February 6 – Happy Birthday, Mary Leakey

Posted on February 6, 2014

She discovered ancient hominid and other ape skulls. She dug up tools created by humanity's ancient ancestors. She discovered hominid footprints that were made more than 3.6 million years ago. She discovered 15 new species of animals and one new genus.

Mary Leakey, born on this date in 1903, in London, England, was a paleoanthropologist. That means she studied early humans and human ancestors.

She married another paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, and she helped train her sons in the science as well. 

The Leakeys have made many contributions to our knowledge of human evolution. One of their most famous dig sites was at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa. Mary Leakey also made major discoveries at another Tanzanian site called Laetoli.

  • Find out more about early humans by checking out some of the kids' resources Mr. Donn has gathered here.

I was interested in Mary Leakey's early life. What was her childhood like, that she ended up going into such an adventurous field?

I discovered that her father Erskine Nicol was a painter, and the family moved from place to place as he painted watercolor landscapes. He was also an enthusiast about Ancient Egypt, and the family lived in Egypt for a while. Mary loved to go on long exploratory walks with her father wherever they lived. You can see that she had an adventurous childhood!

Her mother's family, also, was far from boring! Mary's mother, Cecilia Frere, had relatives that included an antiquarian and an archeologist. Also, during the 1800s the Frere family had been active in trying to end slavery in the British colonial empire. They had even established communities for freed slaves, including Freretown, Kenya (Africa); Freretown, South Africa; and Freretown, India.

Now, this is impressive: In 1925, the family was living in France, in Les Eyzies, just when Elie Peyrony was excavating one of the caves in which archeologists had discovered signs of prehistoric humans. Although Mary was just 12 years old, she got permission to go through Peyrony's dump, and she became hooked on prehistory! She made a collection of points, scrapers, and blades that she found in the dump, and she even developed a system of classification!

If you know anything about modern archeology, you might be wondering why Peyrony would've missed points, scrapers, and blades in his dig! Why on earth would such valuable stuff be in his dump?

You see, back in the early 1900s, archeology was still in an early stage, and excavations were not made systematically and scientifically. It was more like a treasure hunt—think Indiana Jones!—than like the patient and painstaking uncovering of evidence that it is today. These days, shards of pottery and bones from ancient trash pits are photographed, measured, and catalogued as carefully as are golden goblets and entire skulls!

Also on this date:

Musician Bob Marley's birthday

Waitangi Day in New Zealand 

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