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The Old Man of Olduvai Gorge

Irrepressible Louis Leakey, patriarch of the fossil-hunting family, championed the search for human origins in Africa, attracting criticism and praise

More than anyone, Louis Leakey established Paleoanthropology as a highprofile endeavor. By the time he died 30 years ago this month, his name had become synonymous with the search for human origins. A passionate naturalist and an astute chronicler, Leakey was also a showman who tirelessly publicized his discoveries to admiring audiences around the world. “He loved to be recognized, and to stimulate people by talking about what he’d done and who he was,” his son Richard, 57, himself an expert fossil hunter, has said.

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Louis pursued a breathtaking range of interests. He studied fossil bones, stone artifacts and cave paintings. He published monographs on the social customs of the Kikuyu people of Kenya and the string figures, comparable to cat’s cradles, made by people in Angola. Believing that the behavior of monkeys and apes held clues to the nature of our evolutionary ancestors, he established a research station in Kenya near Nairobi for the study of primates, and he encouraged such now-famous researchers as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas to live in the wild with, respectively, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Long before wildlife conservation became popular, Leakey helped establish national parks in Kenya. He was an expert stone knapper, or toolmaker, and would delight in making sharp implements with which he would swiftly skin an animal whenever he had an audience. His knowledge of animal behavior was encyclopedic, and he was a keen ornithologist, which he had once thought would be his career.

 

“Everything Louis did, he did with enthusiasm,” remembers Andrew Hill, professor of anthropology at Yale. “He’d even be enthusiastic about the breakfast he prepared or the dinner he cooked. It could get a little wearing, especially at breakfast if you weren’t a morning person.” Perhaps not surprisingly, some colleagues found Leakey’s eclecticism off-putting. “It annoyed a lot of people, who felt that with such a broad range of interests, he couldn’t possibly be taking seriously their chosen field of study,” says Alan Walker, professor of anthropology and biology at PennState. To critics, Leakey seemed more dilettante than Renaissance man.

 

Although Louis grabbed the headlines, it was his second wife, Mary, an archaeologist, who made many of the actual finds associated with the Leakey name. Until later in their relationship, when their marital ties all but snapped for both personal and professional reasons, she let her husband bask in the limelight while she conducted her beloved fieldwork.

 

Louis Leakey was an easy target for critics, partly because he flouted social convention but mainly because several of his most dramatic claims turned out to be wrong. In his excitement, he sometimes announced a bold new theory before marshaling all the available evidence—an approach that is anathema to careful science. He was a maverick by any standard—“anything but typically English,” as he said of himself—and scorned bookish academics who were “only prepared to devote a few months to [field] research and then return to more lucrative and comfortable work in the universities.” Yet, paradoxically, he also longed to be accepted by academia and to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific organization. That honor eluded him, however. For one thing, some of his colleagues regarded Leakey’s flamboyant, sometimes fanciful writings as not sufficiently scientific. But his personal life was also an impediment. When he was 30 years old, he had scandalized Cambridge colleagues by leaving his wife, Frida—she was at the time pregnant with his second child—to be with Mary Nicol, whom he later married. Even more damaging to his fellowship chances, in Leakey’s own view, was the time he privately criticized an article by Sir Solly (later Lord) Zuckerman, a powerful member of the society and chief scientific adviser to the British government. According to Leakey family biographer Virginia Morell, Leakey believed that it was Zuckerman who repeatedly blocked his election to the Royal Society.

 

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