Leakey, Louis Seymour Bazett (1903–1972)
British Anthropologist, Archaeologist Persistent, controversial, and tirelessly enthusiastic, Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey made breakthrough discoveries concerning the evolution of human beings and was a pioneer in paleoanthropology. The African-born Leakey, through fossil findings and ancient cultural artifacts, was able to prove that human life was older than had been previously believed and also demonstrated that its evolution was concentrated in Africa and not Asia as was commonly accepted. Leakey and his team of researchers found numerous remains of apes, humans, and plant and animal species through their many archaeological excavations.
Born on August 7, 1903, in Kabete, Kenya, Leakey was the son of Mary Bazett and Harry Leakey, missionaries Page 432 | Top of Articleof the Church of England. Leakey spent his childhood at the Church Missionary Society, where his parents worked, and learned the language and customs of the Kikuyu. While pursuing his childhood interest in birds, Leakey frequently came upon stone tools that had been washed out of the ground by rains. Leakey believed these tools to have prehistoric roots, but scientists of the age considered Asia to be the center of human evolution, and there was little interest in East Africa as a possible site for locating evidence of early humans. Leakey left Africa for England soon after World War I ended and attended a public school there.
Leakey attended Cambridge University, studying anthropology and archaeology. He took a year off from school in 1924 and traveled to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) with the British Museum East African Expedition on a fossil-hunting trip. This expedition, coupled with his academic studies, encouraged Leakey to seek out the origins of humanity, which he supposed could be found in Africa. In 1926 Leakey received his doctorate in African prehistory.
From 1926 through 1935 Leakey organized a number of expeditions to East Africa. On his earliest trip Leakey unearthed a 200,000-year-old hand ax in addition to materials from the late Stone Age. In 1931, despite attempts to dissuade him by the paleontologist Hans Reck, Leakey made his first journey to Olduvai Gorge, a ravine in Tanzania, in search of remains. He found animal fossils and flint tools, which provided conclusive evidence of the presence of hominids. The following year Leakey discovered remains of modern humans, Homo sapiens, near Lake Victoria in the form of skulls and a jaw. It was also in the mid-1930s that Leakey married Mary Douglas Nicol, his second wife. MARY DOUGLAS NICOL LEAKEY became an integral member of Leakey's research team and made some of their most important discoveries.
Toward the end of the 1930s Leakey shifted his focus from searching for stone tools, which provided important evidence of human habitation, to the excavation of human and prehuman remains. Regular excavations at Olduvai Gorge commenced in 1952, and in 1959 the team discovered fragments of a hominid skull that resembled that of the australopithecines, hominids with small brains and near-human dentition. Leakey believed the discovery to represent a new genus, and he named it Zinjanthropusboisei. In the early 1960s Leakey's team found more fragments. Upon studying the bones, Leakey discovered that they must have belonged to a creature more similar to modern humans than Zinjanthropus, with a larger brain and the ability to walk fully upright. He suggested that it existed simultaneously with Zinjanthropus. Dating of the bed in which the bones were found indicated an age of 1.75 million years. Leakey named the new creature Homo habilis and viewed it as a direct ancestor of modern humans. This discovery suggested that human life was much older than scientists had believed, and Leakey's ideas were widely criticized.
Leakey made other significant finds, including the discovery of remains of Proconsul africanus and Kenyapithe-cus, both links between apes and early humans. In the 1960s Leakey devoted more time to the Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology in Nairobi and was influential in the careers of JANE GOODALL and DIAN FOSSEY, who studied primates. One of Leakey's sons, RICHARD ERSKINE FRERE LEAKEY, became a noted paleontologist and continued his father's work.