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Our Neighbor Australopithecus: The Anthropology of Mary Leakey

The 1960s and early 1970s were the Rock Star era of anthropology, when each year seemed to bring a stunning new glimpse into the early development of man, and being a top anthropologist was to be a household name on par with Buzz Aldrin or Leonard Bernstein. And while individual superstars like Donald Johanson shone meteorically from time to time in the firmament, the era as a whole belonged to one ruling dynasty, the Leakey clan: first Louis, then his son Richard, and through it all the guiding rigor of Mary, discoverer of the Laetoli footprints, the first Proconsul africanus skull, and the Zinjanthropus specimen.

Mary Leakey, born Mary Douglas Nicol, is the patron saint of misbehaved youths. Her father was a painter who traveled the world in search of subjects, bringing his family with him. As such, Mary’s youth was full of exotic locations, visits to ancient cave paintings, and no formal schooling of any kind. Her parents twice attempted to place her in a proper learning environment, each experiment ending in quick disaster as Mary pushed herself to misbehave outrageously in order to secure an expulsion from the dread confines of school. She never passed a single examination in all of her life, but her time as a wild vagabond child gave her something more valuable than good marks – curiosity untrammeled by schooling, and a heart free of narrow national prejudice.

When she finally made up her mind to work in anthropology, she made the unprecedentedly bold move of asking Oxford if she could attend university there in spite of never having had any actual classes, to which they answered a quite patient but firm In No Way. Undaunted, Mary wrote to every anthropologist of note carrying out field work in England, volunteering her services, until she was finally accepted by the great Dorothy Liddell to help on the 1930 Hemburg dig, a British Neolithic site of growing importance. While gathering practical experience, she also made a name for herself as a deft and accurate illustrator of stone artifacts, in which capacity she was introduced to Louis Leakey.

                Ten years her senior, and already a rising titan in the anthropological community for his work at Olduvai Gorge, he was also positively stuffed with that fatal attribute, charisma. Mary and Louis soon fell in love, a fact complicated by the small problem that Louis was already quite married, with a baby on the way. In a move that stunned the academic community, Louis left his wife and newborn child to live with Mary in a romantically ramshackle house with a garden, but without indoor plumbing. He wrote and she illustrated, and together they worked towards their mutual ambition: a return to Africa.

And it was Africa that was to be their home from 1935 through the rest of their careers, living in whatever temporary structures their at first pitifully meager finances could scrape together, out under the East African sky. Amid a growing menagerie of personal pets that included an ever-present fleet of Dalmatians, but also at various times a wildebeest that thought it was a dog, a baboon, a cheetah, various hyraxes, and every type of snake ever, Mary and Louis worked at Olduvai Gorge and other sites, finding assortments of stone tools and taking in the great rock paintings of Africa as they were before their vandalism became a routine fact of African life in the 1970s. Working on the slimmest of budgets, they dragged on piecemeal from year to year, through the Second World War, and into 1948, when Mary made her first big discovery – the skull of a Proconsul africanus, a Miocene era ape that had never been viewed by human eyes before.

The find created a sensation, with a herd of photographers waiting to snap photos of Mary as she returned to England with the small skull. And with fame came the first trickling of steady funding, allowing them to expand their work at Olduvai, and Mary to undertake a three month project in 1951 to record the rock paintings of Tanzania. These were vibrant slashes of art, each painted over top the last, and it was Mary’s intention to trace and reproduce the most singular of these samples of ancient art in their last full vibrancy. For three months, she compiled hundreds of paintings, later reproduced in her majestic Africa’s Vanishing Art, each a whisper of the world as ancient man saw it. Returning to the site two decades later, Mary noted that most of the paintings had been defaced or simply destroyed, leaving only her pile of illustrations to speak their story.

If Proconsul was Mary’s first hit, and the rock paintings her follow up Legitimate Artist album, 1959 brought the mature work that solidified her status as a paleoanthropological superstar, the discovery of a skull Mary named Zinjanthorpus boisei (now Paranthropus boisei) in honor of the Leakey’s most generous patron. It was a seemingly robust yet in many respects unique member of the Australopithecus line that was thought to have gone extinct before the arrival of our Homo branch – small in brain capacity but still, as Mary would later dramatically discover, bipedal, an experiment in evolution that didn’t Quite get where it needed to go. In a further dramatic flourish, a Homo habilis skull, hand, and foot were discovered nearby soon after, establishing against all current wisdom that Australopithecus and Homo habilis were contemporaries, both walking the plains of East Africa some 1.8 million years ago.

It was a vastly important find, only rivaled by Johanson’s Lucy discovery and her own Laetoli work a decade and a half later, and it allowed Louis to kick his fundraising genius into full swing while Mary built up regular facilities for permanent work at Olduvai. And that was where the sadness began, for while Louis was away, Mary was working, and their son Richard fought to make his own name as an anthropologist by stealing his father’s thunder, the family grew steadily apart, seeing each other rarely, and looking with scorn and jealousy at each other’s occupations. Louis was the toast of the California trendy set, a fact which Mary couldn’t stand as she saw it working away at his rigorous scientific standards, culminating in the tragic farce of his Calico Hills excavations, where he insisted against all reason that his work pointed to the discovery of an important ancient civilization in California, and fumed at Mary for not supporting him.

He fell into serial infidelity, and she lost herself in work during that last half decade of Louis’s life. And that work was phenomenal, climaxing in the 1978 discovery, at the age of 65, of the Laetoli footprints. These are a remarkable find that still send a shudder down the spine of anybody with the faintest shimmer of imagination. Three and a half million years ago, there was a period of a few hours when a layer of volcanic ash was rained gently upon, rendering all of the footprints of the creatures who had walked that stretch of ground in that brief amount of time as permanent cement casts. Mary and her workers discovered first one heel print, then a line of footprints, then another walking next to it before closer inspection revealed that there was another, smaller set of prints, deliberately walking inside one of the bigger sets. What they had was, in essence, the echo of two adults and a child, walking across the African plain together, 3.5 million years ago, the child playfully leaping into the adults’ footprints, as kids adorably continue to do today. It was a totally improbable, beautifully human find that not only proved the bipedalism of Australopithecus, but captured the imagination of the world. In that 80 foot track, we could all see something of ourselves, of our inherent playfulness as a species, and our continuity even with extinct branches of our distant past.

Laetoli footprints, with the path crossed by the tracks of a three-toed horse. Photo by Tom Moon.

Work at the Laetoli site continued through 1981, and included the discovery of 15 new animal species, and one new genus, but eventually the demands of administering the Louis Leakey Foundation, and crossing the world to give speeches cut into her ability to edge in significant field time, and the Laetoli footprints were the last of her headline-making finds. She wrote her memoirs at last in 1984, and continued living in Nairobi until her death in 1996.


FURTHER READING: Mary’s autobiography, Disclosing the Past, is an interesting book. It swings between passages of unchecked enthusiasm for the landscape of Africa, with the beauty of its animals and prehistoric past, and sections describing people which offer little more warmth than “He was a good anthropologist, and we are also still in touch.” That’s part of the charm of the book, I think, just how insistently non-sentimental it can be at times. Mary frankly talks about being underwhelmed by the arrival of her first son, and rarely manages an enthusiasm for a human on the level that she regularly evinces for volcanic ash layers. In the book, she’s an emotional fortress who gets her work done even when those closest to her are manifestly betraying her confidence. Atmospherically, it’s the polar opposite of the memoirs of Kovalevskaya or Levi-Montalcini, and that’s kind of cool to dive into for a while. If you want the continuing story, her son’s book, Origins, is perhaps the most well known work of popular anthropology, and so not a bad start, in spite of its age.

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