Louis Leakey


Louis Leakey : biography

7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972

Calico Hills

In 1959 Leakey, while at the British Museum of Natural History in London, received a visit from Ruth DeEtte Simpson, an archaeologist from California. Simpson had acquired what looked like ancient scrapers from a site in the Calico Hills and showed it to Leakey.

In 1963, Leakey obtained funds from the National Geographic Society and commenced archaeological excavations with Simpson. Excavations at the site carried out by Leakey and Simpson revealed that they had located stone artifacts which were dated 100,000 years or older, suggesting a human presence in North America much earlier than estimated.Cameron B. Wesson Historical dictionary of early North America 2005, p. 35

The geologist Vance Haynes had made three visits to the site in 1973 and had claimed that the artifacts found by Leakey were naturally formed geofacts. According to Haynes, the geofacts were formed by stones becoming fractured in an ancient river on the site.Steven Mithen After the ice: a global human history, 20,000-5000 BC 2006, p. 540

In her autobiography, Mary Leakey wrote that because of Louis’s involvement with the Calico Hills site she had lost academic respect for him and that the Calico excavation project was "catastrophic to his professional career and was largely responsible for the parting of our ways".Mary Leakey Disclosing the past 1984 pp. 142-144

Our Man in British East Africa

The Return of the Native Son

Finally, Frida divorced Louis and he and Mary were married on Christmas Eve, 1936, in a civil ceremony at the registry office of Ware. The witness, Peter Koinange, the son of a Kikuyu chief, was in Britain doing postgraduate studies at St. John’s. Louis got some royalties and advances on books, and delivered the Munro lectures at Edinburgh University for 1936.This subsection depends on Morell, Chapter 7, "Consequences."

Louis had already involved himself in Kikuyu tribal affairs in 1928, taking a stand against female genital cutting. He got into a shouting match in Kikuyu one evening with Jomo Kenyatta, who was lecturing on the topic. R. Copeland at Oxford recommended he apply to the Rhodes Trust for a grant to write a study of the Kikuyu and it was given late in 1936 along with a salary for two years. In January 1937 the Leakeys shook the dust off their feet and travelled to Kenya. Colin would not see his father for 20 years.

Louis returned to Kiambaa near Nairobi and persuaded Senior Chief Koinange, who designated a committee of chiefs, to help him describe the Kikuyu the way they had been. Mary excavated at Waterfall Cave.According to Louis’ memoirs, Chapter 6, it was the chief who suggested she excavate. He knew artifacts were being washed from the cave. Louis and Mary had moved into a hut in his compound at his invitation. She fell ill with double pneumonia and lay at death’s door for two weeks in the hospital in Nairobi, during which time her mother was sent for. Contrary to expectation she recovered and began another excavation at Hyrax Hill and then Ngoro River Cave. Louis got an extension of his grant, which he used partially for fossil-hunting. Leakey discoveries began to appear in the newspapers again.

Tensions between the Kikuyu and the settlers increased alarmingly. Louis jumped into the fray as an exponent of the middle ground. In Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, he angered the settlers by proclaiming Kenya could never be a "white man’s country."

The fossil police

The government offered Louis work as a policeman in intelligence, which he could not afford to refuse. He traveled the country as a pedlar, reporting on the talk. When Britain went to war in September, 1939, the Kenyan government drafted Louis into its African intelligence service.Louis describes this authority in Chapter 8 of his Memoirs as "…the CID… Special Branch, Section 6, concerned with civil intelligence." The drafting authority was the "Kenya government" and there is no indication in the Memoirs that the service was more directly British; in fact, he refers to "my counterpart in military intelligence." However, Louis would not be revealing everything he knew. Morell portrays him as having been in police work before being drafted. She had personal access to the surviving Leakeys. Apart from some bumbling around, during which he and some settlers stalked each other as possible saboteurs of the Sagana Railway Bridge,Memoirs Chapter 8 his first task was to supply and arm Ethiopian guerrillas against the Italian invaders of their country. He created a clandestine network using his childhood friends among the Kikuyu. They also hunted fossils on the sly.