Louis and Mary Leakey

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Louis and Mary Leakey
Louis and Mary Leakey

paranthropus boisei
Paranthropus boisei, found by Mary Leakey

Louis and Mary Leakey, two of the foremost fossil hunters of the twentieth century, are known for their many discoveries relating to early human evolution. Their finds at Olduvai Gorge, a site in northwestern Tanzania, when added to the prior work of Raymond Dart and Robert Broom, convinced most paleoanthropologists that humans originally evolved in Africa. For many years, especially after the discoveries of Homo erectus remains in Java, and in China at Zhoukoudian, the general belief among scientists had been that humans had come into being in Asia.

Born in British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1903, Louis ("L.S.B.") Leakey was the son of Christian missionaries. Since his family lived alongside the Kykuyu people that his parents were trying to convert, Louis grew up under conditions that many people would consider rough. His first home had a dirt floor and thatched roof. This early experience probably helped him bear up in the harsh environments where he later carried out his work.

He began his search at Olduvai in 1931. His quest for early human remains and artifacts continued there for the next forty years. Much of his time was spent at the now famous FLK site. An acronym for "Frida Leakey Korongo," it was named for his first wife (korongo is Swahili for gully).

Mary and Louis first became acquainted in the early thirties while she was working for him as an illustrator. They had an affair and were soon living together — at the time he was still married to Frida, with whom he had had a child. Frida divorced him in 1936. The resulting scandal ended his career at Cambridge.

It was at the FLK site in 1959 that Mary found remains of the robust australopithecine Zinjanthropus boisei (now known as Paranthropus boisei). Louis was in camp with a fever at the time. The specimen's age of 1.75 million years radically altered accepted ideas about the time scale of human evolution. They also found and studied more than 2,000 stone tools and flakes at the site. Louis and Mary's son Jonathan also found the first specimen of Homo habilis, a jaw fragment, at Olduvai in 1960. Now officially designated as OH 7 ("Olduvai Hominid 7"), it is considered the type specimen for H. habilis.

In 1948, on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, Mary also discovered a near complete skull of Proconsul, a dryopithecine of Miocene age. Fossils attributed to this genus range from 27 to 17 million years in age. Animals of this type, in which no tail was present, mixed the traits of Old World monkeys and apes. A continuing controversy has existed over whether or not members of the genus Proconsul actually were apes. This is the view of some researchers. Others consider it a precursor of both Old World monkeys and apes. Continued on next page.

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