Science and Invention

Charles Darwin

Who are the Leakeys?

The prominent British family has included four scientists who have made significant anthropological findings in East Africa. Family patriarch Louis S. B. Leakey (1903–1972) was born near Nairobi, Kenya, the oldest child of British missionaries. There he grew up, learning the tribal language of the Kikuyu people before he learned English and wandering the countryside, where he discovered primitive stone arrowheads and tools. While attending Cambridge University, Leakey determined that he would pursue a career in archeology, and he went on to earn his doctorate degree.

Louis Leakey married archeologist and artist Mary Douglas (1913–1996) in 1936. Returning to Leakey’s boyhood home to conduct their work, the husband-and-wife team made their first discovery of note in 1948. Near Lake Victoria, Kenya, they found more than 30 fragments of the skull of an apelike creature. Scientists concluded that the animal was a common ancestor of humankind and apes—and had lived between 25 and 40 million years ago.

The Leakeys made their most well-known discoveries in neighboring Tanzania during the late 1950s and into the 1960s, proving that human evolution was centered in Africa. At the Olduvai Gorge, a 35-mile-long ravine, the archaeologists discovered layers of Earth’s history, including almost 100 forms of extinct animal life. They also unearthed the fossils of a near-man, Zinjanthropus, who possessed a brain about half the size of the modern human and who walked upright at a height of about 5 feet, roughly 1.75 million years ago. Because he lived on a diet of nuts and meat, the discovery came to be called “Nutcracker Man.” Subsequent findings at the gorge included that of Homo habilis, called “Able Man,” since it is believed that he made use of the stone tools found nearby. Louis Leakey later decided the two humanlike creatures, Able Man and Nutcracker Man, had actually lived in the same place at the same time—meaning that the evolution of humankind was not along the linear path that had been thought.

While Leakey’s controversial conclusion challenged the scientific community, so would the finds of their scientist son Richard (1944-): In the decades that followed his parents’ discoveries at Olduvai Gorge, Richard pursued his own projects at Lake Turkana in north-central Kenya. There Richard discovered more than 200 early-man fossils. Like his father, Richard Leakey is part of a husband-and-wife team of scientists. In 1971 he married British-born Meave Epps (1942-), a zoologist and paleontologist who had been hired by Louis Leakey in 1965 to work on his African digs. Together Richard and Meave Leakey, along with American anthropologist Alan Walker, have discovered and identified some of the oldest known humanlike fossils. In 1994 and 1995, near Lake Turkana, the team found prehistoric fossils, identified as Australopithecus anamnesis, humanlike creatures that lived about 4 million years ago.


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