Google Honours Centenary of Anthropologist Mary Leakey


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Oldupai Gorge, East Africa, scene of Mary Leakey's major discoverie. Image by Ingvar

Oldupai Gorge, East Africa, scene of Mary Leakey’s major discoverie. Image by Ingvar

African Palaeolithic Rock Art

Although not always counted among her greatest achievements (perhaps because those were so significant) in 1951 Mary recorded 1600 examples of neolithic rock paintings found in central Tanzania. She discovered the first of these in the 1930s, and regarded this as one of her more pleasurable achievements, later revisiting them and writing a book about them.

As her daughter-in-law, Dr. Maeve Leakey, recounts, there was little interest in the paintings initially; the manuscript for the unpublished book languished in museum storage until the 1970s.

“After completing their field documentation, Louis and Mary unsuccessfully approached a number of potential publishers, and on failing to find a publisher they eventually gave up. After I came across the paintings in 1978, renewed efforts by Richard Leakey led to the publication of Mary’s Africa’s Vanishing Art.” Mary’s fear that the paintings would disappear through neglect or destruction has been partly proved true, but other anthropologists are currently researching and recording many others. The important principle that prehistoric art is by no means restricted to the caves of southern Europe was established by her African fieldwork.

Mary Leakey: Greatest Discoveries

Mary’s early discoveries in the Rift Valley were at least jointly attributed to her husband, Louis, although her son Richard, also a famous African palaeoanthropologist, stated that, “Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father’s career. He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician,” Anne I. Thackeray quotes, in Mary Leakey’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

In 1948 on expedition with Louis to Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, Mary discovered remains of an anthropoid (human-like ape) classified Proconsul africanus. Louis’s work in Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti was enhanced by Mary’s thoroughness and extended by her taking over supervision of the site in 1960. Here they excavated remains of stone artifacts and bones of previously unknown species, exposing a timeline of almost two million years.

In 1959 Mary discovered and pieced together hundreds of fragments of a 1.8 million years old skull designated Australopithecus boisei, an important and internationally famous discovery. But Mary’s most significance discovery was not made until 1976, when she revealed the Laetoli fossilised footprints.

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