Human Journey

Mary Leakey’s 100th Birthday and Her Legacy

When Mary Douglas Nicol was born 100 years ago today, the idea of human physical evolution was only a few decades old, and very little evidence of any humanlike creatures beyond ourselves and living apes had been discovered.

Some specimens of Neanderthals had been found, but the most complete skeleton belonged to an aged, worn, arthritic man. This contributed to a common view that whatever ancestors we had were, like Hobbes’s image of primitive life itself, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Through a life of dedication to research and exploration of Africa’s Rift Valley, Mary met and married Louis Leakey and together they brought to light some of the most significant and spectacular remains of ancient human ancestors more apelike, and more clearly energetic and capable than many had considered possible. The discovery in 1960 of Homo habilis, the “handy man,” marked the earliest known expert stone tool makers, and the footprints at Laetoli revealed for the first time a snapshot of our apelike forebears in action. Throughout the years she was supported by more than 25 grants from the National Geographic Society. (Read her full biography.)

Her son, Richard, continued the work and has been a champion for Africa’s people and animals for decades. His wife, Meave, has made significant discoveries as well, and has continued to be a leader in paleoanthropology. Though Mary Leakey herself died in 1996, Meave and her daughter Louise continue the family legacy.

Today Louise and Meave are National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, continuing to push the boundaries of what we know about early human ancestors, and perhaps more importantly on a human level, how we think about them. One hundred years ago today human beings knew very little about our ancient origins. Because of the life and example of Mary Leakey, we know ourselves better now, and continue to learn more every day.


What to See Next

Celebrate National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary.

Learn more about the life of Mary Leakey on the Leakey family website.

Hear Meave describe her most recent discovery in this segment from the National Geographic Weekend radio show:
Meave Leakey held onto the skull, even though she didn’t know exactly how it fit. The National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence found the two million year old cranium near Kenya’s Lake Turkana in 1972. If the skull wasn’t an “aberrant specimen,” she knew that it didn’t belong to a member of homo erectus or homo habilis, who lived in the same area at that time. But Leakey finally found other specimen like that of skull 1470. She tells Boyd that the species doesn’t necessarily represent a human forbear, but is certainly a related species. Listen below. Listen to her story now.

Follow @NatGeoExplorers on Twitter.

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • ReginaMunozGutierrez

    Hello my name is Regina and i love the picture in the google place……………………………………………………………………..

  • B


  • Austin Gray

    So cool.

  • yo

    read a bible bud…

  • Jake

    Awesome shes my inspiration!!!

  • poder del reino

    MR. Andrew,
    Can you tell me what human like creature we are going to become if we continue to evolve acording to the evolution theory?

  • Andy

    I like the story, but not sure it’s her 100th Birthday if she didn’t live to be more than 83. I think it may be better to say remembering…or something like that.

  • sss

    That’s nice

  • Tiffany

    Im from the “Bible” belt, USA. In the south religon stands firm and I say WHO IS TO SAY GOD DIDNT MAKE US TO EVOLVE? before you start spouting religon on a scientific page, think GOD is beyond our complete understanding…. This could be his design… These Women and this Family have done AMAZING THINGS! Thank you for inspiring the next Generations of Scientists!

  • Marcayla

    So , pretty in younger years !!!!

  • jh

    It is, however, a note-worthy article, and I commend the writer and applaud the team’s great contributions to our human history.

  • Maurice Channelle

    I Know She Was A Big Part Of History But What Was She Dedicated To………………

  • jh

    Ultimate glamour of the times. . . . lipstick, even in Africa. . . minus the cigarette in every hand. . . 🙂

  • CoolGuy

    @ poder: probably really tall, bald, uni-lingual and pale. We will have computer chips in our brains and we will live for 200 years. We will eventually deplete fossil fuels and rely on nuclear energy. We will all develop mutations from the inevitable radiation poisoning and one of us bald, pale, crippled, cyborg people will start a school for kids who develop strange abilities from exposure to new unheard-of energy sources. These kids will save us from natural disasters and meteor strikes, etc. We will praise them and band together under their flag to form a planetary confederacy. With the Earth’s peoples unified, we can finally focus on the space program and search for more planets to inhabit and inevitably destroy. Then millions of years later, after the earth has been frozen under a thick ash cloud, alien explorers will discover our skeletons (iphone in hand) and think to themselves “What primitive people.”

    read a book

  • NotAnIdiot

    I’m happy for this woman being remebered as I hope that the people that love and care about me will remember me after I’m gone. Truth be told given enough time we will all be forgotten (ever read Ecclesiastes). But as far as her work goes there is no fact in the theory of evolution. It is just that, a theory, and in my view a pretty lousy one at that. If we and/or all the other species of the world had evolved from previous species and life forms over millions and millions of years and the earth is biollions of years old then were are the millions of fossil specimens of the in-between species that would have existed if this theory was accurate. I am well aware that not everything that dies makes a fossil and that certain geological events have to occur inorder to preserve a fossil but to find a few mutated remains and conclude that we evolved from something else is grasping at less than straws. How exactly did mud one day decide to be alive and evolve into anything again? I am a Christian and I follow the word of the Lord which tells us where we are from and nobody has ever been able to disprove anything in the KJV bible. Im not here to pick a fight and I do not hate a single soul on this planet but I do not believe in lies and have absolute sorrow for those who choose to put thier faith in the wisdom of man rather than the wisdom of God. Please read your bibles people. We did not evolve. Praise God

  • Doug

    We won’t evolve into Mutants like the X-men.

    Evolution is like a treadmill. Species run as fast as they can to simply keep up and not fall off.

  • Kid ty

    this is intresting

  • luckyduck411

    you live right now ….. then you are 25 years from now …. the progress will seem amazing ….. you didn’t see it evolve it just is . life is, and you walk through it …

  • j

    This is all still a theory. These are interesting discoveries but they are not necessarily our relatives. We have no proof of evolution whatsoever.

  • Gerard

    I wish that this sophisticated man of modern times would have the capacity to recognize God’s image in us all, specially the unborn.

  • Erika

    I am appalled at some of the so-called ‘god followers” replies here, and as a firm believer in a higher power, happen to think that science and religion are highly compatible. The theories of evolution are, yes, just theories, but there is strong scientific evidence to lead us in the direction of having evolved from species before us. I have a strong religious upbringing in the Christian faith and I must say that the first book of the bible is not meant to be taken literally, at face value, but it is meant as a collection of allegorical stories to strengthen our faith in a higher power. If you have an iota of intelligence you would see that science, like the theory of evolution, and religion, like the book of Genesis, are indeed compatible. Who is to say that just because evolution is not directly referenced in the Bible that it is not, as another user says here, part of God’s divine plan?

  • avmn

    yes i know we evolved, but some these “christians” beleive god was made in the image of us, not that we were mad in the image of god.

  • Jeez

    Wow! So many uneducated opinions … let’s stick to science and keep your religion out of it. How disappointing that you take this forum to pound. The unborn? Wow. Just wow.

  • Spimp

    Don’t understand the picture at all; what are those footprints
    in the sand sppose to be saying to the viewer?

  • Nayi

    I had the fortune to meet Louise Leakey, Mary’s grand daughter at Olduvai Gorge during a National Geographic Expedition trip to Tanzania. What an experience!

  • MissLissa

    The Leakey family is inspirational. Hard work, dedication and a resolve for the truth has trinkled down from generation to generation!!

  • cal

    I would like to think that the human race was created not evolved into a race ,certainly the climate you were happened to be surving in,has a huge impact on how we were able to adapt, to be able to reproduce and cont to live.

  • Schneider

    If evolution is just a theory, please prove, then, that we were “created.” Evidence, please. No fairy tales, just evidence. I’m waiting.

  • Schneider

    Erika, you need to read Why Evolution is True. Your question is easily answered by fossils and living creatures that proves “god” would not have created species that by natural selection had flaws and did not survive long term.

  • NotAnIdiot

    @Erika The Book of Genesis in the bible can be taken very literally, What some people miss or dismiss is that there was a period of time between the first verse and the second verse where the world had previously existed and life was on the earth at this time. All of this comes from the King James Version of the bible but I don’t know about modern translations that have some verses eiter completely removed, altered or, “dumbed down”. A further explaination of all of this can be found here—-> for anyone that may be curious. As for me, I have no use for speculation when it comes to the matters of God and I seek to follow Him only. I hope this can be a help to anyone that may have been mislead by those that think the Word of God is fairytales like I had been when I was in grade school. Thank God for the Word of truth

  • Jorge

    In this millennium, it remains shockingly amazing to find the number of individuals that believe that the female gender was created from the rib of a man, much less their demeaning of the research being performed to understand the evolution of the earth and its living organisms, plants, and life forms. So sad.

  • Jordan Young

    I think that more people should be knowledgeable about our history anthropologically. The fact that so few know about any branch of anthropology is disheartening, and I’m glad we have NG to inform us about not only the anthropologists of the world, but of current and previous happenings around the world. 🙂 Thank you!

  • GIGI Pants

    love me some mary leaky folks

  • thomas

    evolution is based off of need not mutation for its own sake, if one had to ponder how we would evolve in the future then id suspect we would become larger boned organisms that would be rather slow and ponderous and maybe lose our ears all together, based on our current crisis with obesity that would make only the ones with large bone structures live to an age that would survive to a breeding age and raise their children, and on the fact that technolgical advancement is leading to less manual labor therefore our bodies would not be required to be very dextrious or mobil for us to reach adulthood and since the adverage human spends so much time texting writing on blogs and facebook and the fact that hearing danger in our normal enviroment is no longer important since the new generation never goes outside then yes thats how i see our evolution

  • Kat

    Maybe instead of debating evolution we should take this as an opportunity to celebrate the advances Mary Leakey made for society. She was one of the first influential women in a traditionally male-dominated field, she graduated with a degree in Paleoanthropology when most women were not encouraged to even go to college and on top of all that she raised intelligent, independent and civic-minded children. Well done, Mary!!

  • Joan Demarais

    To all the bible-thumpers out there… The “theory” of evolution is as the “theory” of gravity; the scientific use of the word “theory” is quite different than the layman use of the term. “A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step—known as a theory—in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.” Evolution is a scientific reality. Deliver us from the temptation to live in the Dark Ages. Mary Leakey’s discoveries have inspired the world of science for decades.

  • Amber

    I would like to leave a comment addressing all of the people who have said that evolutionary theory is flawed.

    First, lack of evidence is not the same as lack of occurance. There are in fact millions of fossils in museums as well as private collections that represent evolutionary links. And new ones are found every day. See National Geographics resent presentation on “Prehistoric Timeline” and “Iridecant Dinosaurs” (photos courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin)

    Second, please present more evidence for the theories on Creationism or Intelligent Design. And by evidence, i mean something tangible that isn’t a book written by men (or women) of this genus and species. Unfortunately, there is none. So according to scientific deffinition your theory is way more lousy than Darwins. Faith is not dependent on tangible proof, it is something that you can feel but you can not touch. Yet you beleive absolutely that it is there. Beleif in a higher being is something that our ancestors came up with to cope with the uncertainties of their lives. I don’t have a problem with religion except when its agenda becomes corrupt. And please don’t try to say that it doesn’t. Example: Taliban, a radical sect of Islam. Please note that not all Muslims are Taliban

    Third, we can not predict what humans will look like since the mechanism for evolution is random mutation. Environment plays a roll but it is risky. Mutations in genes that give a species or population advantage over others will eventually, through several (putting it lightly in the case of humans) generations prove unfit (Google Darwin’s thoughts on fitness) or result in a new species. Evolution builds on what systems are already in place. It does not create new systems out of thin air.

    I have to go to class now, don’t make me come back in here…:-)

  • Luis Manual Alvarez

    LOL wow i can’t believe the nauseating rants if Bible this and Bible that well there was ALLOT of writings where left out of the book and so much lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek Latin to many language’s of today I believe in Christ if he where alive today what would he say ??? well there is no proof that the Bible is fact THAT’S WHY IS’T CALLED FAITH duh!! not to mention other faiths & what they believe like Islamist shreya law if The Profit were alive today what would he say? come-on the good book is not the only book open you mind that God gave you to new possibilities or should we go back to the word is flat and the sun revolves around the earth and that there is only life here in the entire universe what i believe i keep to my self & don’t try to push it on any one but that’s just me

  • Maria Hernandez

    H@PpY 100th B1rThD@Y!!!!!!!!!

  • priscila

    i like the picture and i am going to enter th doodel drawing for googel wish me good luck i hope iwin 200$

  • NotAnIdiot

    A: the Bible is the Word of our creator because He told us so in the Bible: 2 Timothy 3:16, John 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:13
    B: the Bible is complete because He told us so in the Bible: Galatians 1:8, Revelations 22:18,19
    C: the Bible is preserved for all generations because He told us so in the Bible: Psalm 12:6,7, 1Peter 1:25
    I understand that some will never believe what God has given for us to believe and I pray for any who dont. But the Lord has created this world for a reason. As far as I know God made this universe and everything in it because he wanted love. He wanted someone to love him not because they had to be obedient like the angels but true love, by choice he gave us free will to chose to love him back and reap the benefits or to chose to ignore him and reap the consequenses. His will is that all love Him but He gave US that choice. I am satisfied with my choice but I pray that others may recognize the choices that they make have an eternal consequence. If you were a father that made a child and brought him into this world and gave him gifts and talents and blessings beyond compare, would you like if your child was told that you did not exist or that someone else made them and were lied to from birth until death so that your child never knew you, thanked you or loved you. I know that I wouldn’t. I do not seek my own glory or praise in telling you anything as it would be better for me to be dead in this wreched body but I write of these things for the sake of all others who need the truth. Please don’t be the ones spoken of in 2 Timothy 3:13

  • Mariana Almeida

    After reading some of the coments, I can say I’m glad the Internet and National did nothing to prevent free speech and debate among people from all corners of the world (though most of us take it to Youtube…) Argue away, people! =)
    Also, I just came by to pay my personal tribute to a great scientist – this is what this page is still about, right? Anyway. thank you so much for your work, Mary Leakey, we owe you a lot =)

  • Audax ZP Mabulla

    I met Dr. MD Leakey in 1989 at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. She introduced me to the archaeology of the Ndutu Beds in the upper part of the Olduvai sequence where I conducted my MA dissertation research. Today, I am working in the lower Beds of Olduvai Gorge. She was not only a great scientist, she was also a great lady…Happy 100th birthday Dr MDL.

  • Erika

    Hello, I am agreeing with evolution. Read what I wrote.

  • NotAnIdiot

    @Mariana. I am very glad for that aswell. I am tolerant of the right for other peopleto have opposing views and opinions and I am glat that the moderators were tolerant of mine. I am thankful for this country and then laws that we have that have not restricted our free will to believe and speak out what ever we believe and I am glad that the National Geographic website has matched that freedom. I have only expressed what I believe with all of my mind heart and soul and by my saying this I have not enforced my beliefs but only expressed them for others to hear because if I dont tell them then I don’t know who will, and if not now then I don’t know when. I am convinced of my beliefs by reason and logic not as a blind follower of superstitions and magical tales. Gos is a logical and practical being and the fact that in His Glorious power was able to do miraculous acts that defy worldly explaination does not make him unbelievable. He wants us to believe Him and that is what I was here to say.

  • Haley Leakey

    Believe it or not, I am related to Mary Leakey and Louis Leakey.

  • Ian Perlis

    I first dicovered Mary Leakey’s work by going through an old edition of THE BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE encyclopedia. There was a picture of a very ancient cave as well as a picture of WEBBED footprints found in that cave. The encyclopedia said that the footprints were those of a bipedal hominid. There was also a picture of Mary Leakey holding a beautiful golden box within that cave which she discovered. Whatever it was that was discovered wasn’t human and I believe that these footprints were those of the biblical demon Asmodeas. The location of the caves wasn’t disclosed but I believe that it was in Bislig, Phillipines

  • teressa

    I love google

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