Louis Leakey

.. , making excellent discoveries, when Leakey returned to England in late 1935 he had no job or prospects. He was given small grants to finish books or lecture occasionally, but could receive no university position. Due to serious lack of money he was forced to publish an autobiography in 1936, White African. With no prospect of grants to lead an expedition, Leakey finally had to accept a grant to write an anthropological study of the Kikuyu tribe that he grew up with.

Leakey returned to Africa with new wife Mary, who engaged in archaeological digs of her own while Louis undertook the Kikuyu study. After the works were published, though, Leakey was still unable to find a position he desired. At one point he even had to sell beads and beeswax to support his family. Ostracized by the scientific community, he became a civilian intellience officer for the Kenyan government in 1939, and by the end of the year was drafted into the African Intelligence Department when Britain declared war on Germany, and was running guns to Ethiopia. During the remainder of World War II, Leakey became somewhat of a spy, collecting information for the government. However, in his free time he, along with his wife Mary, kept themselves busy archaeologically with many sites, including the Olduvai site. They made their most amazing wartime finds, though, at Olorgesailie, forty miles south of Nairobi, where they found an incredible array of handaxes and hammerstones spread out in the open, untouched. They made this an open-air museum in 1947. Further, on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria Leakey found a pronconsul jaw as well as a jaw of Xenopithecus.

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The proconsul jaw was the most complete Miocene jaw ever discovered, and helped show that Proconsul was near the common ape-man stem in the evolutionary chain. Over the years since the Boswell incident, Leakey had made some fantastic discoveries, and the credit he was due was about to come in 1947 when Louis’ vision of a Pan-African Congress on Prehistory became reality. Sixty scientists representing twenty-six countries came to spend a week giving papers and holding discussions. The event was such a huge success that the members voted to hold one every four years. Not only did the scientists visit Leakey’s nearby sites (praising both Louis’ and Mary’s expertise), but Louis was seen as less of a maverick and more of a dedicated scientist. The scientists also noticed that he had almost single-handedly traced East Africa’s prehistory from the Miocene to the Early Stone Age.

Further, Louis made important connections, such as his friendship with the eminent anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, which would help him in the future. After this congress, another event helped spur Leakey’s success. The brash American Wendell Phillips was about to begin a massive expedition to Leakey’s Kenyan Miocene sites and had a great deal of American money behind him. Phillips was clearly trying to hone in on Leakey’s discovery. The idea that the American would steal this British source of pride was such that it spurred British donors to support Leakey’s excavation to get there first. While Phillips’ expedition grew and grew and the trip got more and more delayed, Leakey got his together and began excavation in June of 1947. Leakey made some important finds in his trip to Rusinga Island but the crowning jewel came when in 1949 he and Mary discovered the first Proconsul skull complete with a face.

The finding of the Proconsul Africanus skull created a huge stir across Britain and indeed the world, although it was soon announced not to be the missing link but rather a link between monkey and ape. The discovery, however, along with its accompanying media frenzy led to an increase in research funds. Rusinga Island was worked on more, and many important fossils were found including more Proconsul remains. Louis and Mary renewed their explorations of the Olduvai site in 1951, and for several years searched for the man that created the handaxes and tools, the Chellean man. In 1959, they began to find indications of what they were looking for until finally they discovered an exciting new skeleton. Louis did not just give it a new species name, but a new genus as well: Zinjanthropus boisei.

Although eventually it was shown to be a member of the Australopithecus genus (Australopithecus boisei) and also not the Chellean man, for many years Leakey argued that it was different. However, the find was still spectacular, and when Leakey announced and displayed the find at the fourth Pan-African Congress of Prehistorians, it caused a frenzy. Zinj, as he called it, was the earliest known hominid at the time. Worldwide fame and fortune resulted, as well as a great deal of grant money. The Leakey’s would never have to work on a shoestring budget again. With the new money, a full-scale excavation of Olduvai Gorge was commenced. Mary took over the dig while Louis was curator at the Coryndon Museum, but Louis was at the site a great deal.

They searched in the area of Zinj’s discovery for its living floor. But as they digged deeper and deeper smaller bones, originally attributed to a female Zinj, were increasingly found. In an area nearby that Jonathan, their son, discovered, more hominid bones were found and there they began to dig. At Jonny’s Site several hominid foot bones resembling those of Homo sapiens were found, and then many other parts of the skeleton were found as well. Once the parietal skull bones of Telanthropus were found, however, they knew that they had evidence that two different types of hominids lived together at the same time. Further, Louis found the skull of his Chellean Man nearby, later to be grouped under the name Homo erectus.

Meanwhile, Louis was trying to prove that the smaller bones found in the Zinj site were from a member of the Homo genus. He tried to enlist others to back him, but they were only swayed when Louis found the skulls and skeletons of several more of the new Homo in 1962 – Homo Habilis, the earliest human and the maker of all the oldest stone tools. Almost as startling as the find of the oldest human was the fact that Homo Habilis (who originally had the Telanthropus characteristics and Zinj, an Australopithicus, both lived side by side at the same point in time. In 1961 Leakey also found a new jaw from the genus and species he named Kenyapithecus wickeri. By 1967 he had found more evidence of this and of Kenyapithecus africanus, an older one. By doing so, and claiming these as the oldest human skeletons, he extended humankind back to twenty million years ago. Although Louis Leakey’s enthuisiasm and recklessness led to his ostracism early in his career it resulted in his great dedication to all he worked on.

With his Leakey’s Luck his and Mary’s finds revolutionized the way we think of the descent of mankind. He ended up showing the world that humankind did evolve from and begin in Africa. By the 1960s Leakey had established himself at the top of his field and with all of his finds he certainly became one of the greatest archaeologists ever. And although Louis died in 1972, his son Richard Leakey has carried on his father and mother’s work.


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