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Mary Leakey, Tracer of Human Origins, Dies

December 10, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Leakey, an archeologist and paleoanthropologist who devoted her life to unraveling the origin and early development of humankind, died Monday in Nairobi, Kenya. She was 83.

The death of the woman considered the unsung hero of the Leakey team with her late husband, Louis, was announced by their scientist son, Richard, in Nairobi.

It was Mary who in 1959 found the skull in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania that assured the Leakeys' place in history and secured funding from the National Geographic Society for their lifetime research.

It was also Mary who in 1948 made the couple's first major discovery, an ape-like skull of a human ancestor known as Proconsul africanus. That fossilized skull did much to establish East Africa as the cradle of human beings.

She finally achieved solo fame as an international scientist in 1978, six years after the death of her husband, with her discovery of a 23-meter trail at Laetoli, Tanzania, of hominid footprints that dated back 3.6 million years. Her find, preserved in volcanic ash, proved that early humans walked upright far earlier than had been believed.

"This unique ability freed the hands for myriad possibilities--carrying, toolmaking, intricate manipulation," she wrote for National Geographic. "From this single development, in fact, stems all modern technology.

"Somewhat oversimplified, the formula holds that this new freedom of forelimbs posed a challenge. The brain expanded to meet it. And mankind was formed."

She recently told Associated Press that the footprints were "the most important find in view of human evolution."

She had actually been searching for tools, which she never found. She identified the footprints as those of two adults (perhaps a male and female) and a child.

Although Mary Leakey had little formal education and her scientific degrees were only honorary, she has been praised by colleagues as the true scientist of the couple, meticulously cataloging and analyzing fossils while her flamboyant husband preferred lecturing, fund-raising and publicizing their work.

"I've got him! I've got him!" Leakey shouted to rouse her ailing husband from his sickbed in their Olduvai camp after she uncovered teeth and a jawbone of what was to be dubbed Zinjanthropus, or "Zinj."

More meticulous brushing revealed about 400 bone fragments, which the Leakeys pieced together into a nearly complete skull.

"I recognized what I had instantly," Leakey recalled for The Times in 1975 when she was in Southern California to lecture at Caltech. "It was great excitement."

At first, her husband touted the discovery as the "missing link" between early apelike creatures and early humans. But that was soon disproved, and the skull instead was determined to be that of a human that had lived 1.75 million years ago.

Born in London, young Mary Douglas Nicol traveled with her parents and spent much time in southern France, where her father painted landscapes. She showed a natural talent for drawing that later helped her record her discoveries. She also shared her father's love of antiquities and as a child enjoyed France's prehistoric caves and the excavation sites of working archeologists.

Though she had little formal background in the field, she became an assistant to archeologist Dorothy Liddell, who had impressed upon her that archeology was open to women. She drew for publication many stone tools she and Liddell found in England.

She also attended lectures in geology and archeology.

It was at one of his lectures at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London that she met her future husband in 1933. Although he was 10 years older and already married with two children, the couple soon became inseparable companions.

He gave her the opportunity for her first visit to Africa and her first look at Olduvai Gorge, which she described in her 1984 autobiography, "Disclosing the Past," as "a view that has since come to mean more to me than any other in the world."

After his divorce from his first wife, Louis and Mary Leakey were married Dec. 24, 1936. They had three sons, Jonathan, Richard and Phillip.

"I quite liked having a baby--I think I won't put it more strongly than that," she wrote in her autobiography. "But I had no intention of allowing motherhood to disrupt my work as an archeologist."

Her husband delayed his field work during World War II to work for British intelligence in East Africa. But Mary Leakey continued excavating, finding a trove of prehistoric hand axes and cleavers in the Kenya Rift Valley.

She described the marriage as "an idyllic partnership" for most of its years, but the couple were living separately a few years before his death. She became increasingly independent, even differing with some of his archeological positions.

"Unscientific" was how she described his contention, for example, that Calico Hills in Southern California's Mojave Desert were the site of a vast human settlement 80,000 years ago.

Preferring isolation and a camp life at her excavation sites, she reluctantly took over lecturing and fund-raising duties after her husband's death.

A unique personality and a feminist ahead of her time, Leakey surrounded herself with pet Dalmatians and other animals, and enjoyed a good cigar and an occasional glass of bourbon.

In publishing her autobiography, she also made Doubleday agree to publish "Africa's Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania," in 1983. She also wrote an earlier book about some of her discoveries, "Olduvai Gorge: My Search for Early Man."

Among Mary Leakey's honors were the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal (shared with her husband), the Gold Medal of the Society of Women Geographers and the 1980 Bradford Washburn Award given by the Boston Museum of Science. She held honorary doctorates from Oxford University, Yale University, the University of Chicago and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

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