Episode 132 – Mary and Louis Leakey

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They are two of the biggest names in the history of paleoanthropology and human evolution, and they’re one of history’s most impressive scientific duos. This episode, we discuss the science and stories of Mary and Louis Leakey.

Our guest this episode is Meredith Johnson, Communications Director at the Leakey Foundation and host of Origin Stories! Learn more here!

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The Laudable Leakeys

Mary and Louis Leakey were paleoanthropologists and archeologists and pioneers in the study of human evolution. During their careers, they made numerous groundbreaking discoveries about the history of hominins, particularly in Africa.

Mary and Louis.
Image provided by Meredith Johnson of the Leakey Foundation.

Mary was born in 1913 in England. Early in her life, she developed an interest in geology and archaeology (an uncommon path for women of her time) and she became a skilled illustrator. In fact, she first met Louis when he asked her to provide illustrations to accompany his work; the two married in 1937. Beyond her illustrations, Mary excelled at identifying and recovering ancient tools and fossils. Her discoveries include some of the most famous finds in the study of human evolution, such as the early ape Proconsul, the early human Homo habilus, the famous skull of Paranthropus boisei (originally named Zinjanthropus by Louis), and the extraordinary hominin footprints of Laetoli.

The skull of Zinjanthropus (now known as Paranthropus) boisei. Introduced to the world by the Leakeys, this discovery demonstrated just how far back hominins went in Africa.
Image provided by Meredith Johnson of the Leakey Foundation.

Louis was born to English parents in Kenya in 1903. He, too, developed an early fascination for archaeology, and he went on to lead expeditions to Africa in search of human ancestors. Louis was a champion of the idea that humans originated in Africa, which was controversial at the time but is widely accepted today, thanks largely to the discoveries that Louis and Mary made there. Louis was an avid writer and speaker, scientifically describing many of the couple’s findings, discussing human evolution on lecture tours, and supporting up-and-coming primatologists such as the now-famous Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.

Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where Mary and Louis did much of their work and made many of their most significant discoveries. Image by Mike Krüger, CC BY-SA 4.0

Leakey Legacy

Mary and Louis aren’t the only Leakeys of scientific renown; a number of their children and children-in-law became scientists as well. Notable amongst them is Richard Leakey; he and his wife Maeve have made significant contributions of their own to paleoanthropology. Richard passed away shortly before we recorded this episode.

The Leakey legacy lives on today, not only in their descendants and in ongoing investigations into human evolution in Africa, but also in the work of organizations like the Leakey Foundation, a United States-based organization committed to supporting the study of human origins through research grants, education, and public outreach. Our guest for this episode, Meredith Johnson, is Communications Director for the Leakey Foundation and host of their podcast, Origin Stories.

This plinth marks the spot where Mary discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus.
Left: Mary herself at the plinth. Image provided by Meredith Johnson of the Leakey Foundation.
Right: a close up and many more bones. Image by George Lamson, CC BY-SA 2.0

Learn More

The Leakey Family

The Leakey Foundation

Origin Stories

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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