Some academicians may believe that only one who has had extensive formal training in a profession can make a substantial contribution to it. However, the numerous and important achievements of Mary D. Leakey invalidate this view because she never obtained a formal degree in her area of specialty, although she did receive a number of honorary degrees. Her work is primarily in the area of archaeology, but it is of obvious value to anthropologists.
Mary Leakey was born in England on February 6, 1913. Her father was a landscape artist who died early in her life. Yet Mary was able to spend much of her youth traveling in Europe. In fact, at 11 years of age, she had the opportunity to visit a famous cave in France, and it apparently increased her interest in anthropology. In 1930, she had some exposure to a university education by auditing courses in archeology and geology, but she left the university without receiving a degree.
Mary Leakey did, however, continue her interest in archaeology and apparently had an admirable ability to illustrate and record what was found in various excavating sites where she was a participant. She also developed an expertise concerning stone tools. In addition, Leakey is credited with a number of important discoveries that occurred in 1959 and 1975 and during the late 1970s. All of them constitute a contribution, but the one made during the late 1970s related to footprints demonstrating that a human had been walking upright a very long time ago. This particular finding resulted in changes in theories concerning the evolution of the human species in terms of walking.
The discoveries of Mary Leakey during these years are especially important because they give us some idea as to what the past was like in terms of human evolution. Yet besides these valuable discoveries, she should also be recognized for calling our attention to the value of recording and describing the artifacts that we uncover from the earth. She also found time in 1984 to write an interesting biography titled Disclosing the Past. Leakey continued her professional interests in retirement but died in 1996 at 83 years of age.
- Leakey, M. D. (1979). Olduvai Gorge: My search for early man. London: Collins.
- Leakey, M. (1983). Africa’s vanishing art: The rock paintings of Tanzania. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Leakey, M. (1986). Disclosing the past. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Leakey, M. D., & Harris, J. M. (Eds.). (1987). Laetoli: A Pliocene site in northern Tanzania. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.
- Morell, V. (1995). Ancestral passions: The Leakey family and the quest for humankind’s beginnings. New York: Simon & Schuster.