Louis Leakey: The Father of Hominid Hunting – Smithsonian Magazine


image of mary and louis leakey courtesy of the archives of the smithsonian institution

louis leakey was not the first person to find an ancient hominid fossil. but more than anyone, she promoted and popularized the study of human evolution. His work prompted others to go to Africa to find the remains of our ancestors, he and his wife raised their son into the family business, and initiated some of the first field studies of our closest living relatives, the great apes, as a way of understanding early hominids. For all these accomplishments, I call Leakey the father of hominid hunting.

leakey was born and raised in kenya. he found his first stone tools as a teenager, which helped convince him that Africa was the homeland of mankind. That put him in the minority. During the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists considered Asia, or perhaps Europe, to be the birthplace of humans. that’s where all the hominid fossils had been found.

That didn’t deter Leakey. In 1926, he set out on his first archaeological expedition in East Africa. It was just one year after Raymond Dart announced the discovery of the Taung Boy, an australopithecine and the first recognized hominid fossil from Africa. His goal was to find the oldest fossil of our genus, Homo. But for the next three decades, Leakey’s expeditions uncovered only stone tools and the first fossil skull of the first known ape, the 18-million-year-old Proconsul. It wasn’t until July 1959 that Leakey’s wife, Mary, while working in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, found a hominid bone.

It was a skull, but not exactly the skull Leaker’s team had been looking for. Based on the skull’s giant teeth and tiny brain, it was clear that the hominid was not a member of Homo. But Leakey and his wife were excited about the find all the same. they named it zinjanthropus boisei (now known as paranthropus boisei) and stated that “zinj” had made the stone tools found nearby (that is still a matter of debate). Leakey asked Phillip Tobias, a South African anthropologist who died last week, to analyze the skull. tobias determined that it was an australopithecine; The fossil looked particularly similar to Australopithecus (now Paranthropus) robustus, first found in South Africa in the 1930s. Zinj, eventually dated to 1.75 million years ago, was the first australopithecine found outside of South Africa.

Although Mary did indeed find the fossil, Leakey received much of the credit and became a celebrity, traveling the world to speak about the discovery and gain financial support for her fieldwork.

More success came in the early 1960s. Mary found additional fossils at Olduvai. but they were different from zinj. With slightly larger brains, the fossils looked more human, Lealey thought. she decided that the remains represented the oldest member of our genus and our direct ancestor. he called the species homo habilis, or “handyman.” It was the discovery Leakey had been searching for throughout his career.

to this day, h. habilis remains one of the most controversial species in the hominin family. paleoanthropologists disagree on whether the fossils represent one or more species, and whether or not they are homo. Perhaps it’s fitting that one of Leakey’s greatest discoveries—rather, one of his wife’s greatest discoveries—remains controversial. In his day, some considered Leakey more of a showman than a scientist, but it’s hard to deny how his efforts furthered the study of human evolution.

The discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge drew other paleoanthropologists to East Africa, which remains the center of early hominin research. Leakey’s son Richard was one of those researchers. In 1967, Leakey asked Richard to lead an archaeological expedition in Ethiopia. Richard eventually went off on his own and led the team that discovered the nearly complete skeleton of Homo erectus called Turkana boy. Richard’s wife and Leakey’s daughter-in-law, Meave, was also a paleoanthropologist and helped discover Australopithecus anamensis (the first species of australopithecine) and the engimatic Kenyanthropus platyops. today, louise leakey, leakey’s granddaughter, continues the family tradition of hominid hunting.

Leakey’s other great accomplishment was helping to launch field studies of the great apes. Leakey recognized the importance of studying ape behavior in the wild as a way to better understand the behavior of early hominids and other ancient apes. in 1960 he sent jane goodall to gombe stream national park in tanzania to study chimpanzees. in 1967, he helped dian fossey establish her fieldwork on mountain gorillas living in rwanda’s virunga volcanoes. and in 1971 he asked biruté galdikas to observe orangutans in borneo. These three women pioneered living among primates as a way of studying natural animal behavior, and collectively became known as the Leakey ladies. (At least, that’s what I’ve always called them. According to Wikipedia, Leakey’s Angels is the preferred term.)

If I’m allowed to be bold, I’ll consider myself a second-generation runaway woman. When I was 12 years old, I watched the Dian Fossey biopic, Gorillas in the Mist, on TV. I decided at that moment that I wanted to study primates. Ten years later, I ended up in graduate school ready to do just that. That’s not what I ended up doing with my life. but here I am, instead, writing a blog about human evolution. That would never have happened without Louis Leakey. and so, i say, happy father’s day, dr. leaky.

for a deeper look into the life of louis leakey, read the smithsonian’s “the old man of olduvai gorge” by roger lewin.

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