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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

In keeping with the archetype of the preoccupied scientist, he was notoriously indifferent to his appearance; on the rare occasion he wore a necktie, Hill recalls, “it was usually skewed and stained with food or something.” But his charisma was impeccable. “He could charm the birds out of the trees,” Mary Smith, an editor at the National Geographic Society, which supported Leakey’s work, told biographer Morell. Rosemary Ritter, an archaeologist who worked with him in California, has said Leakey “had a way of making even the littlest, most unimportant person feel important. That’s why people were so willing to work for him.”

 

Leakey had a magnetic effect on many women. Irven DeVore, professor emeritus of anthropology at Harvard, recalled to Morell his first encounter with Leakey, in Nairobi in 1959: “He was dressed in one of those awful boiler suits, and he had a great shock of unruly white hair, a heavily creased face and about three teeth. . . . When my wife, Nancy, and I got back to our hotel, I said to her, ‘Objectively, he must be one of the ugliest men I’ve ever met.’ And she said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s the sexiest man I’ve ever laid my eyes on.’” Leakey understood his appeal to the opposite sex and philandered with characteristic enthusiasm. His amatory rambles eventually undermined his marriage to Mary.

 

Born in Kabete, in colonial Kenya, he was the son of Harry and Mary Bazett Leakey, who ran an Anglican mission northwest of Nairobi. Louis spent much of his youth among Kikuyu children, and his three siblings were often his only European peers. From the Kikuyu he gained a sense of intimacy with nature that instilled a lifelong passion for wildlife. Shipped off to public school in England at age 16, he later described himself as “shy and unsophisticated” and awkwardly out of touch with the English way of life.

 

Still, he attended CambridgeUniversity, his father’s alma mater, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and anthropology and, later, a doctorate for his research in East Africa. His plans to search for early human remains in Africa had met with skepticism. “There’s nothing of significance to be found there,” he recalled being told by a Cambridge professor. “If you really want to spend your life studying early man, do it in Asia.” Pithecanthropus, now called Homo erectus, or erect man, had been discovered in Java just before the turn of the century, and in the 1920s a similar kind of early human, called Peking man, had been found in China.

 

Leakey stubbornly followed his instincts. “I was born in East Africa,” he would later write, “and I’ve already found traces of early man there. Furthermore, I’m convinced that Africa, not Asia, is the cradle of mankind.”

 

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