Louis Leakey


Louis Leakey : biography

7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972

Louis matriculated at his father’s alma mater, Cambridge University, in 1922, intent on becoming a missionary to British East Africa.

For the rest of his life he would dine out on the story of his finals. When he had arrived in Britain he had notified the register of people with a knowledge of rare languages that he was fluent in Swahili. When he came to his finals he asked to be examined in this and after some hesitation the authorities agreed. Then one day he received two letters. One instructed him to report at a certain time and place for a viva voce examination in Swahili. The other asked if, at the same time and place, he would examine a candidate in Swahili.

His son says:Richard E. Leakey, The Making of Mankind, Chapter 1. The rest of the material comes from Morell, Chapter 2, "From Cambridge to Olduvai.".

"Louis was in his early twenties when he decided to pursue a fossil-hunting career. Until then, he had intended to follow his father’s example and be a Christian missionary in Kenya."

He preached Christian zeal to his fellow students and otherwise impressed Cambridge society with behavior that was considered eccentric.For the details of eccentricity, read Bowman-Kruhm, Chapter 2. They include, for example, demonstrating talking drums from the roof of a building at Cambridge. He was also an evolutionist and befriended some future naturalists.Gregory Bateson, E. Barton Worthington In 1923 his usual zeal led him into a severe concussion in a game of Rugby union. He was relieved of his academic duties. Rest and the outdoors were prescribed.

Diversion from missionary work

In that year a position became available that pushed all thought of rest into the background. In 1922 the British had been awarded German East Africa as part of the settlement of World War I, subsequently applying the name Tanganyika. Within its territory the Germans had discovered a site rich in dinosaur fossils, Tendaguru. Louis was told by C. W. Hobley, a friend of the family, that the British Museum of Natural History was going to send a fossil-hunting expedition to it. Louis applied and was hired to locate the site and manage the administrative details. In 1924 the party under William E. Cutler departed for Africa. They never found a complete dinosaur skeleton. Louis was recalled from the site by Cambridge in 1925, while Cutler contracted blackwater fever and died nine months later.

This critical experience changed Louis’ career decision. Switching courses to anthropology, he found a new mentor in Alfred Cort Haddon, head of the department. In 1926 he graduated with a "double first", or high honours, in anthropology and archaeology. He had used some of his preexisting qualifications; for example, Kikuyu was offered and accepted as the second modern language in which he was required to be proficient, even though no one there could test him on it. The university accepted an affidavit from a Kikuyu chief signed with a thumbprint.

From 1925 on Louis lectured and wrote on African archaeological and palaeontological topics. On graduation he was such a respected figure that Cambridge sent him to East Africa to study prehistoric African humans. He excavated dozens of sites, undertaking for the first time a systematic study of the artifacts. Some of his culture names are still in use; for example, Elmenteitan.This Mesolithic culture is described in by Peter Robertshaw in World Archaeology, Vol. 20, No. 1, Archaeology in Africa (Jun., 1988), pp. 57-69, of which the first page is displayed for free.

Research fellow

St. John’s College, Cambridge. In 1927 Louis received a visit at a site called Gamble’s Cave, near Lake Elmenteita, by two young ladies on a holiday, one of whom was Henrietta Wilfreda "Frida" Avern.1902-1993 She had done some course work in archaeology. Louis and she talked the entire night. They continued the relationship on his return to Cambridge and in 1928 they were married and set off together for Elmenteita. At that time he discovered the Acheulean site of Kariandusi, which he excavated in 1928, after collecting a team of interested associates.Douglas Leakey, Donald Macinnes, Tom Powys Cobb, John D. Solomon, Elisabeth Kitson, Cecily Creasy, Penelope Jenkin. For a description and history of the site see at the National Museums of Kenya web site.