Legacy of the Leakeys

Generations of women have explored our world with the National Geographic Society, and three generations of women explorers from the Leakey family have brought the history of the world to our community.

The Laetoli Footprints document bipedal hominins walking across Africa more than 3.5 million years ago. Here, Mary Leakey, who led the team that discovered the fossils, poses with a cast of the footprints.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

In 1978, Mary Leakey and her team left a lasting impression on the world of paleoanthropology when they discovered the “Laetoli Footprints,” trace fossils of our hominin ancestors more than 3.5 million years old.

The footprints were most likely made by two Australopithecus afarensis walking through soft, wet volcanic ash in eastern Africa (what is now Tanzania). When the nearby volcano erupted again, layers of more volcanic ash covered and preserved the earliest known footprints of early humans.

The Laetoli Footprints were just part of Mary Leakey’s long career as a paleoanthropologist, one that was cemented by her 1959 discovery of a fossil of Australopithecus boisei, nicknamed “Zinj,” a previously unidentified 1.8 million-year-old hominin species.

“For some reason, that skull caught the imagination,” Leakey said.

“But what it also did, and that was very important for our point of view, it caught the imagination of the National Geographic Society, and as a result they funded us for years. That was exciting.”

Meave and Louise Leakey are a mother-daughter paleontological team—and National Geographic explorers.
Illustration by Chris Rooney, National Geographic



Meave Epps Leakey is a paleontologist and research professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the director of Plio-Pleistocene research for the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photograph of Sylvia Earle by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

But, as a girl growing up in England, Meave dreamed of the ocean.

I had always dreamt that I would be a marine zoologist, but this did not happen. There were few women in science at that time and very few on marine research vessels.”

Today, she considers oceanographer and fellow National Geographic explorer Sylvia Earle a hero: She “persisted against all odds and has worked tirelessly to increase awareness of the critical state of the oceans.”

Meave Leakey and her team have worked tirelessly in the rich fossil beds of the Great Rift Valley; their most notable discovery may have been the identification of Kenyanthropus platyops, a 3.5 million-year-old hominin. This mysterious fossil was one of the first to challenge notions that human evolution was linear, with a single common human ancestor.

Louise Leakey was part of the team, led by her mother, that helped identify K. platyops in 1999.

She had long been accustomed to working in the field: “During the summer holidays while [my parents] were at Lake Turkana working in the fossil exposures, my younger sister and I joined them. We used to glue the broken pieces of fossils together, or excavate and plaster specimens.”

In 1977, six-year-old Louise picked up a shiny sliver of what looked like a tooth, which it was—from a 17-million-year-old primate. With this discovery, she became the youngest person documented to have discovered an ancient hominoid fossil.

Today, one of Louise Leakey’s passions is bringing Africa’s dazzling history of paleoanthropology to a new generation of explorers through the interactive website AfricanFossils.org. The site allows visitors to explore a paleontology lab, examine 3-D models of fossils, and visit excavation sites in East Africa.

Dig deeper into this family of paleontologists with a look back on Mary Leakey’s 100th birthday, and a profile of the mother-daughter team of Meave and Louise Leakey.

Learn more about the legendary legacy of the Leakeys with our National Geographic Society timeline here.

Human Journey

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