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,
East Africa
Nationality British
Fields Paleoanthropology
Known for Fossil, Laetoli
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. For much of her career she worked with her husband, Louis Leakey, in the Olduvai Gorge, in eastern Africa, uncovering the tools and fossils of ancient hominines. Leakey developed a system for classifying the stone tools found at Olduvai. She discovered the Laetoli footprints. It was here, at the Laetoli site, that 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 excavation at Olduvai. She helped to establish a Leakey family tradition of palaeoanthropology by training her son, Richard, in the field.



Replica of an Australopithecus boisei skull discovered by Leakey in 1959

Mary Leakey was born Mary Douglas Nicol on 6 February 1913, in London, England, to Erskine Edward Nicol and Cecilia Marion (Frere) Nicol. Erskine 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. Mary became fluent in French. She identified more with the adventurous spirit of her father, going for long walks and explorations with him and having long talks. She disliked her governess and had less sympathy for her mother. 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 did not understand the significance of much of what he found, and was not excavating scientifically during that early stage of archaeology. Mary received permission to go through his dump. It was there that her interest in prehistory was sparked. She started a collection of points, scrapers, and blades from the dump and developed her first system of classification.[1]

That winter, the family 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. The services were read by Lemozi. Erskine's brother, Percy, came to take them back 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. Later, Mary boasted of never passing an examination there.[3] Although she spoke fluent French, Mary could not even excel at French language studies, because her teacher frowned upon her provincial accent. She was expelled for refusing to recite poetry, and then 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. However, after her unsuccessful tutors, her mother hired a nanny.

Nicol's only particular interests centred on drawing and archaeology. Formal university admission, however, was impossible with her academic record. Her mother contacted a professor at Oxford University about possible admission. After being informed that it was not even worth 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 could still attend lectures in archaeology and related subjects at the University College and 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. Nicol's second dig was at Hembury, a Neolithic site, under Dorothy Liddell, who coached her for four years. Her illustrations of tools drawn for Liddell drew the attention of Gertrude Caton-Thompson; and in late 1932, Nicol 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 were finally married after Leakey's wife, Frida, divorced him in 1936.

Mary and Louis Leakey had three sons: Jonathan 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 on with the family's archaeological work, becoming a respected figure in her field. By then Richard had decided to become a palaeoanthropologist. Leakey helped his career significantly. Her other two sons opted to follow other interests.


Leakey served her apprenticeship in archaeology under Dorothy Liddell at Hembury in Devon, England, 1930–34, for whom she also did illustrations. In 1934 she was part of a dig at Swanscombe, where she discovered the largest elephant tooth known in Britain up to that time (but needed assistance to identify it).[7]

The spot where the first A. boisei was discovered in Tanzania.

The years 1935 to 1959, spent at Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti plains of Northern Tanzania, 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.

After her husband died, she continued their work at Olduvai and Laetoli. It was here, 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 worked to uncover the Laetoli hominid footprint trail which was left in volcanic ashes some 3.6 million years ago. The years that followed this discovery were filled with research at Olduvai and Laetoli, the 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.[8]

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]

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

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.[10]

Google celebrated the 100th anniversary of Mary Leakey's birth with its Google doodle for 6 February 2013.[11]

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. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter L" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  9. ^ John Noble Wilford; "Mary Leakey, 83, Dies; Traced Human Dawn", New York Times, 10 December 1996; retrieved March 2014.
  10. ^ "Royal Mail celebrates 'Great Britons' with launch of latest special stamp collection". 17 April 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2013. 
  11. ^ "Mary Leakey's 100th Birthday", Google; accessed 6 February 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]