Louis and Mary Leakey were a prominent husband and wife duo whose work in the field of paleoanthropology became well known due to an amazing array of discoveries and the considerable controversy that their findings and theories caused.
Together they conducted large archaeological digs, most notably in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where their discovery of a hominid skull would challenge the accepted theories on human lineage of the time.
Louis Leakey was adamant throughout his professional career that Africa was the birthplace of humanity and provided the greatest possibility for finding the earliest proof of human life. His theory was informed by a number of discoveries during early expeditions, such as various bones, tools, and artifacts, in both Olduvai Gorge and Rusinga Island.
This view was contrary to the generally accepted theory amongst the archaeological community, especially following the discovery of Peking Man, which was the oldest example of Homo erectus fossil specimens when it was unearthed in China between 1923 and 1927. These remains were dated at approximately 750,000 years old.
Having been born in Kenya and studied anthropology at Cambridge University, Louis Leakey began archaeological expeditions in Tanzania in the mid-1920s, during which he unearthed a number of human and proto-human skeletons in Olduvai Gorge.
These discoveries made Louis Leakey a recognised name within the archaeological world and by the time he returned to England for a two-year fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge, he had accumulated a store of prominent human artefacts and remains.
Leakey first caused controversy in 1932 when he proposed to have discovered one of the earliest examples of a Homo sapiens skeleton ever found. However, when challenged to show other archaeologists the site of the discovery in Kanam and Kanjera in Western Kenya, Leakey’s lack of exact documentation led to condemnation and suspicion from the archaeological community.
In 1936 Louis married his second wife Mary, a scientific illustrator, and following World War II they made trips to areas of archaeological interest such as Rusinga Island, where they would discover a complete Proconsul skull in 1949.
On 17 July 1959, Mary Leakey unearthed a well preserved hominin cranium at a site in the Olduvai Gorge which was later carbon dated to approximately 1.75 million years old. The Leakeys called the find Zinjanthropus boisei, a name derived from the East African region of Zinj, “-anthropus” meaning ape or ape-human, and “boisei” for Charles Boise, the expedition’s principal financial backer.
Following the miraculous discovery of Zinjanthropus boisei, the couple found further fossils, including the skull and hand of a new species, Homo habilis, the bones of which were dated in the region of 1.75 million years old.
The discoveries of both Louis and Mary Leakey have since helped later generations begin to define the roots of the human lineage back to Africa. Their list of archaeological findings has radically altered the concept of the timeline of evolution and, despite the controversy that often surrounded their work, led to a greater knowledge of early human history.
Caption: Louis and Mary Leakey with the Zinjanthropus boisei skull.