Mary Leakey

Born February 6, 1913

Dies 1996

Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey

Name ID 335

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

CD Groliers Encyclopedia
Extract Author: Brian M.Fagan
Page Number: L1

Leakey family

The British anthropologists Louis S. B. Leakey, born Aug 7, 1903, died Oct 1, 1972, his wife Mary, born Mary Nichol, Feb 6, 1913, and their son Richard, born Dec 19, 1944, have made major contributions to the study of human evolution. Louis and Mary Leakey investigated early human campsites at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and found important hominid fossils more than 1.75 million years old.

Extract ID: 495

See also

CD Groliers Encyclopedia
Extract Author: Brian M.Fagan

Mary Leakey born

[Leakey, Mary] Born

Extract ID: 505

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

Cole, Sonia Leakey's Luck
Page Number: 112
Extract Date: 1935

First visit to Laetoli

The next adventure was an unpremeditated trip into completely trackless country, south of Olduvai and north-west of Lake Eyasi. It was prompted by a visitor, half Masai and half Kikuyu, who announced that he knew of stone-like bones similar to those they had been finding at Olduvai at a place called Laetolil, and he volunteered to guide them there. It proved to be beside a stream which the Germans had named the Vogel River, and the deposits, in heavily eroded 'bad lands', were different from those of Olduvai. In fact they were terrestrial rather than lacustrine, and contained many land tortoises and fossil rodents, but lacked aquatic animals such as hippos which were abundant at Olduvai. Eventually it was found that they were older than Bed I at Olduvai - a lava flow covering the deposits has now been dated to more than two million years.

Extract ID: 3337

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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
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
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
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
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
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
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

Map and Guide to Tanzania
Page Number: 02a

Unknown to non-Africans before the colonial period, the prehistory of the interior of Africa has since been partly pieced together. Discovered by chance in 1910 by a German entomologist who stumbled across some fossils and bones, evidence of human life was found in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge and the place attracted the attention of Professor Leakey and his wife, whose names are forever linked to the site. Their research started in 1931 but it was not until 1959 that Mary Leakey found fragments of teeth and a skull which were part of a male hominid whom they called Zinjanthropus or Nutcracker Man, because of his huge teeth. The skull was dated to be 1.75 to 2 million years old and was proof that hominids inhabited the area; it shifted the centre of human evolution from Asia to Africa and the discovery 20 years later of footprints at Laetoli south of Olduvai pushed back the presence of hominids to 3.5 to 4 million years.

Extract ID: 3988

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

Hanby, Jeannette & Bygott, David Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Page Number: 63
Extract Date: 1959


Mary Leakey finds 'Zinjanthropus' now renamed Australopithicus boisei

Extract ID: 506

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

1966 Publishes: Leakey, Mary Excavation of Burial Mounds in Ngorongoro Crater

Extract ID: 3261

See also

Oldupai Exhibition

building the Lodge

Exhibition at Oldupai - visited April 1999.

While building the Lodge, George Dove brought in building materials from Laetoli Gorge and noticed that they included a large number of fosils. Some of these can be seen embedded in the wall of the dining room at Ndutu. George told Mary Leakey about these, and they persuaded her to shift her attention from Oldupai to Laetoli, leading eventually to the discovery of the footprints.

Extract ID: 649

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

Johanson, Donald C and Edey, Maitland A. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind
Page Number: 248

The world heard about the footprints

For several decades Laetoli had just missed as a hominid fossil site. Louis Leakey had a try there in 1935, but came up emptyhanded. He did not know that a tooth he had sent to the British Museum labeled as a baboon's was a hominid canine. Not only was it the first adult australopithecine tooth ever found, but it was the first of any kind since the discovery of the Taung Baby. Nevertheless, it lay unnoticed in the Museum collection until 1979, when it was spotted and properly identified by White.

Leakey, meanwhile, not realizing that he had had in his hand the oldest hominid fossil then known, packed up and moved to Olduvai. He was followed at Laetoli in 1938-1939 by a German named Kohl-Larsen, who recovered a bit of an upper jawbone with a couple of premolars in it, and a well-preserved alveolus - or socket - for a canine tooth.

The trouble with those early Laetoli finds was that they were far too old and far too primitive for anyone then to dream that they were not apes or monkeys; the imagination of the 1930s was simply not elastic enough to accommodate them, even though that same imagination was saying to itself, 'Look deeper into time for older ancestors.' This is an odd, schizophrenic view that still persists today.

By 1974, when Mary Leakey decided to have a go at Laetoli, her mind at least was ready to recognize and accept very old specimens of Homo. When one of the Leakey-trained Kenyan field experts, Karnoya Kimeu, took it upon himself to cut a road in to the deposits through the thicket and came out with a hominid, Mary Leakey moved in with a team of her own. In the next couple of years she or her workers found forty-two teeth, some of them associated with bits of jawbone. One in particular, LH-4 (Laetoli Hominid 4), was a fine specimen, a mandible with nine teeth in place.

But what sets Laetoli apart from every other site in the world is some footprints that have been found there, certainly one of the most extraordinary cases of preservation and discovery in all of paleoanthropology.

Laetoli has a nearby volcano, Sadiman, that is extinct today. Not quite four million years ago it was active. One day it spat out a cloud of carbonitite ash. This stuff has a consistency not unlike that of very fine beach sand, and it powdered down over the surrounding landscape in a layer that reached a thickness of about half an inch before the eruption stopped. This fall of superfine cinders must have been extremely unpleasant for the local animals and birds while it was coming down, but there is no evidence that it did more than make them uncomfortable, because they stayed in the area. That first puff of ash - probably not lasting more than a day - was followed by a rain. The ash became wet and, almost like a newly laid cement sidewalk, began taking clear impressions of everything that walked across it: elephants, giraffes, antelopes, hares, rhinos, pigs. There were also terrestrial birds like guinea fowl and ostriches, and even the small tracks of millipedes.

In the hot sun of Laetoli the wet ash layer quickly dried and hardened, preserving the footprints that crisscrossed it. Then, before it could rain again, Sadiman spoke a second time. Another cloud of ash drifted down, covering the first and sealing in the footprints. This happened a number of times over a period estimated to have been no longer than a month, producing a single volcanic tuff about eight inches thick. .But because of the periodic puffing of Sadiman and the periodic hardening of the ash that fell, the tuff is actually composed of between a dozen and two dozen distinct thin layers. Some of these layers have been exposed recently by erosion, and are visible here and there at Laetoli in the form of a gray substrate wherever the mat of coarse turf above them has been carried off.

One afternoon in 1976, some of the more boisterous members of Mary Leakey's field team were amusing themselves by throwing hunks of dried elephant dung at each other. This may seem a peculiar pastime, but recreational resources are limited on paleontological digs, and there are times when young spirits need to blow off steam. One who felt this urge was Andrew Hill, a paleontologist from the National Museum of Kenya, who, while ducking flying dung and looking for ammunition to fire back, found himself standing in a dry stream bed on some exposed ash layers. One of these had some unusual dents in it. When Hill paused to examine them, he concluded they probably were animal footprints. That diagnosis was confirmed when a larger area was surveyed and other prints found. But no serious effort was made to follow up this extraordinary discovery until the following year, 1977, when a number of large elephant tracks were found by Mary Leakey's son Philip and a co-worker, Peter Jones, and alongside them some tracks that looked suspiciously like human footprints.

The world heard about the footprints later that year when Mary Leakey came to the United States to report on them in a series of press conferences and interviews. To many it seemed almost inconceivable that anything so ephemeral as a footprint should have been preserved for so long. But Mary was positive about the hominid ones. She went on to describe the latter as having been made by a creature that was an imperfect walker; the prints indicated that it had shuffled. She also reported the probable presence at Laetoli of knuckle-walking apes and the existence of a water hole around which the animals and birds appeared to have clustered. She even saw some evidence of panic in the tracks, suggesting that the animals had been fleeing the eruption.

Those revelations by Mary Leakey electrified everybody who heard them. She resolved to devote much of the next season's effort at Laetoli to footprints, and asked the American footprint expert Louise Robbins to join her team. White went to the Laetoli site for the first time that year, and found three other young scientists there: Peter Jones, Paul Abell and Richard Hay. These men had some doubts about Mary's interpretation of the footprints. White questioned the presence of knuckle-walking apes; he had examined those prints and said that they had been made by large extinct baboons that walked flat-footed. Jones said there had been no panicky exodus from the area, because birds, which could have flown away easily and quickly, continued to walk about in the ash it was crisscrossed with their tracks. Hay could find no evidence of a water hole.

These disagreements made for a good many nights of heated argument in camp, during which the supposedly human footprints had their ups and downs. No one could agree on them. Then Paul Abell, prospecting alone one day, found a broken impression - but a much clearer one - that he said he was quite confident was a hominid print. White and Jones made some Polaroid shots of it and came back with a strong impression that Abell was right. They recommended that excavation in the area be started immediately. But Louise Robbins, the footprint expert, examined it and declared that it was the print of a bovid (a hoofed animal). She told Mary Leakey that further investigation would be a waste of time. The men objected.

By then Mary Leakey had become thoroughly exasperated by all the arguing that had been going on. She announced that there would be no excavation. Jones, now convinced that it was a hominid, continued to plead with her for permission to make an excavation. A very small one, he said, was all he asked. Mary was adamant. Louise Robbins, the authority, had spoken; there was too much incomplete excavation at the site already. If there was going to be any digging, let it be done by somebody who had nothing better to do. She pointed to Ndibo, the maintenance man, the man in camp with the least archeological training.

Ndibo, however, proved equal to the task. He returned to camp the next day and reported not one, but two footprints. One was very large. He held his hands up, about a foot apart.

'Those Africans are always exaggerating,' said Mary. But she did go out to have a look, and there they were. White was permitted to start an excavation.

The direction of the prints indicated that their maker had been walking north under some sections of turf that had not yet been eroded. Because of the dense tangle of roots at the bottom of the turf, the task of exposing a clear ash surface without destroying it - not to mention the exact ash out of a dozen or more thin layers of it turned out to be extraordinarily difficult. But Tim is an extraordinarily patient and determined man. He found another print, and then another. He proceeded to protect the prints by hardening them with a preservative, which he poured into them in very small amounts, letting the material dry and then strengthening it by adding more. Working with agonising slowness, he inched his way farther and farther into the turf and discovered that the trail consisted of the tracks of two hominids.

Now he had the riveted attention of the entire camp. Others joined the work and ultimately were able to reveal more than fifty prints covering a distance of seventy-seven feet. Louise Robbins, her interest in the footprints suddenly rekindled, issued another opinion: indeed there were two hominids; they were probably walking together; one (with slightly larger prints) was a male; the other, possibly pregnant she said, was a female; on the evidence of the prints, this type of hominid had been an erect walker for at least a million years.

These are entertaining speculations. There is no way of telling what sex the makers of the footprints were, if one was pregnant, or how long their ancestors had walked erect. The hard truth is that 3.7 million years ago erect hominids of indeterminate sex did walk through fresh-fallen ash at Laetoli and leave an imperishable record of their passing. After seventy-seven feet their trails disappeared under the overlying ash; the particular layer that marked it has been washed away. Tim's work on the footprints stopped at that point, which also marked the end of the season. But he felt strongly that the trail could be picked up again a little farther along and that it would yield more prints if proper excavation were carried out. Work in that direction was done in 1979 by Ron Clarke, and the trail picked up again.

Tim was not a party to this further work. His arguments with Louise Robbins over interpretation of the footprints have made him as unwelcome now at Laetoli as he is at Lake Turkana - a pity, because in each instance he was only trying to help the proprietors.

Tim's concern today is that as more prints are found, they be handled with the utmost care. They are supremely fragile, and the slightest mistake in excavating them can destroy them completely. Some have already been damaged. They are not like fossils, those rocklike models of durability. They are only spaces, mere shapes in a relatively soft and frangible matrix. If that matrix is nudged incorrectly, it will crumble - and the footprints will be gone.

But, by a wildly improbable linkage of random events, they are there. Sadiman had to blow out a particular kind of ash. Rain had to fall on it almost immediately. Hominids had to follow on the heels of the rain. The sun had to come out promptly and harden their footprints. Then another blast from Sadiman had to cover and preserve them before another obliterating shower came along.

All this had to happen over a period of only a few days. And the volcano had to synchronise its activity with that of the seasons. If its bursts had not come just when they did - at the beginning of the rains - the footprints would not have been preserved. A month or two earlier, during the dry season, the ash would not have had the consistency to take a sharp imprint. It would have been a hopelessly blurry one, a mere dent, like the one a passerby today makes in the dry sand on the upper margin of a beach. If it had come later, at the height of the rainy season, it is overwhelmingly likely that there would have' been too much rain; the footprints would have been washed away before they could have been baked hard by the sun. Indeed, there had to be just what the beginning of a rainy season produces: sporadic showers interspersed with intervals of hot sun.

All things considered, the preservation and recovery of the Laetoli footprints are nothing short of a miracle. They confirm without a shadow of a doubt what Lucy confirmed at Hadar: that hominids were fully erect walkers at three million B.C. and earlier. At Hadar the evidence is in the fossils, in the shape of leg and foot bones. But at Laetoli, where the fossil remains - some extremely scrappy and enigmatic postcranial bits, jaw parts, and some teeth - are of very poor quality, there is no way without the footprints of deducing how those hominids got around.

'Make no mistake about it.' says Tim. 'Thev are like modern footprints. If one were left in the sand of a California beach today, and a four-year-old were asked what it was, he would instantly say that somebody had walked there. He wouldn't be able to tell it from a hundred other prints on the beach, nor would you. The external morphology is the same. There is a well-shaped modern heel with a strong arch and a good ball of the foot in front of it. The big toe is straight in line. It doesn't stick out to the side like an ape toe, or like the big toe in so many drawings you see of australopithecines in books.

I don't mean to say that there may not have been some slight differences in the foot bones; that's to be expected. But to all intents and purposes, those Laetoli hominids walked like you and me, and not in a shuffling run, as so many people have claimed for so long. Owen Lovejoy deduced all that from studying the Hadar bones. Now the footprints prove him right. I think they rank with the most wonderful and illuminating discoveries in decades. Although it didn't end too happily for me, I'm still grateful that. I was lucky enough to have participated in the work on them.'

Extract ID: 3281

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa
Page Number: 178b
Extract Date: 1975

Verbal badinage

In Kenya, a country not noted for its verbal badinage. Alan's plays on words have become passwords to his life.

His pet aardvark is named Million. Why? Because "Aardvark a million miles for one of your smiles!"

On the front of his car the Range Rover lettering has been changed to read "Hang Over."

When asked by a Walt Disney producer if he liked the name of their new film about bongos. "The Biggest Bongo in the World", he was quite abusive. "Awful," he said. They challenged him to come up with a better one and in a second he solved their dilemma: "Last Bongo in Paris."

On another occasion, he was drinking with his friend, Dr. Mary Leakey, who was pondering what to name her exhaustive monograph on the stone tool cultures of the Olduvai Gorge. Alan advised her to call it: "I Dig Dirty Old Men."

Extract ID: 4162

See also

Hanby, Jeannette & Bygott, David Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Page Number: 63
Extract Date: 1976

Mary Leakey discovered tracks at Laetoli

Mary Leakey discovered tracks at Laetoli

Extract ID: 508

See also

Willis, Delta The Leakey Family: Leaders in the Search for Human Origins
Page Number: 99
Extract Date: 1976

The way the first footprints were found

Twenty miles east of Laetoli, a volcano known as Sadiman erupted 3.65 million years ago. As the ashes settled to the ground, there was a series of rain showers.

Following one of these showers, a group of hominids walked in the Laetoli area. The ground was still wet and mushy, so they left their footprints behind them. When the sun came out and baked the ashes, these footprints were preserved, as hard as a fossil. Over the years, the winds brought in new sediments, and layers of earth covered many of these footprints. Some, however, were exposed by rains again recently. The first footprints to be found belonged to hares and to birds similar to guinea fowl.

While the KBS controversy was brewing in the mid-1970s, Mary Leakey devoted herself to exploring the Laetoli region. Much of her work at Olduvai had been completed, and she moved to this older site nearby in hopes of finding older stone tools. At the time, the oldest known stone tools were from the Omo, dated at 2.2 million years old. But Mary and her team had found older hominid fossils at the Laetoli sites, and the big question was, did these hominids make tools? As Mary has said, "In archaeology you almost never find what you set out to find."

The way the first footprints were found is as remarkable as it is funny. In September 1976, Mary welcomed a group of friends who had come down to Tanzania for a quick visit. The group included Kay Behrensmeyer, Andrew Hill, a paleontologist who worked for the Nairobi Museum, and Jonah Western [think she means David Western], an ecologist who worked at Kenya's Amboseli National Park. Mary was showing them the sites one day, and as they walked back to camp in the evening. Hill and Western began to toss elephant dung at each other. Elephant dung, when dried, is not offensive at all; it doesn't smell; it's just like a big cake of dried grass. Western buried a big piece at Hill, who ducked and fell on the ground.

Hill noticed some interesting-looking imprints in a flat gray surface. The first little dents he saw were later identified as raindrop prints. But it made him look around, and he found footprints of hares, birds and rhinos. Since then literally tens of thousands of footprints have been found in what became known as Site A, ranging from the tiny tracks left by insects to the massive depressions left by elephants.

Two years later a footprint was found that looked like the mark of a human heel. Excavations began, and it turned outthat the path of footprints went for over 20 yards. It looked as if two different hominids had walked there. Mary Leakey thinks they didn't walk at the same time. The path of one individual was very clear and distinct, while the other set of footprints was blurred and not as sharp. It appeared that they may have been impressed upon two different layers of ash which fell at different times.

Mary Leakey describes the Laetoli footprints as "perhaps the most remarkable finds I have made in my whole career." Because the footprints were so humanlike, she felt they could only have been left by one of our direct ancestors.

What do these footprints tell us about our ancestors? That they walked upright 3.65 million years ago. The shape of the foot is very similar to our own. Because no tools were found in this same level, these hominids must have walked upright before they used tools.

In addition to the footprints, Mary's team found part of a child's skeleton and several fossil remains of adults�two lower jaws, part of an upper jaw and a number of teeth. The best specimen of the lower jaw was called LH 4, for Laetoli Hominid number four. It would become a huge bone of contention.

Extract ID: 3285

See also

Reader, John Africa: A Biography of the Continent
Page Number: 55
Extract Date: September 1976


Chapter 6

The upright bipedal gait of humans is a unique and highly inefficient mode of locomotion, but the anatomy of modern apes, with 60 per cent of their body weight carried on the hindlegs, indicates that the common ancestor of apes and humans was pre-adapted to bipedalism. Environmental circumstances in Africa provide an explanation of why and how the fully upright stance and bipedal gait evolved in humans.

Laetoli lies roughly 500 kilometres to the south of the Tugen Hills. Late-twentieth-century walking enthusiasts could cover the distance comfortably in twenty-five days, and the journey certainly would not have deterred their ancestors, 4 million years before. Indeed, the safari must always have been enticing: south along the Western wall of the Rift Valley; perhaps taking a slow route through the high forest, where there is fruit and honey in season, or moving more speedily through wooded grasslands borderingthe foothills below. At intervals, perennial streams gush dependably from the Rift wall. There would have been (and are still) predators to be avoided, of course, but also their prey to be scavenged. The route rises up and over the Mau escarpment, where there is an option of following the forested course of the Uaso Nyiro River to Lake Natron, or turning towards the Loita Hills and the cool grasslands above the lake basin. Volcanoes dominated the landscape to the east of Olduvai; southward, herds of antelope and zebra congregated on the plain.

Andrew Hill made the journey by road in September 1976. At Laetoli, Mary Leakey and her co-workers were bringing the season of investigations to a close. The work that year had been inspired by the discovery of hominid fossils (among them a mandible subsequently described as the type specimen of Australopithecus afarensisf during an exploratory visit made during the Christmas holiday of 1974.

A host of fossils had been found, including animals ranging in size from shrew to elephant, tortoises, a clutch of beautifully preserved eggs matching those of the modern guinea fowl, and tiny leaves identical to those on acacias in the woodlands today. The Laetoli fossil beds had been dated to between 3'59 million and-3-77 million years old - just the period during which the bipedal ancestors of humanity were consolidating their presence in the Rift Valley - but hominid finds were scarce at Laetoli: a few fragments of jaw and some isolated teeth were found in T.97S, and some pieces of a juvenile skeleton in 1.976. After a promising start, it seemed the potential of the Laetoli deposits was not to be fulfilled.

That was the state of affairs when Andrew Hill went for a stroll one evening with David Western, a wildlife ecologist also visiting the Laetoli sites. Their walk took them across a dry river bed in which an expanse of fine-grained volcanic tuff was exposed. Elephants had recently passed that way too, and had left a number of their cannonball-sized droppings scattered about the river bed. In equatorial Africa, a sun-dried ball of elephant dung appeals to the same instincts that snowballs awaken in northern latitudes. People fling them at one another and, unsurprisingly, wildlife ecologists tend to be more adept than most. Dr Hill fell as he turned to avoid a particularly well-aimed missile from Dr Western. While on his knees, pleading for a brief cessation of hostilities, he noticed a curious spattering of tiny indentations in the surface of the grey tuff. These were later identified as raindrop prints but, having attracted Hill's attention, they led him to examine the surface more closely. Amid the puzzling indentations he recognized an unmistakable series of animal tracks'

People had crossed that indented tuff surface hundreds of times during the course of the previous two seasons, but always on the way to somewhere else, with a clear picture in mind of the fossils they were looking for. By chance, an airborne ball of elephant dung introduced a fresh point of view, instantly focusing the investigators' attention on the totally different fossil information that lay at their feet - fully visible, but hidden until then by the blinkers of preconceived notion.

Dr Hill's lucky fall redirected the thrust of the Laetoli investigations. Fossil bones were relegated to a level of secondary interest and during the final weeks of the 1076 season the identification of fossil footprints became the primary endeavour.

Hundreds of prints were found, representing more than twenty different animals, ranging in size from cat and hare to elephant, rhinoceros, and giraffe. Guinea-fowl prints were numerous, so too were the prints of small antelopes, hyenas, pigs, baboons, and hipparion, the ancestral three-toed horse. During the 1977 and 1978 seasons, seven distinct sites were located and mapped. Where desirable, overlying soils were removed. Mammal and bird prints occurred everywhere, wonderfully preserved in the fine-grained volcanic ash. Most wonderful of all was the trail, nearly fifty metres long, left by three hominids walking northward from the woodlands down to the plains.

The trail records a unique moment in time and its preservation is little short of miraculous. About 3.6 million years ago, a series of light ash eruptions from a nearby volcano coincided with a series of rain showers, probably at the onset of the rainy season. The ash filled depressions in the landscape, and the rain transformed them into mud pans. Animals crossed the pans while they were still wet, and their tracks were preserved as the ash dried hard as cement. The next shower of ash laid a protective covering over the tracks. A succession of ash and rain showers created at least six distinct surfaces on which prints are preserved; in total they are fifteen centimetres thick.

Sadiman and Lemgarut, the volcanoes whose ash created the Laetoli fossil beds, are no longer active, but the Laetoli landscape is otherwise not very different today from that which its inhabitants knew over 3 million years ago. The highland foothills are covered in dense acacia thornbush, and the upper slopes are swathed in grass that turns from green to golden as the dry season advances. Westward, the plain extends to a distant horizon, the broad undulating expanse broken here and there by huge steep-sided outcrops of granite and gneiss that rise from the grassland-like islands (indeed, in geological terminology they are known as inselbergs - island mountains): Naibardad, Naabi, and Moru, where there is always water. In shallow valleys, strands of woodland mark the watercourses along which the seasonal rains drain away to Olduvai Gorge, about forty kilometres from Laetoli. Elephants come down from the highlands; giraffes cross the plain, their legs blurred in the shimmering heat haze; lions lie concealed in the dun-coloured grass,

Extract ID: 3284

See also

Independent / Independent on Sunday

The oldest human footprints

October 1993

The oldest human footprints - the only proof that early man walked upright on two legs 3.6 million years ago - are being destroyed through neglect... . Mary Leakey, ... discovered the tracks at Laetoli in 1978. The prints were analysed before being covered up in 1979 with polythene, sand and rocks to protect them. ... However, scientists who recently visited the site were horrified by the neglect. Termites had eaten the polythene, torrential rain had washed away much of the sand, and acacia trees were growing over the tracks, raising fears that their roots had begun to break up the brittle volcanic ash. ...

Extract ID: 439

See also

Willis, Delta The Leakey Family: Leaders in the Search for Human Origins
Page Number: 100
Extract Date: 1978

Golden Linnaean Medal

In 1978 Johanson and White decided to announce a new name for the discoveries. Johanson was one of many scientists scheduled to speak at a Nobel Symposium in Sweden in May. The conference would honor Mary Leakey, who would receive a medal from the King of Sweden for her scientific work.

Mary Leakey received the Golden Linnaean Medal, the first woman to do so. But she also endured one of the most embarrassing moments in her life. Johanson spoke before she did, and announced the new name for the species from Ethiopia - and in this species, he included Mary Leakey's discoveries from Laetoli. In fact, the jaw LH 4 was featured as the type specimen, or model, for the news species name Australopithecus afarensis. Australopithecus is the formal genus name for the australopithecines, and afarensis denotes the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia where they were found. But the model specimen came from Tanzania.

Johanson talked at length about the discoveries at Laetoli, which scooped Mary's own speech. She was angry and embarrassed. During the coffee break, she confided to Richard: "How am I going to give my paper now? It's all been said." Richard said later that she felt that she "was going to look as if she was a fool, repeating the material." More controversial, Johanson had named her discoveries, using a designation that was totally at odds with what she believed. Because Johanson named them first, that name stuck. When she stood up to give her talk, Mary Leakey could not say that the finds from Laetoli were Homo as she thought they were. She just expressed her deep regret that "the Laetoli fellow is now doomed to be called Australopithecus afarensis."

Some scientists suggest that White and Johanson lumped the Laetoli finds in with the others to give the new species an older date. The fossils that Mary Leakey found in Tanzania were nearly four million years old - at the time, the oldest hominids ever discovered.

The controversy continues today. In 1990 more fossils were found in Ethiopia that suggest there may have been two species, rather than one as Johanson and White claimed. But the Leakeys withdrew from this debate; they decided that their best defense was just to keep working and find more evidence.

Extract ID: 3277

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1979 Publishes: Leakey, Mary Olduvai Gorge; My Search for Early Man

Extract ID: 3017

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

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1983 Publishes: Leakey, Mary Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania.

Extract ID: 3018

See also

Darch, Colin (Ed) Tanzania
Extract Author: Edited by Mary Douglas Leakey, John Michael Harris.
Page Number: 44 item 122
Extract Date: 1987

Laetoli: a Pliocene site in northern Tanzania.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. 561p. bibliog. plans.

This monograph is a lavish description of work carried out from 1974 to 1981 at one of the richest hominid sites in Africa, in northern Tanzania, at a place named after a local Maasai word for the lily. The book also contains a strong attack on the idea of a species named Australopithecus afarensis, proposed by Donald Johanson and others after the discovery of the 'Lucy' remains in Ethiopia in 1977. Mary Leakey first excavated at Laetoli in 1935 with the late Louis Leakey, but nobody realized for over forty years that this site was actually both richer and older than Olduvai and it was only in the mid-1970s that Mary Leakey returned to Laetoli to begin serious and systematic work. The Laetoli layers are in fact around 3.5 to 3.7 million years old, and include the famous footprints left, probably, by a man, a woman and a child strolling across an area of damp ash for a few moments, with a human gait. This comprehensive book covers the whole Laetoli succession in a wide range of disciplines, and brings together work from thirty-three contributors in fourteen carefully and systematically written chapters.

Unfortunately, T. D. White's descriptions of the hominid remains do not appear in this book, for reasons explained by M. Leakey in chapter 5. For White's most recent contribution on the footprints, see Tim D. White and Gen Suwa, 'Hominid footprints at Laetoli: facts and interpretations' (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 72 [April 1987], p. 485-514. bibliog.), dealing with the fossil footprints of the Australopithecines.

Extract ID: 3279

See also

Reader, John Africa: A Biography of the Continent

International Congress in honour of Dr. Mary Douglas Leakey

International Congress in honour of Dr. Mary Douglas Leakey's Outstanding Contribution to Palaeoanthropology, Arusha, Tanzania

Extract ID: 510

external link

See also

Scientific America
Extract Author: Marguerite Holloway
Extract Date: 1994 Oct

Mary Leakey: Unearthing History

This profile of Dr. Leakey, written by former news editor Marguerite Holloway, originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of Scientific American.

Mary Leakey waits for my next question, watching from behind a thin curtain of cigar smoke. Leakey is as famous for her precision, her love of strong tobacco--half coronas, preferably Dutch--and her short answers as she is for some of the most significant archaeological and anthropological finds of this century. The latter would have hardly been excavated without her exactitude and toughness. And in a profession scarred by battles of interpretation and of ego, Leakey's unwillingness to speculate about theories of human evolution is unique.

These characteristics have given Leakey a formidable reputation among journalists and some of her colleagues. So have her pets. In her autobiography, "Disclosing the Past," Leakey mentions a favorite dog who tended to chomp people whom the archaeologist didn't like, "even if I have given no outward sign." So as we talk in her home outside Nairobi, I sit on the edge of a faded sofa, smiling exuberantly at her two dalmatians, Jenny and Sam, waiting for one of them to bite me. I quickly note details-- her father's paintings on the wall, the array of silver trophies from dog shows and a lampshade with cave painting figures on it--in case I have to leave suddenly. But the two dogs and soon a cat and later a puppy sleep or play, and Leakey's answers, while consistently private, seem less terse than simply thoughtful.

Leakey first came to Kenya and Tanzania in 1935 with her husband, the paleontologist Louis Leakey, and except for forays to Europe and the U.S., she has been there ever since. During those many years, she introduced modern archaeological techniques to African fieldwork, using them to unearth stone tools and fossil remains of early humans that have recast the way we view our origins. Her discoveries made the early ape Proconsul, Olduvai Gorge, the skull of Zinjanthropus and the footprints of Laetoli, if not household names, at least terms familiar to many.

Leakey was born in England, raised in large part in France and appears to have been independent, exacting and abhorrent of tradition from her very beginnings. Her father, an artist, took his daughter to see the beautiful cave paintings at such sites as Fond de Gaume and La Mouthe and to view some of the stone and bone tools being studied by French prehistorians. As she has written, these works of art predisposed Leakey toward digging, drawing and early history: "For me it was the sheer instinctive joy of collecting, or indeed one could say treasure hunting: it seemed that this whole area abounded in obje cts of beauty and great intrinsic interest that could be taken from the ground."

These leanings ultimately induced Leakey at the age of about 17 to begin working on archaeological expeditions in the U.K. She also attended lectures on archaeology, prehistory and geology at the London Museum and at University College London. Leakey says she never had the patience for formal education and never attended university; she never attended her governesses either. (At the same time, she is delighted with her many honorary degrees: "Well, I have worked for them by digging in the sun.")

A dinner party following a lecture one evening led her, in turn, to Louis Leakey. In 1934 the renowned researcher asked Mary, already recognized for her artistic talents, to do the illustrations for a book. The two were soon off to East Africa. They made an extraordinary team. "The thing about my mother is that she is very low profile and very hard working," notes Richard E. Leakey, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, an iconoclast known for his efforts to ban ivory trading and a distinguished paleontologist. "Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father's career. He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician. He was much more excitable, a magician."

What the master and the magician found in their years of brushing away the past did not come easily. From 1935 until 1959 the two worked at various sites throughout Kenya and Tanzania, searching for the elusive remains of early humans. They encountered all kinds of obstacles, including harsh conditions in the bush and sparse funding. Success too was sparse--until 1948. In that year Mary found the first perfectly preserved skull and facial bones of a hominoid, Proconsul, which was about 16 million years old. This tiny Miocene ape, found on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, provided anthropologists with their first cranium from what was thought to be the missing link--a tree-dwelling monkey boasting a bigger brain than its contemporaries.

Proconsul was a stupendous find, but it did not improve the flow of funds. The Leakeys remained short of financial support until 1959. The big break came one morning in Olduvai Gorge, an area of Tanzania near the Great Rift Valley that slices East Africa from north to south. Again it was Mary who made the discovery. Louis was sick, and Mary went out to hunt around. Protruding slightly from one of the exposed sections was a roughly 1.8-million-year-old hominid skull, soon dubbed Zinjanthropus. Zinj became the first of a new group--Australopithecus boisei--and the first such skull to be found in East Africa.

"For some reason, that skull caught the imagination," Leakey recalls, pausing now and then to relight her slowly savored cigar or to chastise a dalmatian for being too forward. "But what it also did, and that was very important for our point of view, it caught the imagination of the National Geographic Society, and as a result they funded us for years. That was exciting."

How Zinj fits into the family tree is not something Leakey will speculate about. "I never felt interpretation was my job. What I came to do was to dig things up and take them out as well as I could," she describes. "There is so much we do not know, and the more we do know, the more we realize that early interpretations were completely wrong. It is good mental exercise, but people get so hot and nasty about it, which I think is ridiculous."

I try to press her on another bone of contention: Did we Homo sapiens emerge in Africa, or did we spring up all over the world from different ancestors, a theory referred to as the multiregional hypothesis? Leakey starts to laugh. "You'll get no fun out of me over these things. If I were Richard, I would talk to you for hours about it, but I just don't think it is worth it." She pauses. "I really like to feel that I am on solid ground, and that is never solid ground."

In the field, Leakey was clearly on terra firma. Her sites were carefully plotted and dated, and their stratigraphy--that is, the geologic levels needed to establish the age of finds--was rigorously maintained. In addition to the hominid remains found and catalogued at Olduvai, Leakey discovered tools as old as two million years: Oldowan stone tools. She also recorded how the artifacts changed over time, establishing a second form, Developed Oldowan, that was in use until some 500,000 years ago.

"The archaeological world should be grateful that she was in charge at Olduvai," notes Rick Potts, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who is studying Olorgesailie, a site about an hour south of Nairobi where the Leakeys found ancient stone axes in 1942. Now, as they did then, the tools litter the White, sandy Maasai savanna. The most beautiful ones have been stolen, and one of Leakey's current joys is that the Smithsonian is restoring the site and its small museum and plans to preserve the area.

Olduvai Gorge has not fared as well. After years of residence and work there, and after the death of Louis in 1972, Mary finally retired in 1984. Since then, she has worked to finish a final volume on the Olduvai discoveries and has also written a book on the rock paintings of Tanzania. "I got too old to live in the bush," she explains. "You really need to be youngish and healthy, so it seemed stupid to keep going." Once she left, however, the site was ignored. "I go once a year to the Serengeti to see the wildebeest migrations because that means a lot to me, but I avoid Olduvai if I can because it is a ruin. It is most depressing." In outraged voice, she snaps out a litany of losses: the abandoned site, the ruined museum, the stolen artifacts, the lost catalogues. "Fortunately, there is so much underground still. It is a vast place, and there is plenty more under the surface for future generations that are better educated."

Leakey's most dramatic discovery, made in 1978, and the one that she considers most important, has also been all but destroyed since she left the field. The footprints of Laetoli, an area near Olduvai, gave the world the first positive evidence of bipedalism. Three hominids (generally identified as Australopithecus afarensis ) had walked over volcanic ash, which fossilized, preserving their tracks. The terrain was found to be about 3.6 million years old. Although there had been suggestions in the leg bones of other hominid fossils, the footprints made the age of bipedalism incontrovertible. "It was not as exciting as some of the other discoveries, because we did not know what we had," she notes. "Of course, when we realized what they were, then it was really exciting."

Today the famous footprints may only be salvaged with the intervention of the Getty Conservation Institute. "Oh, they are in a terrible state," Leakey exclaims. "When I left, I covered them over with a mound of river sand and then some plastic sheeting and then more sand and a lot of boulders on top to keep the animals off and the Maasai off." But acacia trees took root and grew down among the tracks and broke them up.

Although Leakey steers clear of controversy in her answers and her writings, she has not entirely escaped it. She and Donald Johanson, a paleontologist at the Institute of Human Origins in Berkeley, Calif., have feuded about the relation between early humans found in Ethiopia and in Laetoli. (Johanson set up his organization as a philosophical counterweight to the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation.) And some debate erupted about how many prints there were at Laetoli. Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley claimed that there were only two and that Leakey and her crew had made the other track with a tool during excavation. Leakey's response? "It was a nonsense," she laughs, and we are on to the next subject.

A subject Leakey does not like. "'What was it like to be a woman? A mother? A wife?' I mean that is all such nonsense," she declares. Leakey--like many other female scientists of her generation, including Nobel laureates Rita Levi-Montalcini and Gertrude Belle Elion--dislikes questions about being a woman in a man's field. Her sex played no role in her work, she asserts. She just did what she wanted to do. "I was never conscious of it. I am not lying for the sake of anything. I never felt disadvantaged."

Leakey just did her work, surviving bitter professional wars in anthropolog y and political upheavals. In 1952 Louis, who had been made a member of the Kikuyu tribe during his childhood in Africa, was marked for death during the Mau Mau uprising. The four years during the height of the rebellion were terrifying for the country. The brakes on Mary's car were tampered with, and a relative of Louis's was murdered. The house that Leakey lives in today was designed during this time: a low, White square structure with a central courtyard where the dogs can run at night.

These pets are very important to Leakey--a source of companionship and safety out in the bush. She admires the traits in them that others admire in her: independence and initiative. (Any small joy that I have about emerging from her house unbitten fades sadly when I reread the section in her autobiography about her telepathic dalmatian and learn that he died years ago.)

We seem to have covered everything, and so she reviews her discoveries aloud. "But you have not mentioned the fruits," she reminds me. One of Leakey's favorite finds is an assortment of Miocene fossils: intact fruits, seeds, insects--including one entire ant nest--and a lizard with its tongue hanging out. They lay all over the sandy ground of Rusinga Island. "We only found them because we sat down to smoke a cigarette, hot and tired, and just saw all these fruits lying on the ground next to us. Before that we had been walking all over them all over the place." She stops. "You know, you only find what you are looking for, really, if the truth be known."

Extract ID: 3304

See also

Guardian (UK)
Extract Author: Greg Barrow
Extract Date: 1996 December 10

Mary Leakey returns to Laetoli

Mary Leakey returned to Laetoli last August with members of the California-based Getty Conservation Institute, which had contributed to a project to preserve the footprints, covering them with a synthetic protective layer.

Despite being 83, Mary Leakey was a sprightly lady with a fondness for cigars. Members of the Getty party recall that back in Laetoli she enjoyed the opportunity to be sleeping out again in the open air of the African bush.

Extract ID: 511

external link

See also

The News Times (Connecticut)
Extract Author: SUSAN LINNEE Associated Press Writer
Extract Date: September 16, 1996

First Hominid Footprints Being Covered Over in Tanzania

Copyright 1996 Associated Press.

Laetoli SITE, Tanzania (AP) - Mary Leakey and the Masai wore red - the favorite color of the Masai people who first drew the attention of the English archaeologist to the site of her most important discovery.

A short distance from the gathering of herders and scientists lay the 89-foot-long trackway of footprints. They were left by beings nearly human walking south-to-north 3.6 million years ago.

At the time, the Sandiman volcano was belching ash across what is now known as the Serengeti Plain and the prints were preserved as the volcanic sludge hardened.

By the end of September, the footprints will be covered over again to conserve them for posterity - this time with high-tech synthetic materials embedded with time-release capsules of herbicides.

The decision in 1994 by the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities and the California-based Getty Conservation Institute to bury the tracks after cleaning and restoration was difficult to take, said the project's director, Martha Demas.

It means that, for the foreseeable future, no one will be able to see the real thing - the sets of three separate hominid footprints complete with the the imprint of the skin. It is the only fossilized evidence of soft tissue of the beings who first walked upright.

Mary Leakey, the 83-year-old widow of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, came to the gathering from her home in Nairobi, Kenya, for a last glimpse of the footprints she first saw 18 years ago.

``They looked startlingly like our own,'' embedded in the volcanic tuff in a sloping, grassy gully that the Masai call ``Laetoli'' after the red lilies that grow in the area.

Asked what she thought about covering over her famous discovery, Leakey had a terse reply: ``You've got to bury it if you want to conserve it.''

Long covered over by dirt, the footprints became visible again when natural erosion wore away the protective layer and were discovered by Leakey in 1978. But water and wind have been eroding the prints and some have been damaged by roots of the acacia trees that abound in the region. There was also the danger that people would try to collect souvenirs.

Leakey said it would be ``very desirable'' for people to see the trackway as it was - if it were somewhere more easily protected. The site in northern Tanzania was judged too remote to justify housing it in its own museum.

Numerous casts of the footprints have been made for exhibit in the museum at Olduvai Gorge and for further study and educational purposes. The gorge, 35 miles to the north, is where Louis Leakey uncovered some of the earliest evidence of man.

Louis Leakey came to Laetoli in 1935 after a Masai herder told him about all the ``bones like stone'' lying around. His wife, who was on her first trip to Africa, remained at the Olduvai site.

She recalled that on that first trip, several Masai offered to trade her a side of beef for her tube of bright red lipstick. But she refused because ``it was the only one I had and it had to last the summer.''

It wasn't until 40 years later that the footprints were discovered.

Their discovery reinforced the theory that bipedalism - walking upright on two feet - preceded tool-making, said Neville Agnew, associate programs director for the Getty Conservation Institute.

This was established through potassium argon dating of the footprints and fossilized tools found in the same area. The footprints were much older.

After excavating the site in 1978-79, Mary Leakey and her colleagues, whose budget was tight, covered the spot as best they could with rocks and a simple structure of wooden supports and corrugated tin roof.

Acacia trees took root among the several trackways that bear hundreds of animal footprints as well as the hominid prints. Wind and rain chipped away at the cracked, slate-like layers. And the Masai, who have lived in the area for centuries, thought the building materials were more useful to live humans than to their fossilized memories.

The recent gathering at the site was arranged by the Getty institute and Tanzanian authorities to impress upon the local Masai the importance of the footprints and to seek their cooperation in preservation.

Demas, the Laetoli project director, said protecting such sites is difficult ``because people like the materials.''

The trackway will be buried under layers of synthetic netting and sheeting and topped with black volcanic rocks to deter casual diggers. When finished, the whole thing will look like a big burial mound.

Larazo Mariki, a local official, said the Masai might not initially think the footprints are very important.

``But the footprints are not only for the Masai,'' he said. ``Everybody is supposed to protect them - Americans, Tanzanians - but the nearest people who have to protect them are the Masai.''

Naanga Siaro ole Kiroway, a 27-year-old ``moran,'' or member of the Masai warrior group of men aged 15 to 25, thought for a while and then decided that, all things considered, protecting the footprints was worthwhile.

``It's better to cover them and save them,'' he said. ``Otherwise we won't have them at all.''

End Adv for Mon PMs, Sept. 23

Extract ID: 3295

See also

Guardian (UK)
Extract Date: 1996 Oct 3

Prints of darkness

The Getty Conservation Institute and the Tanzanian Government have decided to cover humanity's tracks. The footprints of man's hominoid ancestors walking from north to south through fresh volcanic ash 3.6 million years ago were discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania 18 years ago by the archaeologist Mary Leakey. After more than a decade of fretting and hand-wringing about how to preserve them, experts have opted for burial: the prints will be covered with high-tech synthetic stuff embedded with time-release herbicide capsules. The prints, the only fossilised evidence of ancient hominoid tissue, will then be concealed again - but also protected from plant damage and wind and water erosion. Said the 83-year-old Mary Leakey: 'You�ve got to bury it if you want to conserve it.'

Extract ID: 442

See also

Smith, Anthony A dawn for history in the dust of the gorge



Guardian 10 Dec 1996, Obituary by Anthony Smith

Extract ID: 512

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

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See also

Genesis International Research Association
Page Number: 2
Extract Date: 1997

GIRA: Why the human feet?

2. Why the human feet?

During the time Johanson was discovering various bone fragments of several afarensis specimens in Ethiopia, Mary Leakey had a field party at Laetoli, Tanzania about 30 miles south of Olduvai (Figure 3). She had also discovered afarensis bone fragments within the Laetoli Beds of Pliocene age (Figures 1 & 3). On the upper surface of the Laetoli Beds, her team discovered a thin layer of volcanic ash in which they found numerous footprints of birds and animals. They found footprints of rabbits, guinea fowl, rhinos, giraffes, elephants and several kinds of animals that no longer exist in Africa. They also found human footprints showing both heel and big toe marks of an adult and a child (p.24 of Human Origins, Leakey). These were human footprints, because apes do not have a heel bone. Mary Leakey also reported the footprints of knuckle walking apes. So, the following season she brought an American footprint expert, Louise Robbins, to confirm the find. Anthropologists Tim Whyte, Peter Jones, Paul Able, and Richard Hay were also on the team. Mary's knuckle walking footprints, a water hole and evidence of a panicky exodus which she had observed the year before were questioned. The arguments regarding her interpretation became so intense, over several days, that Mary became thoroughly exasperated, to the point where she threatened the suspension of the Field Party and that there would be no more excavation that season (Johanson & Edey,p.246-247).

Do you not believe Mary Leakey, Louis Leakey's wife, knew what knuckle walking footprints looked like? She had lived in Africa for years, where modern day, knuckle walking, apes lived.

Is it possible that her peers realized that if these footprints were ape footprints they would then be faced with an unsurmountable problem of having to reconstruct their hominid with apes feet instead of human feet?

It would have destroyed their Darwinian Thesis that afarenses could have been an upright walking human ancestor.

Extract ID: 3297

external link

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
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

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Extract Date: 2001

Laetoli Footprints

Credits:" 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation and Clear Blue Sky Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Laetoli footprints were formed and preserved by a chance combination of events -- a volcanic eruption, a rainstorm, and another ashfall. When they were found in 1976, these hominid tracks, at least 3.6 million years old, were some of the oldest evidence then known for upright bipedal walking, a major milestone in human evolution. Paleoanthropologist and consultant forensic scientist Owen Lovejoy compares the ancient biped prints with those of modern humans and chimpanzees.


Thank goodness for the irrepressible urge of humans (and other animals) to joke and play around in nearly any situation. Sometimes, it pays big dividends. It certainly did in 1976, when paleoanthropologist Andrew Hill and a colleague were tossing elephant dung at each other in Laetoli, a hominid archeological site in Tanzania. As Hill dived out of the way, he stumbled on what turned out to be one of the wonders of prehistoric finds: a trail of hominid footprints about 3.6 million years old.

The majority of the Laetoli footprint site was excavated in 1978. Until then, the oldest known footprints of human ancestors were tens of thousands of years old. But this trail, some 80 feet long and preserved in cementlike volcanic ash, had been made by some of the first upright-walking hominids. An almost unimaginable sequence of events preserved what paleontologist Ian Tattersall calls a fossil of human behavior -- prehistoric walking.

Initially, a nearby volcano called Sadiman erupted a cloud of fine ash, like beach sand, that left a layer on the landscape. Then a light rain fell onto the ash to create something like wet cement -- an ideal material for trapping footprints. Birds and mammals left a great number of prints, but, spectacularly, so did a pair of hominids, one large and one small, trekking across the ash. (Some analysts conclude that it is possible to detect the trail of a third, smaller individual whose tracks overlap the footprints left by one of the others.) A subsequent eruption from Sadiman dropped more ash, sealing the footprints like a laminated driver's license. Finally, erosion over millions of years unveiled the prints for Hill and other researchers in Mary Leakey's group to discover.

The prints, say experts on hominid body structure, are strikingly different from those of a chimpanzee, and in fact are hardly distinguishable from those of modern humans. The only known hominid fossils of that age in that location are those of Lucy and her kind, the small-brained but upright-walking hominids classified as Australopithecus afarensis. Some analysts have noted that the smaller of the two clearest trails bears telltale signs that suggest whoever left the prints was burdened on one side -- perhaps a female carrying an infant on her hip. While the detailed interpretation of the prints remains a matter of debate, they remain an extraordinary and fascinating fossil find, preserving a moment in prehistoric time.

Extract ID: 3303

See also

Coulson, David and Campbell, Alex African Rock Art - Paintings and Engravings on Stone
Page Number: 134
Extract Date: 2001


The red paintings can be subdivided into those found in central Tanzania, some of which may have been made by Sandawe and Hadza ancestors; and those found in a broad band stretching from Zambia to the Indian Ocean, which are thought to have been painted by Twa.

The Tanzanian paintings include early large, naturalistic images of animals (fig. 157) with occasional geometric patterns and later images of people and animals, sometimes in apparent hunting and domestic scenes. People are drawn wearing skirts, with strange hairstyles and body decoration (fig. 159), and sometimes holding bows and arrows. The Tanzanian red paintings have been quite extensively studied, first by Mary and Louis Leakey in the 1930s and 1950s and then by Fidelis Masao and Emmanuel Anati, all of whom have recorded numerous sites, divided the art chronologically into broad categories and dozens of styles, proposed dates, and made tentative interpretations about meaning.

The Sandawe and Hadza, who claim their ancestors were responsible for some of the later art, live in the general area ofTanzania's rock art concentration and speak languages employing click consonants distantly related to Khoisan.These peoples have practiced, until very recently, a hunter-gatherer econony and even today some Sandawe spend time in the forest collecting honey and wild food and hunting small animals.

Extract ID: 4909

See also

19?? Publishes: Leakey, Mary Disclosing the Past

Extract ID: 3424