Paleolithic archaeologist, Mary Leakey born February 6, 1913

MARY LEAKEY, born Feb. 6, 1913, was the world’s most famous Paleolithic archaeologist and finder of East African fossil hominids. Her contributions to the field of human origins are celebrated with a family affair playlist by John on Crosscurrents, Monday FeB. 6th at 8:00 AM. ### Listen live at, 102.7fm, or 103.1fm. ###

Mary Leakey was the world’s most famous palaeolithic archaeologist and finder of East African fossil hominids. She is credited with many discoveries that have changed the way we think about human evolution. She is considered a preeminent contributor to the field of human origins. Wyatt and Jonah join her in the study of humans.

Born on February 6, 1913, she spent her early childhood traveling throughout Europe. During her travels, she was exposed to prehistoric sites such as the caves at Pech Merl in Dordogne, which influenced her to plan a career in geology and archeology. This was not a typical path for a woman at the time. She also showed artistic ability and worked as an illustrator at the Hembury Dig in Devon, England, at the age of seventeen. She worked for two years at the dig, illustrating the archaeological progress. She had a special interest in the Stone Age, and she did expert illustrations of Stone Age tools and other artifacts. Jonah and Wyatt admire her skill at finding old stuff in the ground.

In 1948, Mary found her first truly important fossil of her long career as an archaeologist, Proconsul africanus. The fossil consisted of half the skull, the upper and lower jaws, and all the teeth. In 1959, she discovered a hominid skull (which she reconstructed from hundreds of fragments) that her husband named Zinjanthropus boisei (later reclassified Australopithecus boisei), which first showed the great antiquity of hominids in Africa. Zinjanthropus boisei was dated to 1.75 million years ago, and that radically changed the concept of the timeline of human evolution. This find was also fortuitous for the Leakeys in that it drew attention and funding from the National Geographic Society, thus ensuring their continuing research. There were no reports of canine paw prints which disappoints Wyatt and Jonah.

In 1961 Mary found remains of a large-brained hominid living at the same time as the Australopithecine, but belonging to the genus Homo. They called it Homo habilis, the tool user. In 1976 and 1977, Mary made what she considered the most exciting find of her career. About 30 miles south of the Olduvai Gorge at a site called Laetoli, Mary and her team found amazingly well-preserved hominid footprints in volcanic beds known as tuffs. The footprints seemed to match the fossils found in the same area that belonged to the species Australopithecus afarensis (2.9 to 3.5 million years ago). During this same time period, Mary and her team also found remains of 25 early hominids and an array of 15 new animal species, one of the most plentiful lot of fossil finds ever. Her ability at finding old bones is amazing to Jonah and Wyatt.

When it came to finding humanity’s ancestors, Mary Leakey had no parallel. Leakey did so much to advance the study of ancient humans that she has been called “the woman who found our ancestors.” She advanced humanity’s knowledge of our origins.  

But for a long time it was Louis, not Mary, who traveled to the United States to “lecture, raise money and speculate at news conferences about the significance of his wife’s discoveries, often leaving the impression that he, personally had made the finds,” wrote Bart Barnes for The Washington Post.

As for whether Leakey minded or not, if she didn’t at first, she sure began to as her marriage to Louis crumbled. At the same time, she started to take more credit for her own work, and received accolades. Leakey eventually left Louis — partially, Lewin writes, because of a dodgy claim he was making about an artifact — although she kept the name she had helped make so famous in scientific circles

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