When it came to finding humanity’s ancestors, Mary Leakey had no parallel.
Born on this day in 1913, Leakey did so much to advance the study of ancient humans that she has been called “the woman who found our ancestors.” Working with her husband, famous paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, and then with her own team, she advanced humanity’s knowledge of our origins.
What happened next is a familiar story in the history of STEM: although Mary did a lot of the work — the fieldwork, that is — Louis got a lot of the credit. “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,” wrote Roger Lewin for Smithsonian Magazine in 2002. “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.”
And what fieldwork it was. Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, Steph Solis described what Leakey is known for: “a ... skull that was proven to be a prehistoric ape ancestor, [another] that dated back to an unprecedented 1.75 million years and fossil footprints of prehistoric hominids.”
But for a long time it was Louis, not Mary, who traveled to the United States to “lecture, raise money and speculate at news conferences about the significance of his wife’s discoveries, often leaving the impression that he, personally had made the finds,” wrote Bart Barnes for The Washington Post.
According to Solis, some historians think that Leakey didn’t mind. “She was a strong woman who neither resented her husband for being in the spotlight (in fact, she preferred it that way), nor felt threatened by her male counterparts,” Solis writes. And because she “hated publicity,” Barnes writes, she “did not object” to Louis’s activities.
It's worth remembering that Mary Leakey wasn’t university-educated and got her start as an illustrator on archaeological digs like the one where she first met Louis. And that Louis Leakey was already “a Cambridge University professor with an established reputation for fieldwork in East Africa,” according to Barnes, when he left his pregnant first wife to marry Mary, who was in her early twenties. Mary Leakey, neé Nicol, was talented, but she probably wasn't sure how to play the game of academia, particularly in a field as fraught with intense differences of interpretation as paleoanthropology, which requires practitioners to form extended arguments off a few remaining physical clues about our ancient ancestors.
As for whether Leakey minded or not, if she didn’t at first, she sure began to as her marriage to Louis crumbled. At the same time, she started to take more credit for her own work, and received accolades. Leakey eventually left Louis — partially, Lewin writes, because of a dodgy claim he was making about an artifact — although she kept the name she had helped make so famous in scientific circles. Her son with Louis, Richard Leakey, is also a paleoanthropologist responsible for numerous finds, although his wife Meave Leakey has done more recent important work in the field.
In recent times, Leakey has gotten more credit for her groundbreaking work. She got her own Google Doodle in 2013.
After Louis’s death of a heart attack in 1972, she went on to lead a team in the discovery of hominid footprints that were dated at 3.6 million years old, at the time the oldest evidence of human ancestors that had been found. The Laetoli footprints were important because they demonstrated decisively that hominids were walking on two legs rather than four at that point in their evolution, wrote Neville Agnew and Martha Demas for The Getty Conservation Institute.
Mary Leakey wrote this about her discovery, Agnew and Demas write, “talking of one of the hominids who made the trail”:
At one point, and you need not be an expert tracker to discern this, she stops, pauses, turns to the left to glance at some possible threat or irregularity, and then continues to the north. This motion, so intensely human, transcends time. Three million six hundred thousand years ago, a remote ancestor — just as you or I — experienced a moment of doubt.