Date Of Birth:
16 February 1913
Date Of Death:
9 December 1996
Place Of Birth:
Best Known As:
The archaeologist who discovered early human fossils in Olduvai Gorge, Africa
Mary Leakey was one of the most famous names in archaeology in the 20th century. In 1978 she discovered fossilized footprints in volcanic ash that proved humans were walking on two feet 3.6 million years ago in East Africa. By that time, Mary Leakey and her husband Louis Leakey were already world famous, thanks to earlier important discoveries in 1948 and 1959. In 1948 Mary had found Proconsul africanus, a proto-human fossil that was estimated to be 25 million years old. In 1959 Mary found a skull in the Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania), first dubbed Zinjanthropus — then identified as the first of a new group, Australopithecus boisei, and the first skull of its type found in East Africa. Leakey had an unusual childhood, following her father around Europe. He was a landscape architect with an interest in archaeology and Mary visited sites in France that sparked a lifelong interest. Her father died when Mary was 13 and she moved to London, where she was put into a real school for the first time. That didn’t work very well, but she attended lectures on archaeology as a teenager and entered that world by way of her excellent illustrations. Louis Leakey, ten years her senior, was already a well-known archaeologist out of Kenya when he asked her to illustrate his newest book in 1933. By 1936, Louis had divorced his first wife and married Mary. They went to Africa, where they spent the next four decades living in primitive conditions. Mary did most of the digging work, Louis did the public relations and publishing work. Louis died in 1972, before Mary made what many consider her most important discovery: footprints at the Laetoli site in northern Tanzania that proved humans were bipedal at least 3.6 million years ago. Mary retired in 1984. Her second son, archaeologist Richard Leakey, was famous in his own right by that time. Her books include Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man (1979) and Laetoli: A Pliocene Site in Northern Tanzania (1987), and her autobiography, Disclosing the Past (1984).
Mary Leakey loved dalmations, and cigars.
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