Mary Douglas Leakey (nee Nicol, b. 1913 – d. 1996 ) is a legend in paleoanthropology, and rightfully so. Paleoanthropologists concern themselves with nothing less than the origins of our human species by researching our non-human ancestors (and then arguing about them. Endlessly.) As with so many other#trowelblazers, Mary Leakey came to her eventual prominence through a roundabout path, involving family, mentors, and a keen sense of adventure. The daughter of a painter who took his family all over the world, Mary was exposed to archaeological sites at a young age, and by 17 had wrangled herself a position as an illustrator on an English dig. This talent was to shape her future, because it was on the recommendation of none other than Gertrude Caton Thompson, whose book ‘The Desert Fayoum’ she had just illustrated, that Louis Leakey, excavator of Olduvai Gorge, took her onboard – first as an illustrator and later as his wife. Virginia Morell, in her biography of the Leakey family, reckons that the young Mary probably impressed Leakey with more than her illustrations – aside from language skills (French), and her interest in archaeology, she could also fly a glider plane!

Once at Olduvai, Mary Leakey certainly did her part in making major discoveries about human evolution. She found and reconstructed a very early primate ancestor,  Proconsul africanus in the 1950s, she discovered and reconstructed the skull of a new hominin species: Australopithecus bosei  whichher husband Louis named (though he called it Zinjanthropus bosei; it was later reclassified). In the 1960’s she and son Johnny discovered the type specimen of Homo habilis. Wherever Mary went, major finds were sure to follow – it probably helped that she worked tirelessly, eventually making Olduvai one of the most famous dig sites in the world. After Louis’ death, she  took over excavation at the site, and proceeded to make one of her most incredible discoveries not too far from Olduvai: the roughly 3 million year old footprints left behind in the mud at Laetoli by one of our early ancestors, Australopithicus afarensis ( the species that gave us ‘Lucy’).

Mary Leakey’s contributions to our knowledge of the human story are continued to this day by her family and the Leakey Foundation.

For more on Mary and her life, see her biography on the Leakey Foundation website or Virginia Morell’s book Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings.

written by @brennawalks

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