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Farewell to Matriarch of Archaeology

9 December 1996 8:00 pm
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Mary D. Leakey, the distinguished archaeologist and matriarch of the famous Leakey clan of scientists, died last night in Nairobi, Kenya. She was 84. Leakey made numerous major discoveries--of both stones and bones--that shaped the study of African prehistory and human evolution. She died peacefully in her sleep.

Leakey's discoveries included an 18-million-year-old Miocene ape skull, and fossils of australopithecines--an early primate species--and early Homo. Her own favorite find was a 3-million-year-old hominid footprint trail in Laetoli, Tanzania. The prints, preserved in volcanic ash, were so striking that as she brushed away the earth from one, she remarked, "Now this is really something to put on the mantelpiece."

Leakey's early archaeological work in Kenya in the 1930s and '40s at several Iron Age sites demonstrated that Africa, contrary to scientific thought at the time, had a prehistoric culture as significant as that of Europe. She also directed the archaeological excavations at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, uncovering a record of human tool use from nearly 2 million to 200,000 years ago.

Leakey was born Mary Douglas Nicol in London on 6 February 1913, the only child of a landscape painter and socialite mother. She gained a passion for prehistory from her father, who took her as a child to view the rock art of France's Dordogne caves. She shared that passion with her husband, Louis S. B. Leakey, whom she followed to Kenya in 1932. They worked together as a team, primarily at Olduvai Gorge, where Mary's discovery of the nearly 2-million-year-old Zinjanthropus (now Australopithecus boisei) fossil in 1959 put the Leakeys on the map. Until that find, humankind was thought to extend back in time only 500,000 years. Mary subsequently discovered the fossils that Louis and his colleagues named Homo habilis, as well as bones of Homo erectus, and numerous archaeological sites at the Gorge.

Mary was the mother of the equally famous paleoanthropologist and wildlife conservationist, Richard, and his brothers, Philip and Jonathan. Her daughter, Deborah, died in infancy. Mary retired from fieldwork in 1984, following the loss of sight in one eye, but she retained an active interest in the science, joining in Richard's expeditions and international conferences until the end.