Skip to main content

See also:

Hail Mary Leakey

Leakey Foundation
Leakey Foundation
JaneGraddell/PhotoBucket.com

Mary Leakey (1913–1996) was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the first fossilized Proconsul skull, an extinct primate now believed to be ancestral to humans. She also discovered the robust Zinjanthropus (Paranthropus boisei) skull at Olduvai Gorge. For much of her career she worked alongside her husband, Louis Leakey, in the Olduvai Gorge/Serengeti of Tanzania & Kenya, uncovering the tools and fossils of ancient hominines. Leakey developed a system for classifying stone tools and she discovered the Laetoli footprints. It was at the Laetoli site that she discovered Hominin fossils that were more than 3.75 million years old.

Brief biography: Mary Leakey was born Mary Nicol on 6 February 1913, in London, England, to Erskine Nicol and Cecilia Frere Nicol. Erskine worked as a painter specializing in watercolor landscapes. The Nicol family would move from place to place, visiting numerous locations in the U.S., Italy, Switzerland, France, and Egypt, where Erskine painted scenes to be sold in England. The Nicol's moved to Kensington, where, though unregistered, Mary could still attend lectures in archaeology and related subjects at the University College and the London Museum, where she studied under Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

Mary Nicol applied for a number of excavations to be held in the summer. Wheeler was the first to accept her for a dig—at St. Albans at the Roman site of Verulamium. Mary's second dig was at Hembury, a Neolithic site, under Dorothy Liddell, who coached her for 4 years. Her illustrations of tools drawn for Liddell drew the attention of Gertrude Caton-Thompson; and in 1932, Mary Nicol entered the field as an illustrator for Caton-Thompson's book, The Desert Fayoum.

Through Caton-Thompson, Mary met Louis Leakey, who was in need of an illustrator for his science book, Adam's Ancestors (1934). While she was doing that work they became romantically involved. Leakey was still married when he started living with Mary, which caused a scandal which eventually ruined his career at Cambridge University. They were finally married after Leakey's wife, Frida, divorced him in 1936.

Epilogue: Mostly self-educated, Mary Leakey made numerous contributions to the field of anthropology during her extraordinary 50-year career. She discovered 15 new species of other animals, and one new genus. In 1982, she lost sight in her left eye and turned over her research site to the Tanzania Department of Antiquities. Human chromosome #2, as explained by Ken Miller, validates human evolution. The human blood types are also found in chimpanzees and gorillas. In other words, blood transfusions could occur between people and chimpanzees. Yusuf Estes and Steve Harvey asked, "If people came from monkeys then why do we still have monkeys?" One answer is, "If dogs came from wolves then why do we still have wolves?"