Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996

Dente, Jenny


Book ID 582

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Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Extract Date: 19 March 1997

Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996

The text of this article has been divided into separate paragraphs

Extract ID: 3293

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 01

Mary Leakey - one of the premiere archaeologists of this century

Despite her lack of formal education, Mary Leakey stands out as one of the premiere archaeologists--let alone female archaeologists--of this century. Although Mary's research is often talked about in conjunction with that of her archaeologist husband and sons, her major finds are more than enough to gain her personal acknowledgment. These finds include the first Proconsul Africanus skull in 1948, the discovery of Zinjanthropus Boise (Australopithecus Boise) in 1959, and the Laetoli hominid footprints in 1978. Until her recent death on December 9, 1996, at age 83, Mary spent most of her days in the fields of Africa in pursuit of such archaeological treasures, sorting through ancient stone tools, recording prehistoric rock paintings, and hunting for fossil clues that might help piece together the mystery of mankind's evolution.

Extract ID: 3305

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 02
Extract Date: February 6, 1913

Early years

Mary Douglas Nicol was born on February 6, 1913 in London to Erskine Edward Nicol, a landscape painter, and Cecilia Marion Frere, an amateur artist. Her father had a huge interest in archaeology and Egyptology; one of his closest friends in Egypt was Howard Carter, known for his discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Through her father's interest, Mary was exposed to archaeology at a very early age. When her family moved to France they visited many sites of cave art and befriended the prehistorian, M. Elie Peyrony of Les Eyzies, who would allow father and daughter to accompany him on his excavations and keep whatever small finds they happened upon.

Mary describes the experience as "powerfully and magically exciting... [finding] treasure we could take home and keep." This period first sparked her love of archaeology. Her interest was further kindled through Abb" Lemozi, a priest and respected amateur archaeologist, who taught her about French cave art and ancient stone tools. After her father died when she was 13, Mary's mother tried to enroll her in a London convent school; however, Mary found the school to be "wholly unconnected with the realities of life" and soon left. Realizing that her lack of a formal education might hinder her plans to be a field archeologist, at age 17 Mary began writing to various archaeologists to offer her services assisting at digs, seeing this as her only way to gain fieldwork experience.

Extract ID: 3306

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 03
Extract Date: 1936


After numerous rejections, she finally received a letter of acceptance from Dorothy Liddell who was in charge of excavations at Windmill Hill, an important stone age site. Working as one of Miss Liddell's personal assistants, Mary dug regularly at the site and also sketched a number of the finds for publication. These sketches brought her to the notice of Dr. Gertrude Caton-Thompson in 1932-33 who asked Mary to draw the stone tools for her book, The Desert Fayoum.

A little while later, Caton-Thompson, who had become a close friend, invited Mary to a dinner party honoring the archaeologist Louis Leakey who was lecturing at the Royal Anthropological institute. Mary was always first to say that it was not love at first sight, but through the course of that evening, the two began talking with each other, and Louis asked Mary to do the drawings for his book, Adam's Ancestors.

Less than a year later, Louis left his wife, Frida, and two children, Priscilla and Colin. He headed for Tanzania in October 1934, where Mary joined him the following April. They were married Christmas Eve 1936 in Ware, England.

Extract ID: 3307

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 04
Extract Date: 1945

Recognition as a professional archaeologist

Louis took two years off from field work shortly after their marriage to gather information on the Kikuyu tribe as part of a project dedicated to recording the tribe's ancient customs before they were forgotten. During this period, Mary worked excavating Hyrax Hill, a Neolithic site in an area near Lake Nakuru, Kenya. Her finds there included obsidian and iron tools as well as remnants of stone walled houses and nineteen burial mounds. More importantly, the excavation finally won her recognition as a professional archaeologist. However, a published report of her findings was delayed until 1945 because of the outbreak of war.

Extract ID: 3308

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 05
Extract Date: 1940

Birth of Jonathan

In 1939, British Intelligence recruited Louis to work counteracting the spread of anti-British propaganda in Kenya. Mary continued her fieldwork, now working at the Naivasha Railway Rock Shelter near Nairobi. This was a job of "rescue archaeology" producing prolific, but not thrilling specimens; thousands of stone tools and millions of waste flakes were recovered but never properly sorted or recorded due to a termite invasion which destroyed the artifacts' cardboard storage boxes. Soon, Mary had to take a break from fieldwork to give birth to her and Louis's first son, Jonathan Harry Erskine Leakey, born November 4, 1940. As soon as Jonathan was a little older, Mary once again took up work excavating several sites.

Extract ID: 3309

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 06
Extract Date: 1947


One of the most exciting of these sites was Olorgesailie, located south of Nairobi. One area of this site displayed such a rich collection of handaxe artifacts that Mary and Louis felt it would be a shame to disturb it even to excavate it; Mary remembers the tools looking "as if they had only just been abandoned by their makers." In 1947, this untouched spot was made into an open-air museum. In the areas that the Leakeys did decide to excavate, they found not only hundreds of stone tools, but also what they believed to be "living floors," or actual campsites left by Acheulean (handaxe culture) hunters; however, these were later found to be merely accumulations of tools in ancient stream channels. For these digs, the Leakeys employed labor teams of Italian prisoners of war and uncovered many artifacts dated as much as 900,000 years old. Still, Mary became disappointed with the site, as in the next 10 years it proved nearly impossible to correlate the trenches she uncovered, connecting them through time; partly because of this, she never published reports on Olorgesailie.

Extract ID: 3310

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 07
Extract Date: 1944

Birth of Richard

Through these war years, the family continued to change and grow. In January of 1943, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Deborah, who died a short three months later of dysentery. However, on December 24, 1944, another baby arrived, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, and the end of the war found Mary excavating as usual, though now accompanied by two sons, their nurses, and several adored Dalmatians.

Extract ID: 3311

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 08
Extract Date: 1948

Rusinga Island

After the war, the Leakeys spent several years on Rusinga Island, just off the west coast of Lake Victoria. On the morning of October 6, 1948, Mary discovered some interesting bone fragments and a tooth buried in the side of a cliff. During the next two days, she found enough pieces to reconstruct the skull and jaws of an apelike creature from the Miocene era called Proconsul Africanus. This 18-million-year-old skull turned out to be one of the oldest and most important finds discovered in Africa up to that point; although not the "missing link" the Leakeys had been hoping to find, Proconsul Africanus is a possible ancestor of humans, and both great and lesser apes. Bits and pieces of the species had been found before, but never anything as complete as Mary's specimen. Aside from the public interest it spurred, the skull also ensured the Leakeys funding for their next expeditions. Louis and Mary, thrilled at the discovery, decided the best way to celebrate would be by having another child. Their third son, Philip, was born almost nine months later on June 21, 1949.

Extract ID: 3312

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 09
Extract Date: 1950's

Africa's Vanishing Art

In the 1950s, the Leakeys' excavation plans were once again interrupted-this time by political turmoil in Kenya. Mary saw this as a chance to return to a site she had once visited in Tanzania, and record the detailed Stone Age paintings that abounded there. The change from stone and bone surroundings delighted her; in her own words, "here were scenes of life of men and women hunting, dancing, singing and playing music." She traced, redrew and painted some 1600 figures, which she later published in a book called Africa's Vanishing Art. Unfortunately, when the population density in this area of Tanzania increased, reverence for the sites decreased and as a result many paintings were badly defaced or damaged, picked at by bored, unthinking herd-boys. This adds an even greater documentary importance to Mary's beautiful reproductions.

Extract ID: 3313

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 10
Extract Date: 1959

Discovers Zinjanthropus

Although she enjoyed this artistic interlude to her career, Mary soon found herself back in the dirt, this time excavating in Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania. Louis had first visited the gorge in 1931 and was overwhelmed by the wealth of archaeological material existing there, but for many years he lacked the money to initiate a proper excavation. Finally, in 1951, with some monetary assistance from Charles Boise, the Leakeys were able to establish a base camp and begin their investigations.

The next seven years brought steady progress but no incredible finds. Then, the morning of July 17, 1959, Mary was walking through site FLK with her Dalmatians (Louis was sick at camp with the flu), when she caught sight of what looked like a hominid skull protruding from the ground. On closer investigation, she saw that two teeth were still intact in the upper jaw and that everything appeared in situ. She'd discovered "Zinjanthropus" (later named Australopithecus Boise). Scientists agree that "Zinj" is on an evolutionary side branch-not a direct human ancestor; however, the 1.75-million-year-old specimen was the first of his species ever found, and at the time of his discovery, the oldest hominid. Mary says in her autobiography, "two major discoveries marked turning points in my life, the finding of Proconsul in 1948, and the finding of Zinj in 1959."

Extract ID: 3314

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 11
Extract Date: 1960

Jonny's Child

The discovery of Zinj did bring many changes to the Leakeys' lives. Not only did it spur widespread popular support of the Leakeys and of archaeology in general, but it also influenced the National Geographic Society to provide them with large scale financial support. Then in 1962, Mary and Louis both received gold Hubbard Awards-the National Geographic Society's highest honor. Although Zinj was Mary's most exciting discovery at Olduvai, the site also yielded many other archaeological gems. One of these was actually discovered by her eldest son, Jonathan. On November 2, 1960, he found a young hominid's lower jaw and some pieces of skull. Mary then found some hand bones of this same specimen dubbed "Jonny's Child." This turned out to be the first example ever found of Homo Habilis, a creature older than Zinj and possibly the first hominid to make stone tools. Even after this find, the gorge kept revealing enough archaeological material to keep Mary there for almost another decade.

Extract ID: 3315

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 12
Extract Date: 1972 Oct 1

Louis dies

Beginning around 1968, Mary and Louis were seldom together; she worked at Olduvai while he constantly traveled. During this period, both Louis's health and the Leakey marriage were fast deteriorating. On October 1, 1972, Louis finally died of a heart attack after years of painful infirmity. Mary, no longer working in her husband's shadow, went on to excavate one of the most important sites of her life.

Extract ID: 3316

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 13
Extract Date: 1974-1978


Mary first visited Laetoli, an area 30 miles south of Olduvai, in 1935 but didn't establish a permanent site there until 1974. In July of 1975, the first serious excavations began. Early digs revealed an abundance of hominid materials which were dated (by finding the age of overlying lava flows) at more than 2.4-million-years-old, placing them much earlier in time than any found at Olduvai. An even more exciting find occurred in 1976 when visitors to the site accidentally stumbled upon what seemed like fossilized animal prints. "Site A," as it came to be called, ended up containing almost 18,400 individual prints.

Then, in 1978, two short parallel trails of hominid prints were found by a man named Paul Abell, again by accident. Eventually, these trails were found to extend more than 80 ft in rock that was dated at 3.6-million-years-old. The prints were made by two individuals walking side-by-side, with a third deliberately stepping in the footprints of the largest individual; Mary liked to believe that they were of the genus Homo, but other scientists, including Donald Johanson (of "Lucy" fame) think they might be of the Australopithecus line. (In fact, this was a big point of contention in a vicious feud between Leakey and Johanson.)

Despite all of the questions that the footprints raised, and that remain unanswered even today, Mary deemed their discovery as one of the most important made in her lifetime. For instance, the absence of stone tools at the site leads scientists to believe that bipedalism preceded the use of tools. Mary later explained, "The discovery of the trails was immensely exciting-something so extraordinary that I could hardly take it in or comprehend its implications for some while." After their excavation, Mary finished her stay at Laetoli, ending also the most memorable stage of her archaeological career.

Extract ID: 3317

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 14
Extract Date: 1980-1996

lecturing, fund raising and touring

Mary spent the remaining years of her life lecturing, fund raising and touring. She also collected more than enough honorary degrees to make up for her lack of an official college diploma, from places such as the University of Chicago, Yale and Oxford. She was awarded the Linnaeus Medal at a symposium hosted by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Gold Medal of the Society of Women Geographers in Washington among other honors. In 1982, a blood clot caused blindness in her left eye; despite this, she published her autobiography, Disclosing the Past, in 1984, and continued to work at various excavations in Kenya and at Olduvai until close to her death in 1996. In her autobiography, Mary explains that through her whole career she was "impelled by curiosity." She writes that other archaeologists should try to satisfy their curiosities by hunting for more concrete evidence, rather than spending all their time formulating crazy hypotheses based on a few random scraps of bone. In her words, "Small pieces of the record have been preserved and can sometimes be found, but it cannot be stressed too strongly that they are indeed small parts and what we uncover may give us a biased view of the picture as a whole."

Extract ID: 3318

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996, 1997
Page Number: 15

Texts by Mary Leakey

Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

Disclosing the Past. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Excavation of Burial Mounds in Ngorongoro Crater. Arusha: Printed by Tanzania Litho, 1966

Excavations at the Njoro River Cave; Stone Age Cremated Burials in Kenya Colony. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.

Laetoli; A Pliocene Site in Northern Tanzania. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Report on the Excavations at Hyrax Hill, Nakuru, Kenya County, 1937-1938. Cape Town: Printed by the Society, 1945.

Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man. London, 1979.

Other Helpful Sources:

Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Leakey, Richard. One Life: Richard E. Leakey. Salem: Salem House, 1984.

Extract ID: 3319