Mary Leakey

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Mary Leakey, 1977

Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey (born February 6, 1913 in London , † December 9, 1996 in Nairobi ) was a British archaeologist. She was one of the most important paleoanthropologists of the 20th century and, among other things, found the first fossil of a "Zinjanthropus" ( Paranthropus boisei ), the so-called nutcracker man, in 1959 .

Mary Leakey was married to Louis Leakey , who was also a paleoanthropologist. Her sons Richard and Jonathan are also known as "big names" among paleoanthropologists.


Mary Douglas Nicol was the daughter of the then well-known landscape painter Erskine Edward Nicol and the hobby painter Cecilia Marion Frere, who lived for years in France in the Dordogne department . Frequent visits to prehistoric and archaeological sites in France aroused her interest in such topics even as a small child; in addition, her father was friends with Howard Carter , who had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt . Through the acquaintance of the family with a priest and hobby archaeologist, Mary was able to help with excavations at the age of ten and learned a lot about Stone Age cave painting and stone tools .

Her father died when she was 13 years old, so she went back to London with her mother, who wanted to give her a proper education there. However, Mary was expelled from school several times for insubordination, which she later justified with the fact that the school was "completely unrelated to real life". At 17, however, she noticed that she had blocked her hoped-for future activity as an archaeologist due to the lack of a formal school leaving certificate. From 1930 onwards she attended lectures on archeology and geology and applied (several times in vain) to work on archaeological excavations in England. In the end, however, she was successful with an application and quickly attracted attention for her ability to produce precise scientific drawings and drawings of found objects.

She met Louis Leakey at a dinner party in Cambridge in 1933. They fell in love, Mary accompanied him on his next expedition to Tanzania and then moved in with Louis. As a result, his wife Frida divorced, and shortly thereafter Louis and Mary married - which led to a major scandal and ruined Louis' academic career opportunities in England. In 1937 both went to Kenya for further excavations and a few years later to Tanzania.

Their son Jonathan was born in 1940, their daughter Mary in 1943 and their son Richard was born in 1944. In the first few years the family in Africa suffered considerably from financial difficulties, which were not overcome until 1960 - but this in no way led to a stabilization of the relationship between Mary and Louis: From 1968 they hardly lived together anymore, which was mainly due to the many infidelities of Louis was responsible.

Scientific achievements

In Kenya, Mary Leakey made her first significant find in October 1948 on the island of Rusinga in Lake Victoria : the most complete skull of an 18 million year old Proconsul africanus (collection number: KNM-RU 7290), which was then considered to be one of the oldest prehistoric finds in Africa; its exact position in the family tree of the human race is still controversial today.

Due to political unrest, the Leakeys had to leave Kenya shortly afterwards and went back to Tanzania, where Mary Leakey copied around 1,600 Stone Age drawings that later became the basis of her book Africa's Vanishing Art . Many of the drawings she had recorded were lost shortly afterwards due to willful damage, so that her copies were of permanent high scientific value.

However, Mary Leakey only became famous around the world after she found the skull OH 5 in the Olduvai Gorge on July 17, 1959 , which was still largely intact and which even had teeth in its place in the upper jaw: the then Zinjanthropus or for short "Zinji" called Paranthropus boisei , the first specimen of its kind and at the same time the oldest fossil ever found by a representative of the hominini . Shortly afterwards, on November 2, 1960, her son Jonathan found the remains of the first Homo habilis ever found . After the findings of “Zinji” and “Jonny's Child”, it was finally possible to find enough donors for further excavations.

Even after the death of her husband in 1972, she continued to organize excavations in the Olduvai area, during which, in 1978, near Laetoli, the famous footprints of two pre-humans running upright next to each other were discovered, one with large feet and one with small feet. Mary Leakey interpreted them as traces of individuals of the genus Homo , other researchers (including Donald Johanson ) assigned them to the genus Australopithecus .

In 1984 Mary Leakey published her autobiography Disclosing the Past and was present at her excavation sites in Tanzania until shortly before her death - meanwhile blinded in one eye. For her life's work, she, who had no academic degree, was honored by such prestigious institutions as the University of Chicago , Yale University , the University of Oxford and the Swedish Academy of Sciences . In 1969 she received the Prestwich Medal of the Geological Society of London ; since 1973 she has been a member of the British Academy , since 1979 of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and since 1987 of the National Academy of Sciences .

The asteroid (7958) Leakey is named after her, her husband Louis, and their son Richard.

Fonts (selection)

  • Olduvai Gorge, Volume 3: Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960-1963. Cambridge University Press, 1971.
  • A Review of the Oldowan Culture from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. In: Nature . Volume 210, 1966, pp. 462-466, doi: 10.1038 / 210462a0 .
  • Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man . William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London 1979, ISBN 0002116138 .
  • Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania . DoubleDay, New York 1983, ISBN 0-385-18968-0 .
  • Disclosing the Past: An Autobiography . Doubleday & Co. Inc., New York 1984, ISBN 0385189613 .
  • as publisher: Laetoli: A Pliocene site in Northern Tanzania. Clarendon Press, Oxford Science Publications 1987, ISBN 0-19-854441-3 .


Web links

Commons : Mary Leakey  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

supporting documents

  1. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed June 27, 2020 .
  2. Mary Leakey at the IAU Minor Planet Center (English)