Louis Leakey: The Father of Hominid Hunting

Louis Leakey popularized the study of human evolution and sparked the search for human ancestors in Africa

Mary and Louis Leakey
Mary and Louis Leakey Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives

Louis Leakey was not the first person to ever find an ancient hominid fossil. But more than anyone else, he promoted and popularized the study of human evolution. His work spurred others to go to Africa to find our ancestors’ remains, he and his wife raised their son to go into the family business, and he initiated some of the first field studies of our closest living relatives, the great apes, as a way to understand early hominids. For all of these accomplishments, I call Leakey the Father of Hominid Hunting.

Leakey was born and raised in Kenya. He found is first stone tools as a teenager, which helped convince him that Africa was the homeland of humankind. That put him in the minority. During the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists considered Asia, or perhaps Europe, to be the birthplace of humans. That’s where all of the hominid fossils had been found.

That didn’t deter Leakey. In 1926, he set off for his first archaeological expedition in East Africa. It was just one year after Raymond Dart announced the discovery of the Taung Child, an australopithecine and the first hominid fossil to be recognized in Africa. His goal was to find the earliest fossil of our genus, Homo. But for the next three decades Leakey’s expeditions uncovered only stone tools and the first fossil skull of the earliest known ape, the 18-million-year-old Proconsul. It wasn’t until July 1959 that Leakey’s wife, Mary, while working in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, found a hominid bone.

It was a skull, but not exactly the skull Leakey’s team had been looking for. Based on the skull’s giant teeth and small brain, it was clear that the hominid was not a member of Homo. But Leakey and his wife were excited about the find anyway. They named it Zinjanthropus boisei (now known as Paranthropus boisei) and declared “Zinj” had made the stone tools found nearby (that’s still a matter of debate). Leakey asked Phillip Tobias, a South African anthropologist who died last week, to analyze the skull. Tobias determined it was an australopithecine; the fossil especially resembled Australopithecus (now Paranthropus) robustus, first found in South Africa in the 1930s. Zinj, eventually dated to 1.75 million years ago, was the first australopithecine found outside South Africa.

Even though Mary actually found the fossil, Leakey received much of the credit and became a celebrity—traveling around the world to talk up the discovery and drum up financial support for their fieldwork.

More success came in the early 1960s. Mary found additional fossils at Olduvai. But they were different from Zinj. With somewhat larger brains, the fossils looked more human, Leakey thought. He decided the remains represented the earliest member of our genus and our direct ancestor. He called the species Homo habilis, or “handy man.” It was the discovery Leakey had been spent his career looking for.

To this day, H. habilis remains one of the most controversial species in the hominid family. Paleoanthropologists disagree on whether the fossils represent one or more species—and whether they’re even Homo or not. Perhaps it’s fitting that one of Leakey’s greatest discoveries—rather, one of his wife’s greatest discoveries—is still contentious. In his day, some considered Leakey more of a showman than a scientist, but it’s hard to deny how his efforts furthered the study of human evolution.

The discoveries at Olduvai Gorge attracted other paleoanthropologists to East Africa, which is still the center of early-hominid research. Leakey’s son Richard was one of those researchers. In 1967, Leakey asked Richard to lead an archaeological expedition in Ethiopia. Richard eventually set out on his own and led the team that discovered the nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton called Turkana Boy. Richard’s wife, and Leakey’s daughter-in-law, Meave, was also a paleoanthropologist and helped discover Australopithecus anamensis (the earliest australopithcine species) and the engimatic Kenyanthropus platyops. Today, Louise Leakey, Leakey’s granddaughter, carries on the family’s homind-hunting tradition.

Leakey’s other great achievement was to help launch field studies of great apes. Leakey recognized the importance of studying ape behavior in the wild as a way to better understand the behavior of early hominids and other ancient apes. In 1960, he sent Jane Goodall to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to study chimpanzees. In 1967, he helped Dian Fossey establish her fieldwork on the mountain gorillas living in the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda. And in 1971, he asked Biruté Galdikas to observe orangutans in Borneo. These three women were pioneers in living among primates as a way to study the animals’ natural behavior, and collectively were known as Leakey’s Ladies. (At least, that’s what I’ve always called them. According to Wikipedia, Leakey’s Angels is the preferred term.)

If I may be bold, I’ll call myself a second-generation Leakey Lady. When I was 12 years old, I watched the Dian Fossey biopic, Gorillas in the Mist, on TV. I decided at that moment that I wanted to study primates. Ten years later, I ended up in graduate school ready to do just that. That’s not what I ended up doing with my life. But here I am instead, writing a blog about human evolution. That never would have happened without Louis Leakey. And for that, I say, Happy Father’s Day, Dr. Leakey.

For a more in-depth look at Louis Leakey’s life, read Smithsonian’s “The Old Man of Olduvai Gorge” by Roger Lewin.

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