Louis Leakey


Compiled by Jennifer Keough (December 1999)

Leakey Biography
Time Line

An archaeologist, anthropologist, anatomist, palaeontologist, and zoologist, Louis Leakey "packed more into his 69 years than ten ordinary men would in their combined lifetimes" (Cole, 1975). As soon as he began high school, he became an outcast, "misfit" simply due to his poverty, absence of a formal education, and lack of the ability to communicate fluently in English. It wasn't until a number of discoveries were made, discrediting the theory that man began in East Asia, proving true his that said that man began in East Africa, did he start to gain respect. It was clearly a struggle overcome with ambition and determination that finally led him to become an inspiration to others.

Born in 1903 in Kabete, to British missionaries of the Kikuyu, Leakey began his life. He grew up among the Kikuyu gaining a knowledge for their culture and customs, language and beliefs. There were only a few European settlers in the Kikuyu at this time, so even his "childhood" friends were Kikuyu. At the age of 16, he was thrown into an English school and then into Cambridge. This period became a time of struggle for him. His knowledge, nor stories of his adventures of the Kikuyu, impressed the kids in high school or college. It actually made friends very "hard to come by". Perseverance triumphed though, when he finally graduated in 1926 with first-class honors.

The same year he graduated, Leakey set off on a series of expeditions that lasted until 1935. Before these expeditions, the accepted view was that man had risen in Asia, and that from there the main cultural stream began to flow, but Leakey had his own theory. He believed that man had risen from Africa and that there -- is where our history began. And through these expeditions, Leakey discovered the first Australopithecine and many other artifacts, including tools. Also during this time, Leakey met and remarried his wife Mary Nicol who prepared the drawings of his second book Adam's Ancestors.


Soon after these discoveries, Leakey was appointed curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum at Nairobi. He worked as curator for a little while, but decided to take one more expedition before things at the Museum became to much, to Olduvai Gorge which lead him to the discovery of the early primate fossil named Zinjanthropus, "Zinj" for short. Shortly afterwards he became busy with his position at the Museum, his lectures, and his fund raising; so Mary took over Olduvai as her place of study and went on to discover a trail of clear footprints preserved in a volcanic ash from a site in Tanzania, which clearly demonstrated that the hominids were bipedal. These later were found to be a representation of the 3.2 million year old Lucy skeleton.

In 1960, the Leakey's with their son, Jonathon, led yet another expedition lasting until 1964. On this expedition, the discovery of the oldest known primate with human characteristics, Homo habilis ("handy man") was discovered. This was Louis Leakey's last expedition.

Leakey was struck ill, even though he did remain busy with his lectures. And in 1972, he died of a coronary leaving behind his wife and son. Both went on to carry the Leakey name, continuing to make discoveries supporting Louis Leakey's theory of man's origin in Africa.


Louis Leakey had two main theories that he came up with throughout his quest to discover the origins of man:

1. That man arose in Africa
2. The australopithecines were an unsuccessful sideline which left behind no descendents

The way that he proved this was just through the evidence he found during his expeditions: the first australopithecine and many other artifacts, "Zinj", a trail of footprints representing the 3.2 million year old Lucy skeleton, and lastly Homo habilis. Through all of this evidence it became obvious that man arose in Africa, not in Asia. So Leakey changed not only his life, but history itself.

Time Line
1903 - Born
1926 - Received first-class honors from Cambridge
University 1928 - Married Frieda
1931 - Wrote the book Stone Age Cultures of Kenya Colony
1934 - Wrote the book Adam's Ancestors
1935 - Wrote the book Stone Age Races of Kenya
- Unrecognized discovery of the first australopithecine from East Africa
1936 - Remarried to a woman named Mary
1937 - Wrote his autobiography, White Africa
1939 - Completed a three year study of the Kikuyu; Became a Civilian Intelligence Officer for the Kenyan Government
1947 - Began excavation at Rusinga Island
1949 - Discovery of the first Proconsul skull complete with a face
1951 - Wrote the book Olduvai Gorge
1951 - Began systematic work in Olduvai, Gorge
1952 - Wrote the book Mau Mau and the Kikuyu
1954 - Co-authored along with W.E. Le Gros Clark Fossil Hominoidea of East Africa
1959 - Discovery of the first australopithecine cranial remains that later allocated to Zinjanthropus boisei
1960 - Discovery of the first Homo habilis fossils
1961 - Published Olduvai Gorge 1951-1961
1962 - Established and became director of the Center for Prehistory and Paleontology
1969 - Co-authored along with Vanne Morris Goodall, the book Unveiling Man's Origins
1974 - Published By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1932-1951

Cole, Sonia (1975). Leakey's Luck: The Life of Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Leakey, L. S. B. (1965). Olduvai Gorge 1951-61 Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. and Olduvai Gorge 1951-61 Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
WEB SITES: "Leakey, L. S. B.". Available at http://www.apa.org/science/leakey98.html
"Leakey, L. S. B.". Available at http://ukdb.web.aol.com/hutchinson/encyclopedia/33/M00019...

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