Who Were Louis and Mary Leakey and What Were Their Contributions To Anthropology and Archaeology?

In the nineteenth century, scientists discovered that Earth was much older than previously thought.

Humans and other animals had been on Earth much longer also. Some animals had lived on Earth before humans and become extinct.

This raised many questions. How old was Earth? When did life start? When did humans appear?

In 1925, Australian anthropologist Raymond Dart discovered a fossil of a small skull in Taung, South Africa.

Dart, also an anatomist, studied the unusual skull carefully. He decided it was a child’s skull and the first fossil of a human ancestor. Dart called the fossil Australopithecus africanus, from the Latin meaning “southern ape from Africa.”

Scientists now refer to all the earliest human species as australopithecines, or australopiths for short.

For decades, almost no one in the scientific community believed Dart, but more and more archaeologists started coming to Africa, the place where Darwin had predicted that human life originated. The search for humans’ prehistoric ancestors was under way.

It was a husband-and-wife team who would make archaeology front-page news and bring humans closer to understanding their beginnings.

He was well educated, brilliant, and sometimes made outrageous claims about their discoveries. She never even finished high school but trained herself as an expert archaeologist and would quietly make most of their discoveries.

Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey was born to missionary parents in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1903 and was raised among the Kikuyu tribe.

He returned to England in 1922 to complete his education and received a doctorate in anthropology from Cambridge University. In 1926, he led an expedition to Olduvai, a river gorge in Tanzania, Africa. It was here that he would make his most important discoveries over the next 30 years.

Mary Nicol Leakey was born in London, England, in 1913 but spent most of her childhood traveling with her artist parents.

Her father was interested in archaeology and would take her along when he was invited to join archaeological digs in Europe. When she dropped out of school, she joined digs as an assistant to gain experience.

In 1935, she joined the Leakey expedition in Olduvai and married Louis the following year. Together, they would make the key archaeological discovery of the twentieth century: humans and their ancestors have been around much longer than was thought.

Mary and Louis Leakey, a husband and wife team of archeologists, worked in Africa, where they discovered some of the earliest human fossils in existence.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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