Louis and Mary Leakey (p. 2)

macroevolution logo
< Famous Biologists >
Location of Olduvai Gorge
Location of Olduvai Gorge
Map: Sémhur

Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge
Map: Guston Sondin-Klausner

Proconsul, another of Mary Leakey's finds
Credit: Ryan Somma

Mary Leakey is also famed for her discovery of 3.5 million-year-old hominid footprints. The prints, which she found at Laetoli in Tanzania in 1974, were originally made in powdery volcanic ash laid down by an eruption of the nearby Sadiman Volcano. A light rain followed that cemented the ash without obscuring the prints, which were made by three individuals walking upright, possibly in a group. The footprints show that hominids even at that time walked upright — there are no knuckle-impressions like those of an ape. Nor do the feet have the mobile big toe of an ape. Rather, they have the same arched structure as those of modern humans. They are "perhaps the most remarkable find I have made in my entire career," she said in 1976.

When we first came across the hominid prints I must admit I was sceptical, but then it became clear that they could be nothing else. They are the earliest prints of man's ancestors, and they show us that hominids three-and three-quarter million years ago [the prints have since been more accurately dated to 3.5 mya] walked upright with a free-striding gait, just as we do today. [quoted in Milner (1993, p. 262)]

Mary Leakey originated many of the methods paleoanthropologists use today. She was the more systematic and logical member of the pair. The intuitive Louis would pick a site on a hunch and she would follow through with a meticulous search, often while he was away abroad raising money. Although Louis was often credited with their discoveries in the popular press, and is the one often pictured with their skulls, he never actually found a skull himslf. But she later said that if both of them had been the same sort of person, they would never have accomplished so much.

As part of his research into early humans Louis wanted to collect more information on the behavior of living apes. To this end, he selected two young women Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey — both now famous — to study, respectively, chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild.

Next page >>

Famous Biologists >>

Most shared on Macroevolution.net:

Louis and Mary Leakey - Biography - © Macroevolution.net