London Times, December 10, 1996 Mary Leakey, archaeologist and anthropologist, died in Nairobi yesterday aged 83. She was born on February 6, 1913. MARY LEAKEY was the scientific anchor without which her husband, the anthropologist Louis Leakey, might have been dismissed as a mere controversialist with an exotic private life. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary, whose scrupulous scientific approach contrasted with his taste for publicity and enjoyment of personal battles. After his death in 1972, she enjoyed her most spectacular find, three trails of fossilised hominid footprints 3.6 million years old, which she discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania in 1978 and 1979. These showed that man's ancestors were already walking upright at a much earlier period than most anthropologists had believed. "At one point," wrote Mary Leakey of one of these tracks, "she stops, pauses, turns to the left to glance at some possible threat or irregularity, and then continues to the north. This motion, so intensely human, transcends time." Born in London, she was the daughter of the landscape painter Erskine Nicol, who died when she was 13. Much of her childhood was spent in France, and it was the cave paintings of the Dordogne, to which her father introduced her, that kindled her interest in prehistory and her talent for drawing prehistoric artefacts. "I dug things up," she later explained. "I was curious, and then I liked to draw what I found. The first money I ever earned was for drawing stone tools." After seeing some of her work, Louis Leakey asked her to illustrate his book Adam's Ancestors and soon after she accompanied him to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. He was already married, with two small children, but after a painful divorce he married Mary in 1936 and they made their home in East Africa. He was not to prove the easiest of husbands. Mary Douglas Leakey had gained archaeological experience at Hembury Fort in Devon and at Jaywick Sands in East Anglia. In 1937 she excavated Hyrax Hill near Nakuru in Kenya, an early Iron Age site, publishing the results in a long paper in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa. Her competence as an archaeologist was then widely recognised. Her next important work was at Olorgesailie, near Nairobi, an Acheulean site with spectacular concentrations of handaxes and fossil fauna. Here for the first time the actual living sites of early man were discovered. In 1948 Mary found on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria the skull of Proconsul africanus, a 16 million-year-old Miocene ape and at that time the only fossil ape skull known. This she painstakingly reconstructed from innumerable fragments. At Olduvai in 1959 she repeated the feat, piecing together her most spectacular find, the skull of Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei from more than 400 tiny fragments. Later, by the newly developed potassium-argon dating technique, "Zinj" was dated to 1.7 million years and was in fact the first australopithecine skull to be dated. This discovery was the beginning of world renown for the Leakeys and, more important for them, financial support from the National Geographic Society of Washington for their work at Olduvai, which had previously been done on the proverbial shoestring. It also proved the beginning of Mary's long association with Olduvai as her permanent home. Here she could devote her time to research and writing, and enjoy her love of solitude. She shared her life with a pack of dalmatian dogs and many other animals both tame and wild, which were her other great interest equalled only by stone tools. The detailed plans of hominid living sites that she made were unique at that time and were published in her book, Excavations in Beds I and II, volume three of the Olduvai Gorge monographs (1971). Apart from many papers in Nature and other scientific journals, her publications included a popular account of her life at Olduvai in Olduvai Gorge: my search for early man (1979). Since her first visit to the United States in 1962 to receive the National Geographic Society's gold Hubbard medal jointly with her husband, Mary made yearly lecture tours of the US to raise money for research. She was awarded a number of medals, and honorary doctorates of science from the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Yale and Chicago, as well as a DLitt from Oxford. She was a Fellow of the British Academy. She loved small Cuban cigars and single malt whiskies, and preferred the outdoors to urban life. "Given the chance, I'd rather be in a tent than in a house," she once said. In the world of palaeoanthropology, where arguments often turn personal, she was a stickler for proper behaviour, publishing careful and detailed accounts of the evidence she had gathered. She only agreed to write an autobiography - Disclosing the Past, published in 1984 - after getting agreement that a book she had written on little-known rock paintings at Kandoa, Tanzania, would also be published. In August of this year, after the Tanzanian Government and the Getty Conservation Institute had finally decided to protect the hominid footprints beneath a high-tech synthetic covering, Mary Leakey travelled to Laetoli for a final look at her great discovery. She is survived by her sons Jonathan, Richard and Philip. Richard Leakey followed his parents into palaeontology, becoming well-known for his researches east of Lake Turkana in Kenya. He became active in Kenyan politics and is the secretary general of the opposition Safina Party. Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company December 10, 1996, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final HEADLINE: Mary Leakey, 83, Dies; Traced Human Dawn BYLINE: By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD Mary Leakey, matriarch of the famous fossil-hunting family in Africa whose own reputation in paleoanthropology soared with discoveries of bones, stone tools and the footprints of early human ancestors, died yesterday in Nairobi, Kenya. She was 83. Her family announced her death but did not give the cause, saying only that she died peacefully. Over half a century, Mary Leakey labored under the hot African sun, scratching in the dirt for clues to early human physical and cultural evolution. Scientists in her field said she set the standards for documentation and excavation in paleolithic archeology. They spoke of hers as a life of enviable achievement. "She was one of the world's great originals," said Dr. Alan Walker, an anatomist at Pennsylvania State University who has long excavated fossils with the Leakey family. "Untrained except in art, she developed techniques of excavation and descriptive archeology and did it all on her own in the middle of Africa. It was an extraordinary life." In a biography of the Leakey family, "Ancestral Passions," published last year by Simon & Schuster, Virginia Morell characterized Mary Leakey as "the grande dame of archeology." Beginning in the 1930's, Mary Leakey and her late husband, Louis, awakened the world to Africa's primary place in human origins with their spectacular discoveries and increasingly pushed back the time of those origins much earlier than had been thought. Until then, many scientists still believed the human birthplace would be found in Asia. She discovered the skull of Proconsul africanus, an apelike ancestor of both apes and early humans that lived about 25 million years ago. In 1959, her discovery of a well-preserved skull of a hominid, a member of the extended human ancestral family, brought fame and substantial financial backing to the Leakeys. A few years later, the two Leakeys uncovered the fossils of the first known member of the genus Homo habilis, or "able man," in recognition of the many stone tools found among the bones. From then on, the name Leakey was synonymous with the study of human origins. The flamboyant Louis seemed to know just where to look to find revealing fossils; the envious spoke of "Leakey's luck." Meanwhile, Mary Leakey worked in her husband's shadow, seeing to the plodding excavations and meticulous documentation of their finds. "Louis was always a better publicist than scientist," said E. Barton Worthington, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and former African explorer. "Mary was the real fossil hunter." After Louis Leakey's death in 1972, Mary Leakey overcame some of her natural shyness to assume direction of the family fossil enterprise, which by then one of their sons, Richard, joined as an expedition leader. Her operations centered on Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli, both in Tanzania. On the arid plain of Laetoli, she made her most sensational discovery in 1978: the earliest footprints of a human ancestor. A Playful Moment, But a Fateful One As often happens, the discovery of the prints was made by chance -- more Leakey luck. While tossing dried elephant dung in a playful camp fight, one scientist on Mrs. Leakey's expedition fell down and saw in the gray surface some curious indentations. They were imprints of raindrops and animals, now hardened to stone and recently exposed by erosion and weathering. After further exploration, scientists determined that the tracks were made about 3.7 million years ago. The animals had walked over volcanic ash when it was damp from rain, leaving impressions of their feet. The wet ash set like concrete and was later covered over by more ash and silt. There the tracks remained to be found by dung-throwing scientists. It was two years before a scientist uncovered a heel print that hinted of an even more significant find. It seemed to belong to a hominid. On Aug. 2, 1978, Mrs. Leakey spent three hours examining one of the clearest of these prints. She cleaned the crevices of the print with a small brush and dental pick. All the important elements were preserved: heel, toes and arch. She appraised the print from every possible angle. Finally, Mrs. Leakey stood up from her work, lit a cigar and announced, "Now this really is something to put on the mantelpiece." She was at last sure that a hominid had left this print and a trail of prints extending more than 75 feet across the plain. Two and possibly three individuals had walked this way 3.7 million years ago: the larger one, presumably a male; the smaller one, presumably female, and an even smaller individual, perhaps their child, whose prints are sometimes superimposed on the others. In a Footprint a Clue To Human Behavior Somewhere along the way, as Mrs. Leakey noted, the female appeared to pause and turn to her left. She might have sensed danger, possibly from a predator or the rumble of a volcanic eruption nearby. Then she resumed her walk to the north. "This motion, so intensely human, transcends time," Mrs. Leakey wrote in the National Geographic magazine. "A remote ancestor -- just as you or I -- experienced a moment of doubt." These evocative footprints are the earliest known traces of human behavior. At the time, the discovery established that human ancestors had begun walking upright much earlier than previously thought, long before the evolution of larger brains. Whether upright walking preceded the larger brain, or vice versa, was still a much-debated issue among scholars. With the discovery of a species called Australopithecus afarensis, based on the famous Lucy skeleton, the most likely identity of these prehistoric strollers was established. The species lived between 3.9 million and 3 million years ago, and from the fossils paleontologists have determined that they were as capable of walking upright as modern humans. "I think it's the most important find in view of human evolution," Mrs. Leakey was quoted by The Associated Press as saying in an interview in September. "I was really looking for tools, but we never found any at the site." In Stone Age Art, Two Interests Merged She also looked back fondly on what she called another highlight of her career. She was a budding artist before she met and later married Mr. Leakey, when she turned to fossil hunting and archeology. In 1951, her two interests merged briefly. Mrs. Leakey recorded on drawing paper some 1,600 of the thousands of late Stone Age paintings in the Kondoa-Irangi region of Tanzania. The work gave her "a great sense of happiness and well-being," she wrote in her autobiography, "Disclosing the Past," published in 1984, because the drawings afforded a glimpse of the lives of the hunter-gatherers who painted them. "No amounts of stone and bone could yield the kinds of information that the paintings gave so freely," she said. One of her last books was a collection of these Stone Age drawings, entitled "Africa's Vanishing Art: the Rock Paintings of Tanzania" and published in 1983. Art and, to some extent, prehistory were part of Mary Leakey's heritage. She was born Mary Douglas Nicol on Feb. 6, 1913 in London. Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a prolific and fairly successful landscape painter, as was his father before him. Her mother, Cecilia Marion Frere, was a descendant of John Frere, a British prehistorian who in 1797 first recognized Stone Age flint implements as primitive tools and weapons. After World War I, the family spent months each year in Switzerland, France or Italy, where the father painted and took Mary to archeological ruins and the caves painted by Cro-Magnon hunters. As she said, this was the source of her early interest in archeology. "Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity," she wrote in her autobiography. But formal education was not for her. Bored by class work and her fellow students, Mary was expelled from two schools and so, with attending a university out of the question, decided to pursue independent studies in drawing and archeology. "I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would," she wrote. At the age of 20, Mary Nicol, a sometime illustrator of stone tools and occasional participant in archeological digs, met Louis Leakey, 10 years her senior, married and an established figure in African archeology with a position at Cambridge University. He asked her to help him with drawings for a book, and she readily agreed. A romance followed, and then scandal. Scandal in Cambridge Led to Magic of Africa They would marry as soon as his divorce came through. Meanwhile, they did nothing to conceal the intimacy of their relationship, living together for more than a year in a cottage near Cambridge. This eventually cost him his post at Cambridge, the memory of which was dancing lightly through Mary Leakey's mind years later as she walked up the aisle at Cambridge to receive an honorary doctorate degree. The two were married in 1936 and set out for Africa, where he had grown up as the son of British missionaries. As Mrs. Leakey wrote later, she was never the same again after "Africa had cast its spell" on her. Much of their marriage was spent at dig sites. "Given the chance, I'd rather be in a tent than in a house," she said in a recent interview with Associated Press. It was a discovery by the Leakeys in 1959 that, according to Dr. F. Clark Howell of the University of California at Berkeley, marked "the beginnings of paleoanthropology in a modern sense." The pace of exploration quickened. Geologists and anatomists joined the quest, a multidisciplinary approach that the Leakeys did much to promote. On a July day in 1959, as Louis lay ill in camp, Mary stumbled on some teeth and part of a jaw on a slope of Olduvai Gorge. Rushing back to her husband, she exclaimed, "I've found him -- found our man." How the couple celebrated is not recorded. But in her autobiography, Mrs. Leakey wrote that after an earlier major find they "cast aside care" and that was how their son Philip "came to join our family." The 1959 discovery turned out to be a 1.8 million-year-old fossil known as the "nutcracker man" because of its huge jaws and molar teeth. It was later designated Australopithecus boisei. As Two Lives Diverged, A New Independence From 1968 until Louis Leakey's death in 1972, he and Mary Leakey were separated. He spent more and more of his time in the celebrity whirl, raising money and lecturing, while she stuck to her digging at Olduvai. She was becoming more independent, opposing some of her husband's more sensational interpretations of discoveries. "I ended by losing my professional respect for Louis; and it had been very great indeed," she wrote. "Once that was so I was no longer able to offer the concurrence and unquestioning adulation he now seemed to demand." Another unsettling episode in her life was the controversy between her and Richard Leakey, on one side, and Dr. Donald C. Johanson, the discoverer of Lucy, on the other. She insisted on the removal of her name from the joint authorship of a paper that made assumptions about the place of the Lucy species human evolution. Mrs. Leakey retired from fieldwork in 1983, still smoking small Cuban cigars and accompanied by her beloved Dalmatians. Her honors were many for a woman who never finished high school: medals from the National Geographic Society, the Geological Society of London and the Royal Swedish Academy and many honorary degrees. She is survived by her three sons, Jonathan, Richard and Philip, all of Kenya, and by 10 grandchildren.
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