When the theory of evolution and the findings of hominid fossils began to converge at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea that human beings originated in Asia or Europe took shape. Discoveries such as the Neanderthals, Java Man and Peking Man set the course of paleoanthropologists into the caves of the West and East in search of the trail of our species. But one man diverted that course to Africa: Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972).
Already in the nineteenth century, someone had suggested this path. In 1871, Charles Darwin, having noted the proximity of humans with chimpanzees and gorillas, would write: “it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.” In 1924, the Australian Raymond Dart discovered the first fossil of an extinct hominid in Africa: Australopithecus africanus. But it was Leakey who managed to convince the scientific community and the world that the cradle of mankind was on the Dark Continent, a hypothesis that is still valid today. And along the way, he founded one of the most famous family sagas in the history of science.
The infancy of this unique anthropologist was what many children would wish for. Born in Kabete—present-day Kenya—of Anglican missionary parents, his education jumped between Britain and Africa. In England he was one schoolboy more, but in his African home he was the king of the jungle and lived a constant adventure, raising baboons or serval cats and collecting treasures from the natural world next to his Kikuyu friends, who accepted him as one more member of their tribe.
He often used to recount that at the University of Cambridge he asked to be examined in Swahili, the common language of East Africa. He received a letter of response granting the request, along with a second letter asking if he would agree to examine a student in Swahili… at the same time and place. His career was supposed to follow that of his father, a missionary in Africa, but he soon drifted towards archaeology and anthropology, enrolling in digging expeditions on his native continent.
Cambridge closed the doors to him
It was then that he met his first wife, Frida Avern, who joined his work in order to record his discoveries and with whom he had a daughter. But Leakey was also a restless man in his love life. When the annoyances of a new pregnancy prevented Frida from completing the illustrations for Louis’ second book, he turned to another person, Mary Nicol, who would soon become something more than his illustrator. He went away to live with Mary while still married to Frida, from whom he requested a divorce one month after the delivery. As a result of this scandal, Leakey found the doors of Cambridge closed to him.
His second wife Mary was for decades the other founding partner of a team that managed to interest the average Western citizen in palaeoanthropology, through books, National Geographic Society reports and television documentaries. Louis and Mary Leakey would become an iconic couple that glamorously investigated the mystery of the origins of humanity. Their roles were apportioned—Mary was the discreet and rigorous scientist, while Louis assumed the public image and was the showman, without shying away from controversy with his sometimes-overstated hypotheses. Over time, the duo expanded their team with the addition of their children, especially Richard and his wife Meave, to whom are added the many pupils who continue their work in Kenya today.
The fossil discoveries arrived one after the other, each more spectacular than the last: Proconsul africanus in 1948, Zinjanthropus boisei in 1959 and Homo habilis in 1964. Leakey’s hominids not only pushed back, by more than one million years, the birth of the human lineage, but the dating of their remains, older than the Asians, convinced the mainstream scientific community that the cradle of humanity was African and should be sought in places like Olduvai, the Tanzanian site where the Leakeys unearthed Homo habilis.
But over time and as early as the 1960s, the personal and professional disagreements between Louis and Mary widened almost to the breaking point. Mary remained committed to the research, even criticizing the lack of rigour of her ex husband in some of his declarations. Meanwhile, Louis enjoyed his status as a public figure in the glare of the spotlight.
However, Leakey’s role as a great patriarch of global palaeoanthropology would also provide a precious legacy to science. Interested in the study of the great apes as an approach to studying human evolution, his contacts in the National Geographic Society and other institutions enabled him to obtain funding for the research undertaken by a mythical trio of women whom he called the Trimates. Jane Goodall’s valuable studies with chimpanzees, Dian Fossey with gorillas and Birutė Galdikas with orangutans have all perpetuated his memory. After his death from a heart attack in 1972, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould would write: “Leaky is a legend, even according to Leakey.”