Louis Leakey


Louis Leakey : biography

7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972

Mary picked and sieved at the site from early morning dressed in old clothes, chain smoking cigarettes, always surrounded by her Dalmatian dogs. She and Louis communicated by radio. On weekends he drove non-stop at high speed the 357 miles between Olduvai and Nairobi. The teenage boys, Richard and Philip, were on site holidays and vacations. Louis invited them and Irven DeVore to eat a raw rat so that he could compare the result to some Hominid coprolites. He said to DeVore, "My dear boy, let me make you famous." DeVore and the boys demurred.The anecdote about the rat is given in Morell, Chapter 14, Note 8.

Their home in Nairobi was chaotic, when they were there. Dinner guests were frequent. Important guests stayed for weeks if they could stand it. They shared the quarters and the dinner table with the Dalmatians, hyraxes, a monkey, a civet cat, an African eagle owl, tropical fish, snakes, such as vipers, and a python. The extended families of twenty African staff lived in cinderblock huts in the yard. Mary had switched to cigars and the ashes often fell into the food. Both Louis and Mary cooked. Louis never stopped talking; his stories were endless.This section is based on Morell, Chapter 5, "Mary’s Dig." There was another side to the Leakey family, written about by Morell in Chapter 17, "Chimpanzees and Other Loves". Louis was a notorious womanizer. He was faithful neither to Frida nor to Mary. Mary tolerated this behavior well until his relationship with Rosalie Osborn, 1954/55, threatened to break up her marriage. The two fought constantly, upsetting the boys. After Richard nearly died in a fall from a horse, Louis broke with Rosalie for the sake of the boys. In 1960 Louis and Mary were especially close, which lasted until the arrival of Vanne Goodall. He literally ran through the day, making long lists of things to be done, which he never completed. He drove recklessly through the streets of Nairobi, often reading and writing as he drove.


Jonathan Leakey achieved some brief fame before he quit palaeoanthropology altogether. He started his own site, "Jonny’s site" in the Leakey lingo, FLK-NN. There he discovered two skull fragments without the Australopithecine sagittal crest, which Mary connected with Broom’s and Robinson’s Telanthropus. The problem with it was its contemporaneity with Zinjanthropus. When mailed photographs, Le Gros Clark retorted casually "Shades of Piltdown." Louis cabled him immediately and had some strong words at this suggestion of his incompetence. Clark apologized.Morell, Chapter 14, "Mary’s Dig."

Not long after, in 1960, Louis, his son Philip and Ray Pickering discovered a fossil he termed "Chellean Man", as it was in context with Olduwan tools, the first such find. After reconstruction Louis and Mary called it "Pinhead." It was subsequently included with Homo erectus and was in fact contemporaneous with Paranthropus, which on that account cannot have been in the human line. For many years Louis believed H. erectus was the user of the tools and Australopithecus was not. It is now conceded that both Hominid genera used them.

In 1961 Louis got a salary as well as a grant from the National Geographic Society and turned over the acting directorship of Coryndon to a subordinate. He created the Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology on the same grounds, moved his collections to it, and appointed himself director. This was his new operations center. He opened another excavation at Fort Ternan on Lake Victoria. Shortly after, Heselon discovered Kenyapithecus wickeri, named after the owner of the property. Louis promptly celebrated with George Gaylord Simpson, who happened to be present, aboard the Miocene Lady with "Leakey Safari Specials", a drink made of condensed milk and cognac.

In 1962 Louis was visiting Olduvai when Ndibo Mbuika discovered the first tooth of Homo habilis at MNK. Louis and Mary thought it was female and named her Cinderella, or Cindy. Phillip Tobias identified Jonny’s Child with it and Raymond Dart came up with the name Homo habilis at Louis’ request, which Tobias translated as "handyman."Morell Chapter 16, "The Human with Ability." Richard Leakey tells a different story about the name. See the Notes section of Homo habilis. It was seen as intermediary between gracile Australopithecus and Homo.These few paragraphs rely on Morell, Chapter 16, "The Human with Ability."