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.

Human Journey

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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 nationalgeographic.com 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.