Louis Leakey

The British anthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) made major contributions to the study of prehistoric man.

The parents of L. S. B. Leakey were British missionaries who settled at Kabete, Kenya, near Nairobi, in 1901. Leakey was born on Aug. 7, 1903, in Kabete, where he formed lifelong friendships with boys of the Kikuyu tribe, with whom he grew up. He is probably the only white man to have been initiated from youth to manhood in a Kikuyu ceremony.

After World War I Leakey went briefly to school at Weymouth College, Dorset, England, and in 1922 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge University. In 1923 he organized an expedition of the British Museum to search for dinosaurs in southern Tanganyika.

In 1926, after qualifying in anthropology at Cambridge, Leakey organized and led four East African archeological expeditions. During the third expedition, in 1931, after some very important discoveries of the earliest known (at that time) stone tools at Olduvai, Leakey discovered fossils of human remains at Kanam and Kanjera in Kenya. His claims concerning these fossils, which included the idea that Homo sapiens lived in East Africa at the end of the Middle Pleistocene, were contested by many of his colleagues, and it was only in 1969 that the claims received official acceptance.

In 1937 Leakey temporarily ceased to study prehistory in order to spend 3 years working on a monograph of the Kikuyu tribe. During World War II (1939-1945) he served as officer in charge of civil intelligence in Nairobi.

Leakey always strongly supported Charles Darwin's theory that both man and the great apes originated on the African continent. For 40 years he and his teams patiently excavated at the prehistoric site at Olduvai Gorge on the eastern Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. In 1959 at Olduvai a fossil hominid skull was discovered, which he named Zinjanthropus . In 1960 even more important fossil fragments were discovered. These and a skull found in 1962 at Olduvai were made the types of a new species of man, Homo habilis. In 1962 Leakey also discovered a skull of the type Homo erectus, previously known only in China and Java. Other sites excavated by Leakey include the Lower Miocene sites on Rusinga Island and Songhor, which have yielded remains of protoman dating back 20 million years, and the site at Fort Ternan, where Kenya pithecus wickeri was discovered. This hominid lived about 12 million years ago.

In 1964 Leakey organized a team in the United States to excavate near the Calico Mountains in southern California. He and his team discovered evidence that man lived in America more than 50,000 years ago.

Leakey's publications include New Classification of Bow and Arrow in Africa; The Stone Age Cultures of Kenya; Adam's Ancestors; The Stone Age Races of Kenya; Stone Age Africa; Kenya Contrasts and Problems; White African; A Contribution to the Study of the Tumbian Culture in Kenya (with W. E. Owen); Tentative Study of the Pleistocene Sequence and Stone Age Cultures of N. E. Angola; Mau Mau and Kikuyu; Defeating Mau Mau; The Miocene Hominoidea of East Africa (with Le Gros Clark); The Pleistocene Fossil Suidae of East Africa; First Lessons in Kikuyu; Olduvai Gorge, vol. 1, 1951-1961; Animals of East Africa; and Unveiling Man's Origins (with Vanne Goodall).

On Oct. 1, 1972, Leakey died in London.


Further Reading on Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey

Leakey's White African: An Early Autobiography (1937; with new preface, 1966) deals with his early years. An account of Leakey and his work is contained in Robert Silverberg, Man before Adam: The Story of Man in Search of His Origins (1964). A useful background work is Edward Bacon, Digging for History: Archeological Discoveries throughout the World, 1945-1959 (1961). □