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

Born in Kenya in 1903 to Anglican missionaries, Louis Leakey (in his mother's arms outside the family's mud and thatch house) was initiated as a youth into the Kikuyu tribe. "I still often think in Kikuyu, dream in Kikuyu," he wrote in a 1937 autobiography. (Leakey Family Collection)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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.

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.

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.”

Charles Darwin, in his 1871 book Descent of Man, had suggested that because our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, live in Africa, the earliest humans probably once lived there too. Leakey was just 13 when he decided to devote himself to the study of prehistory and find out if Darwin was right. As a young man, he thus challenged the conventional wisdom, which appealed to his contrarian nature. “I became excited with the idea that everyone was looking in the wrong place,” he later explained. In the fall of 1931, on his third expedition to East Africa but his first to Olduvai, he found primitive stone axes in ancient sediments, evidence that ancestors of humans had indeed lived in Africa. It was a significant discovery—“I was nearly mad with delight,” he recalled—but Leakey’s penchant for over-reaching soon got the better of him.

In addition to staking his career on the notion that Africa was the cradle of humankind, he also believed, given the fossil evidence, that the earliest bipedal human ancestors, or hominids, must have existed hundreds of thousands of years earlier than most other scientists were willing to say. Indeed, the reason for that first trip to Olduvai Gorge was to test the idea that a modern-looking skeleton, discovered by German scientist Hans Reck in 1913, was, as Reck claimed, about half a million years old—the age of the deposits in which it had been found.

A 1935 expedition to Olduvai turned up elephant fossils and cemented the relationship between Leakey (center) and archaeology student Mary Nicol (right). They wed in 1936. (Leakey Family Collection)

Leakey, initially skeptical of Reck’s assertions, visited the site with Reck and soon agreed with him. They coauthored a letter to the British journal Nature reporting the new evidence for Reck’s original theory—which also appeared to confirm Leakey’s hunch that our first true ancestor lived farther back in prehistory. “[Reck] must be one of the few people who succeeded in swaying Louis once his mind was made up,” observes Leakey’s biographer Sonia Cole. But a few years later, other researchers, using improved geological methods, concluded that the skeleton wasn’t ancient at all, but had simply been buried in far-older sediments.

In 1932, Leakey was also making extravagant claims of antiquity for fossils from two sites in western Kenya, Kanam and Kanjera. The Kanam jawbone, Leakey boldly announced, was “not only the oldest human fragment from Africa, but the most ancient fragment of true Homo yet to be discovered anywhere in the world.” Ultimately, it was found that the Kanjera and Kanam specimens were relatively recent. Leakey’s reputation already had taken a beating when a British geologist visited Kanjera and reported that Leakey did not know exactly where he had found his famous fossil—an astonishing lapse for an anthropologist.

Leakey shrugged off his critics. He and Mary pressed on, and in 1948 they received their first real taste of public adulation with the discovery of a little skull of an 18-million-year-old ape called Proconsul. It was the first fossil ape skull ever found, and Mary flew with it to England so that Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Leakey’s friend and an anthropologist at Oxford, could examine the specimen. The plane was met by reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen. Later, with the skull on display at the airport, Mary told Leakey, “Two plainclothes detectives assigned to guard it never let it out of their sight.”

Then, in 1959, came the now-famous discovery, in Olduvai, of a 1.75-millionyear-old skull that Leakey named Zinjanthropus boisei, and which he asserted was the “connecting link between the South African near-men . . . and true man as we know him.” The skull was similar to those of the robust ape-man creatures that had been found in South Africa, but differed from them in having heavier bones and bigger teeth. Nearly three decades of work had at last been rewarded, it seemed, and the huge publicity surrounding the find propelled the Leakeys—particularly Louis, though Mary had actually discovered the skull—to still greater fame.

Louis embarked on a speaking tour in the United States and Europe, and established a long and close relationship with the National Geographic Society, which publicized the Leakeys often in its magazine and provided them with financial support. In November 1960, 19-year-old Jonathan, the eldest of the couple’s three sons, made a discovery that was even more important than Zinjanthropus. Working near the Zinj site, he found a jawbone that was even more humanlike. It came to be known as pre-Zinj, because it was unearthed from deeper sediments and presumed to be older than Zinjanthropus. (Leakey later reclassified Zinjanthropus as an australopithecine; it is now generally known as Paranthropus boisei.)

In time, and as the Leakey team uncovered more fossil material, Louis became convinced that pre-Zinj was the ancient species of Homo he’d been seeking for so long. It had a bigger brain and was less ruggedly built than the socalled ape-men. He called it Homo habilis, or handy man, a reference to the stone tools at the site that Leakey was convinced the creature had made, and he believed it to be the ancestor of modern humans, Homo sapiens.

In 1964, Leakey and two coauthors submitted their findings on Homo habilis to the journal Nature. The response was fast and largely furious. Anthropologists dispatched condemnatory letters to the London Times and scientific journals. Their message: pre-Zinj was nothing more than an australopithecine, not a separate species of Homo. Part of the criticism was that in naming the new species, Leakey brashly changed the definition of Homo so that pre-Zinj would qualify. For example, at the time, a species of ancient human could be called Homo only if its brain were at least 700 cubic centimeters in volume. By this standard, pre-Zinj was something of a pinhead, with a brain of just 675 cubic centimeters (the average human brain has a volume of 1,300 cc).

Other discoveries that Leakey made in the 1960s also generated controversy. On an island in Lake Victoria, he found fossil evidence of two new primate species that he said pushed back the origins of human beings by millions of years. His claims were immediately met with harsh criticism. He called the primates Kenyapithecus. One species was 20 million years old. He named it africanus and claimed that it was the oldest hominid ever found. Experts disputed the claim then, arguing that it was a fossil ape, which remains the prevailing view. The other species, Kenyapithecus wickeri, was some 14 million years old. Its pedigree is checkered. Leakey first said it was more ape than human, but later modified that view. Scientists now believe that it is the most advanced fossil ape of its period in East Africa.

Leakey astounded his colleagues again when, at a scientific meeting in 1967, he argued that a lump of lava found at the Lake Victoria fossil site had been used by Kenyapithecus wickeri as a tool. The announcement, made with Leakey’s usual flourish, fell flat. Not one scientist in the audience asked a question, probably, as paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons later observed, because they considered the idea “outlandish.” Mary Leakey, too, was unconvinced. “I can’t believe he really thought it was a 14-million-year-old stone tool,” she told biographer Morell after Leakey’s death. The incident, Morell writes in her 1995 book Ancestral Passions, “added to a growing suspicion that [Leakey’s] scientific judgment was slipping.”

It’s in the nature of paleoanthropology to undergo constant revision, as was made clear this past summer, when a new contender in the quest for the earliest hominid was announced. A six- to seven-million-year-old skull, found in Chad by paleoanthropologists from France, is older and yet appears more modern in several key respects than specimens from more recent times. Those features, plus its discovery far from Kenya or Ethiopia (the other leading candidates for the place where human beings split from the common ancestor we share with apes) are prompting experts to reconceptualize the human family lineage.

By the late 1960s, Leakey was little involved in fieldwork, partly because of ill health but also because he was devoting so much time to raising money for the many research endeavors he oversaw. He was, however, directing a dig at Calico Hills, east of Los Angeles. Hundreds of stone flakes had been recovered from the site, and the excavators believed them to be human artifacts. That was an extraordinary claim because the site was as much as 100,000 years old, and most anthropologists believe that humans came to the Americas no earlier than 30,000 years ago, and probably much more recently.

Leakey’s support of the Calico claim dismayed not only his friends and colleagues, but also Mary, and it would become a factor in their estrangement. In a poignant section of her autobiography, she characterized his position as “catastrophic to his professional career and . . . largely responsible for the parting of our ways.”

Yet despite his occasionally misplaced enthusiasms, Leakey remains a seminal figure. “Although Louis was not highly regarded for his science,”says PennState’s Alan Walker, “he made a major contribution in opening up East Africa for paleoanthropological exploration, making the science possible.” Others remember his pioneering spirit. “He had an energizing effect on the field and on the people doing the research,” says David Pilbeam, professorof anthropology at Harvard. “He could be sloppy and brilliant, prescient and foolish. But, given the time [in which] he was working, overall his instincts were right.”

So right, in fact, that Leakey’s view would prevail and most anthropologists would eventually accept Homo habilis as a legitimate member of the human family, though not necessarily as the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. Inspired by his father’s work on human origins, third son Richard Leakey has achieved fame for his own fossil discoveries. In late September 1972, Richard flew down to Nairobi from his research site at Lake Rudolf (now Turkana) to show his father his team’s latest find, a large-brained skull thought at the time to be 2.6 million years old. The specimen was named 1470.

“It’s marvelous,” exclaimed Louis. “But they won’t believe you.” Remembering his own experience with the skeptics, Louis was looking forward to the fight over whether 1470 was a species of Homo, which Richard argued it was. As Richard recalled the encounter, the skull “represented to [Louis] the final proof of the ideas he had held throughout his career about the great antiquity of quite advanced hominid forms.”

But on October 1, a few days after holding the fossil in his hands, Louis Leakey died of a heart attack on a visit to London. Thirty years later, the debate that he anticipated continues.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus