The English anthropologist Louis Leakey was known primarily for his discovery of Proconsul africanus, his interpretation of Zinjanthropus, his announcing the discovery of Homo habilis, and his great influence on primatology. Born in 1903 at Kabete Mission, Kenya, Leakey benefited from two distinct cultures: the English culture that was provided by his parents, Harry and Mary Leakey, and the Kikuyu tribe culture to which he was initiated at 13 years of age. Acculturated into tribal lore, Leakey acquired the ability to survive in the bush. Other than a brief time in England at Gorse Cliff school during 1912 and 1913, his formal education during the period from 1913 to 1919 was provided by tutors from England. Regarded by the tribe as more African than European, Leakey was known as the black man with the white face. During his youth, his interests in the past and the collection of artifacts began to develop. With the aid of the curator of the Kenyan Museum, valuable insights stimulated the young naturalist’s mind. This influence continued until he returned to England after World War I.
After completing his formal education at Weymouth College, Leakey entered St. John’s College in Cambridge in 1922. Interested in modern language, his term was suddenly interrupted by a rugby accident in 1923. This accident allowed him to have the invaluable experience of participating as a member of the British Museum East Africa Expedition in the Tanganyika Territory. Under the leadership of the Canadian paleontologist W. E. Cutler, Leakey learned the finer points concerning the handling of fossils and site managerial skills. After the year of expedition, Leakey returned to England to complete his language requirements and to take archaeology and anthropology in 1926. Besides multiple expeditions to East Africa, Leakey held a fellowship (1929-1934), was a Leverhulme Research Fellow (1933— 1935), and was the Munro Lecturer at Edinburgh University (1936). Furthermore, he was the Herbert Spencer Lecturer at Oxford (1961), the Regent’s Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley (1963), and the Silliman Lecturer at Yale University (1963—1964). Leakey was awarded multiple honorary doctorates. He also holds an honorary doctorate of science from Oxford University and the University of East Africa and holds a doctorate of law from the University of California, Berkeley, and Guelph University.
Throughout his career, Leakey published many articles and books, most notably Stone Age Africa in 1936, Adam’s Ancestors in 1960, and Olduvia Gorge in 1965. Concerned with both African life (he became a citizen of Kenya in 1963) and natural history, Leakey was a founder trustee of the Kenya National Parks and a trustee of the East African Wildlife Society. Furthermore, he was the honorary curator for the National Museums of Kenya, whereby he created and served on the Pan-African Congresses on Prehistory and Pleistocene Studies.
Leakey’s contribution to anthropology is great; however, the basis for his success can be seen in the teamwork with his spouse. Although his first marriage to Henrietta Wilfrida Avern ended, his second marriage to Mary Douglas Nicol, an archaeologist, was a beneficial and integral part of this team’s anthropological dynamics. Among his various academic and scholastic functions and duties, including parental duties, Leakey was interested in humans’ closest living relatives—the primates. He influenced the area of primatology. He helped secure the future for Jane Goodall’s work with the chimpanzees, Dian Fossey’s study of the mountain gorillas, and Birute Galdikas’s work with the orangutans.
Although Leakey was viewed as always good-natured, the stress and workload began to undermine his health. After collapsing on four different occasions for four different reasons, Leakey died of a heart attack in London’s St. Stephen’s Hospital in 1972. Although some scientists considered some of his interpretations of the archaeological evidence as being hasty and erroneous, his dynamic personality and naturalistic inquiry benefited anthropology in the understanding of the deep history and descent of the human species. Supporting Charles Darwin’s (1809—1882) belief that Africa was the cradle of human evolution, Leakey was concerned with the complete array of African history, from humans’ remote hominid ancestors to modern-day life. Leakey’s naturalism and life history illustrate the commitment to both science and humanity.
Contributions and Perspectives
Prior to the discoveries at Olduvia Gorge, questions pertaining to the origin of the human species were surrounded by controversial speculation. Believing that Darwin was correct in his speculation that Africa, as opposed to Asia, was the cradle of humankind, Leakey’s speculation was confirmed by a hominid find by Hans Reck in the area known as Olduvia Gorge. Beds that are exposed by the natural formation yielded many answers concerning both the geological and historical aspects of the natural evolution of the human species. It is this point, including the behavioral patterns of today’s primates, that led Louis and Mary Leakey on the road to discovery.
Although Leakey previously discovered a skull he called Proconsul africanus (estimated at 20 million years old), the greater find that would be associated with the Leakeys came through the efforts of Mary Leakey. At Olduvia in 1959, she discovered a skull that differed from that of any known hominid. Exhibiting larger teeth and pronounced bone structure, Louis Leakey named this robust form Zinjanthropus (estimated at 1.75 million years old), and it is commonly known today as Australopithecus boisei. Although Mary Leakey made the first significant find, Louis Leakey would make the second discovery himself.
During an excavation in 1960, Leakey recovered a hand, clavicle, and foot that belonged to a new hominid form. Because of its means of locomotion and stone tools (Oldowan culture), Leakey named this new form Homo habilis (estimated at 2 million years old). According to the new discovery, including further discoveries not attributed to Leakey, H. habilis had the structure of the lower extremities that indicates bipedality, a rounded cranium with a cranial capacity ranging from 600 to 750 cubic centimeters, a decrease in dentition (molars and premolars), and an increase in stature. Similar discoveries with slight differing morphological features (for example, smaller occipitals, no brow ridges) are attributed to H. habilis’s contemporary, named Homo rudolfensis. Thus, the phylogeny of the human species became the following. Australopithecus afarensis shares a common ancestor. A. afarensis from Hadar and Laetoli leads to H. habilis on one side, and A. afarensis from Hadar leads to A. africanus, and then A. Boisei, on the other side.
Although Leakey was known for his controversial, and sometimes premature, explanations concerning the evidence, his dedication in search of human origins is unquestionable. Concerned with Africa’s past and future, Leakey was able to further paleoanthropology and conservation for current wildlife. He believed that Darwin was correct that Africa was the cradle of human evolution. Consequently, the evidence recovered by Leakey (both his wife’s discovery and his own) supports Darwin’s speculation. Furthermore, the antiquity of the human species and its cultural influences could be reassessed due to Leakey’s discoveries. Through fund-raising and organizational efforts, he increased awareness of human evolution and primate studies. Leakey’s contributions, although not all scientific, greatly benefited the discipline of anthropology.
- Birx, H. J. (1988). Human evolution. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
- Leakey, L. S. B. (1934). Some aspects of the Kikuyu tribe. Man, 34, 59.
- Leakey, L. S. B. (1965a). A new species of genus Homo from Olduvai Gorge. Current Anthropology, 6, 424-427.
- Leakey, L. S. B. (1965b). Recent discoveries of fossil hominids in Tanganyika: At Olduvai and near Lake Natron. Current Anthropology, 6, 422-424.
- Lewin, R. (2002). The old man of Olduvai Gorge. Smithsonian, 33, 82-88.
- Tobias, P. V. (1976a). African hominids: Dating and phylogeny. In G. Isaac & E. B. McCown (Eds.), Human origins: Louis Leakey and the East African evidence. Menlo Park, CA: W. A. Benjamin.
- Tobias, P. V. (1976b). White African: An appreciation and some personal memories of Louis Leakey. In G. Isaac & E. B. McCown (Eds.), Human origins: Louis Leakey and the East African evidence. Menlo Park, CA: W. A. Benjamin.