Louis Leakey


Louis Leakey : biography

7 August 1903 – 1 October 1972

Boswell immediately set out to publish as many words as he was able, beginning with an article in Nature dated 9 March 1935, destroying Reck’s and Louis’ dates of the fossils and questioning Louis’ competence. Louis on his return accused Boswell of treachery, but Boswell now had public opinion on his side. Louis was not only forced to retract the accusation but also to recant his support of Reck.This account is based on Morell, Chapter 5, "Disaster at Kanam", supplemented with detail from Louis’ account in By the Evidence, Chapter 2. Olduvai Man languished through World War II in a Berlin museum and then partially disappeared, but preservative applied to the bones took away any hope of an accurate C-14 date; however, neither can any evidence of intrusion be located. Kanjera Man is ancient, possibly Homo habilis; Homo kanamensis is an intrusion. Louis was through at Cambridge. Even his mentors turned on him.

On the road in Africa

Meeting Mary in Africa, he proceeded to Olduvai with a small party. Mary joined him under a stigma but her skill and competence eventually won over the other participants. Louis’ parents continued to urge him to return to Frida, and would pay for everyone in the party but Mary. Louis and his associates did the groundwork for future excavation at Olduvai, uncovering dozens of sites for a broad sampling, as was his method. They were named after the excavator: SHK (Sam Howard’s karongo), BK (Peter Bell’s), SWK (Sam White’s), MNK (Mary Nicol’s). Louis and Mary conducted a temporary clinic for the Maasai, made preliminary investigations of Laetoli, and ended by studying the rock paintings at the Kisese/Cheke region.The initial chapters of By the Evidence and Morell, Chapter 6, "Olduvai’s Bounty", describe the explorations on which these few sentences are based.

The Village of Nasty

Louis and Mary returned to England in 1935 without positions or any place to stay except Mary’s mother’s apartment. They soon leased Steen Cottage in Great MundenThis settlement was in Hertfordshire and had an unusual, more ancient name, which Louis, with his sense of humor noted in his memoirs, Chapter 5, as "the village of Nasty." Nasty is a hamlet in Great Munden; however, Louis’ mood reflects that of the population of Hertfordshire, which delights in assigning unusual village names. and lived without heat, electricity, or plumbing, fetching water from a well, huddling before a fireplace and writing by oil lantern. They lived happily in poverty for eighteen months at this low point of their fortunes, visited at first only by Mary’s relatives. Louis gardened for subsistence and exercise and improved the house and grounds. He appealed at last to the Royal Society, who relented with a small grant to continue work on his collection.


The last years

Kenya became independent at noon on 12 December 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta as the first prime minister. The settlers were already leaving the country in large numbers. Kenyatta saw that he had to act swiftly to prevent a descent into chaos. He took a conciliatory view. There were a few deportations, but no reprisals. Louis had felt considerable trepidation about the future of palaeoanthropology in Kenya. A meeting was arranged between him and Jomo at the suggestion of the last colonial governor, Malcolm MacDonald. He was introduced by his old friend Peter Koinange. They spoke in Kikuyu. The meeting ended with an embrace and reassurances.Morell, Chaper 19, "A Girl for the Gorillas."

During his final years Louis became famous as a lecturer in the United States and United Kingdom. He brought audiences cheering to their feet. He did not personally excavate any longer, as he was crippled with arthritis, for which he had a hip replacement in 1968. He raised funds and directed his family and associates. In Kenya he was an indispensable facilitator for the hundreds of scientists then exploring the East African Rift system for fossils. Without his say-so, permits could not be obtained and access to museum collections was denied. Once he gave permission, his advice was invaluable.