Obituary: Mary Leakey

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The Independent Online
Mary Leakey was the world's most famous palaeolithic archaeologist and finder of East African fossil hominids.

With her husband, the late Louis Leakey, and later followed by her son, Richard, she was responsible in large part for the success of the "family business" in enlightening the world about the origins of mankind in Africa and in particular in Kenya and her beloved Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Her documentation of the stone tools from this site and the demonstration of their cultural sequence will stand as a testament to her academic achievement as long as people are curious about prehistory. In the popular world she will be best remembered by the discovery of numerous hominid fossils at Olduvai Gorge as well as the find of the fossil footprints at Laetoli, Tanzania, of man-like creatures who walked upright on two legs at least 3.6 million years ago.

She was born Mary Nicol, into a world that was comfortable, just before the Great War; her father was Erskine Nicol, the Scottish landscape artist, and her early childhood education was by a governess. After the war the family travelled in Switzerland and the South of France where they lived for many years. This early experience never left her and she spoke French fluently. As a child she visited some excavations near Les Eyzies being conducted by Elie Peyrony, where she worked with the Abbe Lemozi at Cabrerets, developed the artistic gift she got from her father by drawing stone tools and also helped with the excavations. Her great-great-great grandfather was John Frere, the first Englishman to recognise that certain flaked flints were the work of man and were indeed stone tools. It could be said, therefore, that archaeology was truly in her blood.

Her world was shattered when her father died suddenly in 1926 and the family returned to London, and she to a convent school and conventional society. Her rebellious nature asserted itself; she was expelled from school more than once. Her interest in archaeology was sustained although she never became a formal student or took a degree. Indeed all her degrees from all over the world were honorary doctorates.

In the early Thirties she took part in digs supervised by Dorothy Liddell and through her met Gertrude Caton- Thomson. Caton-Thomson was a formidable figure in Middle Eastern archaeology who was based at Oxford and whose book The Desert Fayoum (1934) Mary was asked to illustrate. This was important enough but even more so was the fact that it led to a meeting with Louis Leakey, the Kenyan archaeologist who was making a name for himself academically. Louis Leakey left his first wife and two young children in late 1934 and by 1935 Mary had joined him in Tanzania; together they drove to Olduvai with her suitcase tied on to the back of the car. Thus began an association with Olduvai that lasted over 50 years.

Olduvai Gorge is an offshoot of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa that is about 30 miles long and cuts across the Serengeti plain. Successive rainy seasons over time have cut the Gorge down to base rock. The overlying deposits are sequential but faulted and contain numerous fossils of animals that lived in the area over the past two million years or so. It is a site rich in fossils, since the conditions for preservation seem to have been right, in that volcanoes nearby spouted alkaline ash which, coupled with rain, allowed bones to fossilise. In addition the exposures have revealed stone tools of a variety of shapes and sizes. Coupled with the beauty of the Serengeti, the animals in vast herds and the joy of companionship, Mary Leakey was enchanted. Even after 50 years the thrill of returning to Olduvai never left her and she communicated that excitement to all of those lucky enough to go there with her.

From 1937 onwards Louis and Mary lived from hand to mouth, from grant to grant. The Directorship of the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi (now the National Museum) was an honorary appointment but at least gave them a home in the museum bungalow. Whenever the chance arose in the dry season they went to Olduvai and collected fossils in quantity. Louis Leakey took the view in those days that the origin of man was to be found in Africa and not in Asia, as was commonly believed following the finds of Java Man by Eugene Dubois and Ralph von Koenigswald, and he was confident that one day the evidence would be found. After one or two false starts he was proved right.

Of the two Mary was the meticulous painstaking excavator and searcher while Louis was restless, exuberant and intuitive. It was not until 1959 that their first important find was made. This was the skull of a robust australopithecine ape-man that was complete but for the jaw, and found in Bed 1, the lowest and oldest of the fossiliferous beds. It was found by Mary, because Louis was in bed with influenza. This was not the last time that Mary was the one to make the big find. This was the real breakthrough; the world of anthropology, which had not always treated Louis Leakey with respect, was staggered by the find that proved ape-men not to be confined to South Africa and, even further, showed these creatures to be dated at one and three-quarter million years before the present. The skull was shown to conferences and fame (and later some fortune) was the result. Grant moneys suddenly became easier to obtain.

Stone tools were found in the same layer as the skull, but was the owner of the skull the author of the tools? Another season was to pass before light was to be thrown on that problem with the find of a little hand, a little foot and part of a brain-case. Louis Leakey, Phillip Tobias and John Napier startled the world by according to this creature the status of a member of our own genus, with a foot that came from a biped, a hand that was capable of making the tools found alongside it, and a brain bigger than that of the known ape-men.

During all this excitement Mary tended to take a back seat. Louis revelled in the limelight, lectured world-wide and debated his finds with anyone who would listen - Mary continued her work in the Gorge collecting stone tools from all of the successive layers, documenting, measuring, classifying, drawing and eventually defining the cultures and their succession from what she termed the Oldowan in Bed 1 at the bottom to the Naisiusiu at the top. She was assisted in this by Richard Hay, a geologist from Berkeley University, California, whose dating expertise confirmed the chronological sequence. The result of this work was a series of monographs on the archaeology of the Olduvai Gorge, bed by bed, Olduvai Gorge: volume 3, Excavations in Beds I and II (1971) and volume 5, Excavations in Beds III, IV and the Masek Beds (1994), that will stand for all time as a monumental work in the true sense of the world - it is in itself a monument to her persistence, to her diligence, to her judgement and to her courage in undertaking this huge task and surviving to finish it.

In 1970 Louis Leakey died and many wondered if this would be the end of the work at Olduvai. Those who thought that, did not know her. Work continued at the Gorge and another site was opened nearby named Laetoli. Fossil hominids were found there that were earlier than those known from Olduvai and even earlier than the famous "Lucy" from Ethiopia that had been attributed to a new species of ape-man, Australopithecus afarensis.

Controversially her fossils were attributed to this group, by others. Typically she did not indulge in an academic slanging match but let her work speak for itself. It was Laetoli, however, that was the scene of her greatest triumph. The discovery in 1975 of fossilised animal footprints in solidified volcanic ash that was more than three and a half million years old alerted her to the possibility that there could be hominids also escaping this eruption.

Perhaps their footprints would be uncovered and their form of walking disclosed. By dint of painstaking work, and not a little luck, in 1978 three trails of footprints were discovered. Subsequent analysis showed that their form of walking was incontrovertibly heel-toe striding. The evidence of bipedalism does not depend upon anatomists' opinions of bones or statisticians' sums, it is there for all to see. The contours of the prints match those of modern man and his method of locomotion.

What of the woman herself? Was it all academic work? By no means was that the case. She was a breeder of pedigree Dalmations who showed regularly, a wildlife expert of the Africa she loved, an expert on East African rock art, an inveterate and unrepentant cigar smoker and evening whisky drinker, and a devotee of detective fiction with a weakness for Miss Marple, a character she resembled in more ways than one. In camp, however, the rules were clear and had to be obeyed - the courtesies of an English drawing room were adapted but still applied. Meals were to be attended on time as a courtesy to the cooks, nobody retired until the animals and the staff had been "fed and watered". (One distinguished academic was sent home from Olduvai on the bus for a transgression against a Dalmatian.) Despite this seemingly fearsome reputation her sense of humour usually prevailed. A visit to the camp at Olduvai was a privilege and always provided oustanding memories to all who were lucky enough to be asked and who took part in the work of her excavations.

Mary Douglas Nicol, archaeologist and anthropologist: born 6 February 1913; married 1936 Louis Leakey (died 1972; three sons, and one daughter deceased); died Nairobi, Kenya 9 December 1996.