a Neolithic site, under Dorothy Liddell, who coached her for four years until 1934. Her illustrations of tools for Liddell drew the attention of Gertrude Caton-Thompson; and in late 1932 she entered the field as an illustrator for Caton-Thompson's book, The Desert Fayoum.[6]


Louis Leakey

Through Caton-Thompson, Nicol met Louis Leakey, who was in need of an illustrator for his book Adam's Ancestors (1934). While she was doing that work they became romantically involved. Leakey was still married when he started living with Nicol, which caused a scandal that ruined his career at Cambridge University. They married after Leakey's wife, Frida, divorced him in 1936.

Mary and Louis Leakey produced three sons: Jonathan, born 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 Leakeys 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 usually dressed as though on excavation.

Louis Leakey died on 1 October 1972 of a heart attack; Mary Leakey continued with the family's archaeological work, becoming a respected figure in paleoanthropology of her own right. By then Richard had decided to become a palaeoanthropologist, and Leakey helped him to begin his career. Her other two sons opted to follow other interests.


Plinth with plaque sited in Olduvai Gorge marking the spot where Mary Leakey discovered "Zinjanthropus", the first-found A. boisei in Africa.

Leakey had served her apprenticeship under Dorothy Liddell at Hembury, 1930–34 (see above). In 1934 she was part of a dig at Swanscombe where she discovered the largest elephant tooth in Britain known to that time.[7]

Mary and Louis spent the years 1935 to 1959 at Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti plains of northern Tanzania; the site famously yielded many stone tools, from primitive stone-chopping instruments to multi-purpose hand axes. These finds came from Stone Age cultures dated 100,000 to two million years ago. The Leakeys unearthed a Proconsul africanus skull on Rusinga Island in October 1948.

On the morning of July 17, 1959, Louis felt ill and stayed at camp while Mary went out to the field. At some point she noticed a piece of bone that "seemed to be part of a skull" with a "hominid look".[8] After dusting topsoil away and finding "two large teeth set in the curve of a jaw", she drove back to camp exclaiming "I've got him!"[9] Active excavation began the following day and a partial cranium was unearthed within a few weeks, though it had to be reconstructed from fragments scattered in the scree.[10] After examining the cranium, Louis Leakey concluded it was of a species ancestral to humans, but of an earlier group, the australopithecines.[11] He eventually dubbed the find Zinjanthropus boisei, "East Africa man"—Zinj is an ancient Arabic word for the East African coast. The name was later revised to Paranthropus boisei, and by some to Australopithecus boisei; a consensus on classification is still in debate.

After her husband died in 1972, Mary Leakey continued their work at Olduvai and Laetoli. It was at the Laetoli site that she discovered hominin fossils that were more than 3.75 million years old.

From 1976 to 1981 Leakey and her staff uncovered the Laetoli hominin footprint trail which had been tracked through a layer of volcanic ash some 3.6 million years ago. The subsequent years were filled with research at Olduvai and Laetoli, and with follow-up work to discoveries and preparing publications.

In her career, Leakey discovered 15 new species of other animals, and one new genus. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979.[12]

Books authored[edit]

  • Excavations at Njoro River Cave (with Louis Leakey), 1950
  • Olduvai Gorge: Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960–1963, 1971
  • Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man, 1979
  • Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, 1983
  • Disclosing the Past, 1984

Death and legacy[edit]

Mary Leakey died on 9 December 1996, in Nairobi, Kenya, at the age of 83.[13]

In April 2013 Leakey was honoured by Royal Mail in the UK, as one of six people selected as subjects for the "Great Britons" commemorative postage stamp issue.[14] Google celebrated the 100th anniversary of Mary Leakey's birth with its Google doodle for 6 February 2013.[15]

See also[edit]

Position in the Leakey family[edit]


  1. ^ Morell, Virginia, Ancestral Passions, 1995, Chapter 4, "Louis and Mary."
  2. ^ Disclosing the Past (1984), pp. 27–28.
  3. ^ "Mary Leakey, Archaeologist and Anthropologist"; obituary; The Times, 10 December 1996; displayed at the Primate Info Net; University of Wisconsin.
  4. ^ Disclosing the Past, p. 33.
  5. ^ Disclosing the Past, pp. 34–26, 36–37.
  6. ^ Disclosing the Past, pp. 37–39.
  7. ^ Disclosing the Past, pp. 47–48.
  8. ^ Mary Leakey, My Search, 75.
  9. ^ Morell, 181.
  10. ^ Cela-Conde & Ayala, 158; Morell, 183–184.
  11. ^ Cela-Conde & Ayala, 158; Johanson, Edgar & Brill, 156
  12. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter L" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  13. ^ John Noble Wilford; "Mary Leakey, 83, Dies; Traced Human Dawn", New York Times, 10 December 1996; retrieved March 2014.
  14. ^ "Royal Mail celebrates 'Great Britons' with launch of latest special stamp collection". 17 April 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2013. 
  15. ^ "Mary Leakey's 100th Birthday", Google; accessed 6 February 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]