Louis Leakey


Louis Leakey : biography

7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972

Louis requested and was given permission to build and move into a hut, Kikuyu style, at the end of the garden. It was home to his personal collection of natural objects, such as birds’ eggs and skulls. All the children developed a keen interest in and appreciation of the pristine natural surroundings in which they found themselves. They raised baby animals, later turning them over to zoos. Louis read a gift book, Days Before History, by H. R. Hall (1907), a juvenile fictional work illustrating the prehistory of Britain. He began to collect tools and was further encouraged in this activity by a role model, Arthur Loveridge, first curator (1914) of the Natural History Museum in Nairobi, predecessor of the Coryndon Museum. This interest may have predisposed him toward a career in archaeology.Canon Leakey also was a naturalist and must have been a significant model, as Louis wished originally to pattern his life after his father’s. Canon Leakey was one of the original founders of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, according to Louis’ memoirs, Chapter 8

Neither Harry nor May were of strong constitution. From 1904-1906 the entire family lived at May’s mother’s house in Reading, Berkshire, England, while Harry recovered from neurasthenia, and again in 1911-1913, while May recovered from general frailty and exhaustion. During the latter stay, Harry bought a house in Boscombe.The facts for this section were gathered mainly from Ancestral Passions, Chapter 1, "Kabete", and from the "Publisher’s Prologue" of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition of By the Evidence.

Reversals of fortune

The Defense of Reck

In November, 1931, Louis led an expedition to Olduvai, including Reck,Arthur Tindell Hopwood, Donald MacInnes, Vivian Fuchs, Captain Hewlitt, Frances Kenrick, Frida, Reck, and a number of African assistants. whom he allowed to enter the gorge first. Louis did find Acheulean tools within the first 24 hours, costing Reck ten pounds on the bet. They verified the provenance of the 1913 find, now Olduvai Man. Non-humanoid fossils and tools were extracted from the ground in large numbers. Frida delayed joining him and was less enthusiastic about him on behalf of Priscilla. She did arrive eventually, however, and Louis put her to work. Frida’s site became FLK, for Frida Leakey’s karongo ("gully").

Back in Cambridge, the skeptics were not impressed. To find supporting evidence of the antiquity of Reck’s Olduvai Man, Louis returned to Africa, excavating at Kanam and Kanjera. He easily found more fossils, which he named Homo kanamensis.Read about these events in , by L. C. Bishop et al., published in the African Archaeological Review. While he was gone, the opposition worked up some "evidence" of the intrusion of Olduvai Man into an earlier layer, evidence that seemed convincing at the time, but is missing and unverifiable now. On his return Louis’ finds were carefully examined by a committee of 26 scientists and were tentatively accepted as valid.


With Frida’s dowry money, the Leakeys bought a large brick house in Girton near Cambridge, which they named "the Close." She suffered from morning sickness most of the time and was unable to work on the illustrations for Louis’ second book, Adam’s Ancestors. At a dinner party given in his honor after a lecture of his at the Royal Anthropological Institute, Gertrude Caton-Thompson introduced him to her own illustrator, the twenty-year-old Mary Nicol.

Louis convinced Mary to take on the illustration of his book. A few months later companionship turned to romance. Colin Leakey was born in December, 1933, and in January, 1934, Louis asked Frida for a divorce. She would not sue for divorce until 1936.This account is based on Morell, Chapter 4, "Louis and Mary."

A panel at Cambridge investigated his morals. Grants dried up, but his mother raised enough money for another expedition to Olduvai, Kanam and Kanjera, the latter two on the Winam Gulf.The guest list is Peter Bell (zoologist), Sam White (surveyor), Peter Kent (geologist), Heselon Mukiri, Thairu Irumbi, Ndekei. His previous work there was questioned by P. G. H. Boswell,Head of the Department of Geology at the Imperial College of Science, London. whom he invited to verify the sites for himself. Arriving at Kanam and Kanjera in 1935, they found that the iron markers Louis had used to mark the sites had been removed by the Luo tribe for use as harpoons and the sites could not now be located. To make matters worse, all the photos Louis took were ruined by a light leak in the camera. After an irritating and fruitless two-month search, Boswell left for England, promising, as Louis understood it, not to publish a word until Louis returned.