Mary Leakey bigraphy, stories - Archaeologists

Mary Leakey : biography

6 February 1913 - 9 December 1996

Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996) was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the first fossilized Proconsul skull, an extinct ape now believed to be ancestral to humans. She also discovered the robust Zinjanthropus skull at Olduvai Gorge. For much of her career she worked together with her husband, Louis Leakey, in the Olduvai Gorge, in eastern Africa, uncovering the tools and fossils of ancient hominines. She developed a system for classifying the stone tools found at Olduvai. She also discovered the Laetoli footprints. It was here, at the Laetoli site, that she discovered Hominin fossils that were more than 3.75 million-years-old. She also discovered fifteen new species of other animals, and one new genus.

In 1960 she became director of excavation at Olduvai and subsequently took it over, building her own staff.

After the death of her husband, she became a leading palaeoanthropologist, helping to establish the Leakey tradition by training her son, Richard, in the field.


Cultural references

Google celebrated the 100th anniversary of Mary Leakey's birth with its Google doodle for 6 February 2013.[// Mary Leakey's 100th Birthday], Google, accessed 6 February 2013

In April 2013 Leakey was honoured by Royal Mail in the UK, as one of six people selected as subjects for the “Great Britons” commemorative postage stamp issue.


  • Excavations at Njoro River Cave, 1950, with Louis.
  • Olduvai Gorge: Excavations in Beds I and II, 1960–1963, 1971.
  • Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man, 1979
  • Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania, 1983



Mary Leakey was born Mary Douglas Nicol on 6 February 1913, in London, England to Erskine Edward Nicol and Cecilia Marion (Frere) Nicol. Since Erskine worked as a painter, specializing in watercolor landscapes, the Nicol family would move from place to place, visiting numerous locations in the USA, Italy, and Egypt, where Erskine painted scenes to be sold in England. Erskine Nicol developed an amateur enthusiasm for Egyptology during his travels. Mary Leakey was a direct descendant of antiquarian, John Frere, and cousin to archaeologist, Sheppard Frere, on her mother's side. The Frere family had been active abolitionists in the British colonial empire during the nineteenth century and established several communities for freed slaves. Three of these communities remained in existence as of Mrs. Leakey's 1984 autobiography: Freretown, Kenya; Freretown, South Africa; and Freretown, India. She also was a distant relative of baronet Henry Bartle Frere.Mary Leakey, Disclosing the Past: An Autobiography, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984, pp. 14–17.

The Nicols spent much of their time in southern France. Mary became fluent in French. She identified more with the adventurous spirit of her father, going for long walks and explorations with him and having long talks. She disliked her governess and had less sympathy for her mother.

In 1925, when Mary was twelve, the Nicols stayed at Les Eyzies at a time when Elie Peyrony was excavating one of the caves there. Peyrony did not understand the significance of much of what he found, and was not excavating scientifically during that early stage of archaeology. Mary received permission to go through his dump. It was there that her interest in prehistory was sparked. She started a collection of points, scrapers, and blades from the dump and developed her first system of classification.Virginia Morell, Ancestral Passions, Copyright 1996, Chapter 4, "Louis and Mary."

That winter, the family moved to Cabrerets, a village of Lot, France. There she met Abbé Lemozi, the village priest, who befriended her and became her mentor for a time. The two toured Pech Merle cave to view the prehistoric paintings of bison and horses.Disclosing the Past, pp. 27–28.

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