Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (L.S.B. Leakey) (August 7, 1903 – October 1, 1972) was a Kenyan archaeologist and naturalist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa. He also played a major role in creating organizations for future research in Africa and for protecting wildlife there. Having been a prime mover in establishing a tradition of palaeoanthropological inquiry, he was able to motivate the next generation to continue it, notably within his own family, many of whom also became prominent. Louis participated in national events of British East Africa and then Kenya in critical if less spectacular ways.
|"When I think back ... of the serval cat and a baboon that I had as pets in my childhood days−and that eventually I had to house in large cages−it makes me sad. It makes me sadder still, however, and also very angry, when I think of the innumerable adult animals and birds deliberately caught and locked up for the so-called 'pleasure' and 'education' of thoughtless human beings. ... surely there are today so many first-class films ... that the cruelty of keeping wild creatures in zoos should no longer be tolerated."|
|From L.S.B. Leakey, By the Evidence, Chapter 4.|
Louis had a younger brother, Douglas, and two older sisters, Gladys Leakey Beecher and Julia Leakey Barham. Louis' primary family came to contain also Miss Oakes (a governess) Miss Higgenbotham (another missionary), and Mariamu (a Kikuyu nurse). Inevitably, Louis grew up, played, and learned to hunt with Africans. He also learned to walk with the distinctive gait of the Kikuyu and speak their language fluently, as did his siblings. He was initiated into the tribe, an event of which he never spoke, as he was sworn to secrecy.
Louis requested and was given permission to build and move into a hut, Kikuyu style, at the end of the garden. It was home to his personal collection of natural objects, such as birds' eggs and skulls. All the children developed a keen interest in and appreciation of the pristine natural surroundings in which they found themselves. They raised baby animals, later turning them over to zoos. Louis read a gift book, Days Before History, by H. R. Hall (1907), a juvenile fictional work illustrating the prehistory of Britain. He began to collect tools and was further encouraged in this activity by a role model, Arthur Loveridge, first curator (1914) of the Natural History Museum in Nairobi, predecessor of the Coryndon Museum. This interest may have predisposed him toward a career in archaeology.
Neither Harry nor May were of strong constitution. From 1904-1906 the entire family lived at May's mother's house in Reading, Berkshire, England, while Harry recovered from neurasthenia, and again in 1911-1913, while May recovered from general frailty and exhaustion. During the latter stay, Harry bought a house in Boscombe.
Louis matriculated at his father's alma mater, Cambridge University, in 1922, intent on becoming a missionary to British East Africa.
For the rest of his life he would dine out on the story of his finals. When he had arrived in Britain he had notified the register of people with a knowledge of rare languages that he was fluent on Swahili. When he came to his finals he asked to be examined in this and after some hesitation the authorities agreed. Then one day he received two letters. One instructed him to report at a certain time and place for a viva-voce examination in Swahili. The other asked if, at the same time and place, he would examine a candidate in Swahili.
His son says:
He preached Christian zeal to his fellow students and otherwise impressed Cambridge society with behavior that was considered eccentric. He was also an evolutionist and befriended some future naturalists. In 1923 his usual zeal led him into a severe concussion in a game of Rugby union. He was relieved of his academic duties. Rest and the outdoors were prescribed.
This critical experience changed Louis' career decision. Switching majors to anthropology, he found a new mentor in Alfred Cort Haddon, head of the department. In 1926 he graduated from there with "double firsts", or high honors, in anthropology and archaeology. He had used some of his preexisting qualifications; for example, Kikuyu was offered and accepted as the second modern language in which he was required to be proficient, even though no one there could test him on it. The university accepted an affidavit from a Kikuyu chief signed with a thumbprint.
From 1925 on Louis lectured and wrote on African archaeological and palaeontological topics. On graduation he was such a respected figure that Cambridge sent him to East Africa to study prehistoric African humans. He excavated dozens of sites, undertaking for the first time a systematic study of the artifacts. Some of his culture names are still in use; for example, Elmenteitan.
In 1927 Louis received a visit at a site called Gamble's Cave, near Lake Elmenteita, by two young ladies on a holiday, one of whom was Henrietta Wilfreda "Frida" Avern. She had done some course work in archaeology. Louis and she talked the entire night. They continued the relationship on his return to Cambridge and in 1928 they were married and set off together for Elmenteita. At that time he discovered the Acheulean site of Kariandusi, which he excavated in 1928, after collecting a team of interested associates.
On the strength of his work there he obtained a research fellowship at St. John's College and returned to Cambridge in 1929 to do post-graduate work and to classify and prepare the finds from Elmenteita. His patron and mentor at Cambridge was now Arthur Keith. While cleaning two skeletons he had found he noticed a similarity to one found in Olduvai Gorge by Professor Hans Reck, a German national, whom Louis had met in 1925 in Germany while on business for Keith.
The geology of Olduvai was known and in 1913 Reck had extricated a skeleton from Bed II in the gorge wall. He argued that it must have the date of the bed, which was believed to 600,000 years, in the mid-Pleistocene. The public was not ready for this news. Man must have evolved or have been created long after then, was the general belief. Reck became involved in a media uproar. He was barred from going back to settle the question by the war and then the terms of the transfer of Tanganyika from Germany to Britain. In 1929 Louis visited Berlin to talk to the now skeptical Reck. Noting an Acheulean tool in Reck's collection of artifacts from Olduvai, he bet Reck he could find ancient stone tools at Olduvai within 24 hours.
Meanwhile Frida worked on illustrations for The Stone Age Culture of Kenya Colony. Louis was given the PhD in 1930 at age 27. His first child, a daughter, Priscilla Muthoni Leakey, was born in 1931. His headaches and epilepsy returned in the excitement and he was prescribed Luminal, which he took the rest of his life.
Back in Cambridge, the skeptics were not impressed. To find supporting evidence of the antiquity of Reck's Olduvai Man, Louis returned to Africa, excavating at Kanam and Kanjera. He easily found more fossils, which he named Homo kanamensis. While he was gone, the opposition worked up some "evidence" of the intrusion of Olduvai Man into an earlier layer, evidence that seemed convincing at the time, but is missing and unverifiable now. On his return Louis' finds were carefully examined by a committee of 26 scientists and were tentatively accepted as valid.
Louis convinced Mary to take on the illustration of his book. A few months later companionship turned to romance. Colin Leakey was born in December, 1933, and in January, 1934, Louis asked Frida for a divorce. She would not sue for divorce until 1936.
A panel at Cambridge investigated his morals. Grants dried up, but his mother raised enough money for another expedition to Olduvai, Kanam and Kanjera, the latter two on the Winam Gulf. His previous work there was questioned by P. G. H. Boswell, whom he invited to verify the sites for himself. Arriving at Kanam and Kanjera in 1935, they found that the iron markers Louis had used to mark the sites had been removed by the Luo tribe for use as harpoons and the sites could not now be located. To make matters worse, all the photos Louis took were ruined by a light leak in the camera. After an irritating and fruitless two-month search, Boswell left for England, promising, as Louis understood it, not to publish a word until Louis returned.
Boswell immediately set out to publish as many words as he was able, beginning with an article in Nature dated March 9, 1935, destroying Reck's and Louis' dates of the fossils and questioning Louis' competence. Louis on his return accused Boswell of treachery, but Boswell now had public opinion on his side. Louis was not only forced to retract the accusation but also to recant his support of Reck. Louis was through at Cambridge. Even his mentors turned on him.
Louis had already involved himself in Kikuyu tribal affairs in 1928, taking a stand against female genital cutting. He got into a shouting match in Kikuyu one evening with Jomo Kenyatta, who was lecturing on the topic. R. Copeland at Oxford recommended he apply to the Rhodes Trust for a grant to write a study of the Kikuyu and it was given late in 1936 along with a salary for two years. In January 1937 the Leakeys shook the dust off their feet and travelled to Kenya. Colin would not see his father for 20 years.
Louis returned to Kiambaa near Nairobi and persuaded Senior Chief Koinange, who designated a committee of chiefs, to help him describe the Kikuyu the way they had been. Mary excavated at Waterfall Cave. She fell ill with double pneumonia and lay at death's door for two weeks in the hospital in Nairobi, during which time her mother was sent for. Contrary to expectation she recovered and began another excavation at Hyrax Hill and then Ngoro River Cave. Louis got an extension of his grant, which he used partially for fossil-hunting. Leakey discoveries began to appear in the newspapers again.
Tensions between the Kikuyu and the settlers increased alarmingly. Louis jumped into the fray as an exponent of the middle ground. In Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, he angered the settlers by proclaiming Kenya could never be a "white man's country."
Louis conducted interrogations, analyzed handwriting, wrote radio broadcasts and took on regular police investigations. He loved a good mystery of any sort. The white leadership of the King's African Rifles used him extensively to clear up many cultural mysteries; for example, he helped an officer remove a curse he had inadvertently put on his men.
Mary continued to find and excavate sites. Jonathan Leakey was born in 1940. She worked in the Coryndon Memorial Museum (later called the National Museums of Kenya) where Louis joined her as an unpaid honorary curator in 1941. Their life was a menage of police work and archaeology. They investigated Rusinga Island and Olorgesailie. At the latter site they were assisted by a team of Italian experts recruited from the prisoners of war and paroled for the purpose.
In 1942 the Italian menace ended, but the Japanese began to reconnoiter with a view toward landing in force. Louis found himself in counter-intelligence work, which he performed with zest and imagination. Deborah was born, but died at three months. They lived in a rundown and bug infested Nairobi home, provided by the museum. Jonathan was attacked by army ants in his crib.
In January, 1947, Louis conducted the first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory at Nairobi. Sixty scientists from 26 countries attended, delivering papers and visiting the Leakey sites. The conference restored Louis to the scientific fold and made him a major figure in it. With the money that now poured in Louis undertook the famous expeditions of 1948 and beyond at Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, where Mary discovered the most complete Proconsul fossil up to that time.
Charles Boise donated money for a boat to be used for transport on Lake Victoria, "The Miocene Lady." Its famous skipper, Hassan Salimu, was later to deliver Jane Goodall to Gombe. Philip Leakey was born in 1949. In 1950, Louis was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University.
|""... I sought a personal interview with the governor, hoping to make him appreciate that it was no longer possible to continue along the lines of the old colonial regime. ... Colonial governors and senior civil servants are not easy people to argue with; and, of course, I was not popular, because of my criticism of the colonial service ... Had it been possible to make the government open its eyes to the realities of the situation, I believe that the whole miserable episode of what is frequently spoken of as 'the Mau Mau rebellion' need never have taken place."|
|From L.S.B. Leakey, By the Evidence, Chapter 18.|
Louis had attempted to warn Sir Philip Mitchell, governor of the colony, that nocturnal meetings and forced oaths were not Kikuyu customs and foreboded violence, but was ignored. Now he found himself pulled away from anthropology to investigate the Mau Mau. During this period his life was threatened and a reward placed on his head. The Leakeys began to pack pistols, termed "European National Dress." The government placed him under 24-hour guard.
In 1952, after a massacre of loyal chiefs, the government arrested Jomo Kenyatta, president of the Kenya African Union. Louis was summoned to be a court interpreter, but withdrew after an accusation of mistranslation because of prejudice against the defendant. He returned on request to translate documents only. Because of lack of evidence linking Kenyatta to the Mau Mau, although convicted, he did not receive the death penalty, but was sentenced to several years of hard labor and banned from Kenya.
The government brought in British troops and formed a home guard of 20,000 Kikuyu. During this time Louis played a difficult and contradictory role. He sided with the settlers, serving as their spokesman and intelligence officer, helping to ferret out bands of guerrillas. On the other hand he continued to advocate for the Kikuyu in his book, Defeating Mau Mau and numerous talks and articles. He recommended a multi-racial government, land reform in the highlands, a wage hike for the Kikuyu, and many other reforms, most of which were eventually adopted.
The British realized the rebellion was being directed from urban centers, instituted military law and rounded up the committees. Following Louis' suggestion, thousands of Kikuyu were placed in re-education camps and resettled in new villages. The rebellion continued from bases under Mt. Kenya until 1956, when, deprived of its leadership and supplies, it had to disperse. The state of emergency lasted until 1960. In 1963 Kenya became independent, with Jomo Kenyatta as prime minister.
|"We know from the study of evolution that, again and again, various branches of animal stock have become over-specialized, and that over-specialization has led to their extinction. Present-day Homo sapiens is in many physical respects still very unspecialized− ... But in one thing man, as we know him today, is over-specialized. His brain power is very over-specialized compared to the rest of his physical make-up, and it may well be that this over-specialization will lead, just as surely, to his extinction. ... if we are to control our future, we must first understand the past better."|
|From L.S.B. Leakey, Adam's Ancestors, Fourth Edition, final page.|
In 1955 they excavated again with Jean Brown. She related that he preferred to be called Louis, was absent-minded, once had everyone looking for spectacles that were around his neck, wore pants with the buttons off and shoes with holes in them, charged about everywhere and once collapsed unconscious. He was completely happy.
In 1959 they decided to excavate Bed I. While Louis was sick in camp, Mary discovered Zinjanthropus at FLK, which Mary called "Our Man", and became "Dear Boy" and "Zinj." The question was whether it was a previous genus discovered by Robert Broom, Paranthropus, which Broom had taken not to be in the human line, or a different one, in it. Louis opted for Zinj, a decision opposed by Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, but one which attracted the attention of Melville Bell Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society. That contact resulted in an article in National Geographic and a hefty grant to continue work at Olduvai.
Also in 1960 Jack Evernden and Garniss Curtis, young geophysicists, dated Bed I to 1.75 mya. The world was stunned. Zinj was far older than anyone had imagined. Scientists swarmed to Africa. Reck and Louis were completely vindicated, too late for Reck, who had died in 1937. Louis had proved Darwin right.
Mary picked and sieved at the site from early morning dressed in old clothes, chain smoking cigarettes, always surrounded by her Dalmatian dogs. She and Louis communicated by radio. On weekends he drove non-stop at high speed the 357 miles between Olduvai and Nairobi. The teen-age boys, Richard and Philip, were on site holidays and vacations. Louis invited them and Irven DeVore to eat a raw rat so that he could compare the result to some Hominid coprolites. He said to DeVore, "My dear boy, let me make you famous." DeVore and the boys demurred.
Their home in Nairobi was a circus, figuratively speaking, when they were there. Dinner guests were frequent. Important guests stayed for weeks if they could stand it. They shared the quarters and the dinner table with the Dalmatians, hyraxes, a monkey, a civet cat, an African eagle owl, tropical fish, rattlesnakes, vipers and a python. The extended families of twenty African staff lived in cinderblock huts in the yard. Mary had switched to cigars and the ashes often fell into the food. Both Louis and Mary cooked. Louis never stopped talking; his stories were endless. He literally ran through the day, making long lists of things to be done, which he never completed. He drove recklessly through the streets of Nairobi, often reading and writing as he drove.
Not long after in 1960 Louis, his son Philip and Ray Pickering discovered a fossil he termed "Chellean Man", as it was in context with Olduwan tools, the first such find. After reconstruction Louis and Mary called it "Pinhead." It was subsequently included with Homo erectus and was in fact contemporaneous with Paranthropus, which on that account cannot have been in the human line. For many years Louis believed erectus was the user of the tools and Australopithecus was not, (It is now conceded that both Hominids used them).
In 1961 Louis got a salary as well as a grant from National Geographic and turned over the acting directorship of Coryndon to a subordinate. He created the Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology on the same grounds, moved his collections to it, and appointed himself director. This was his new operations center. He opened another excavation at Fort Ternan on Lake Victoria. Shortly after, Heselon discovered Kenyapithecus wickeri, the species name from the owner of the property, which Louis promptly celebrated with George Gaylord Simpson, who happened to be present, aboard the Miocene Lady with Leakey Safari Specials, a drink made of condensed milk and cognac.
In 1962 Louis was visiting Olduvai when Ndibo Mbuika discovered the first tooth of Homo habilis at MNK. Louis and Mary thought it was female and named her Cinderella, or Cindy. Phillip Tobias identified Jonny's Child with it and Raymond Dart came up with the name Homo habilis at Louis' request, which Tobias translated as "handyman. It was seen as intermediary between gracile Australopithecus and Homo.
During his final years Louis became famous as a lecturer in the United States and United Kingdom. He brought audiences cheering to their feet. He did not personally excavate any longer, as he was crippled with arthritis, for which he had a hip replacement in 1968. He raised funds and directed his family and associates. In Kenya he was an indispensable facilitator for the hundreds of scientists then exploring the East African Rift system for fossils. Without his say-so, permits could not be obtained and access to museum collections was denied. Once he gave permission, his advice was invaluable.
In 1963 he helped Ruth De Ette get started at a site in the Calico Hills of the Mojave Desert in California. The date then accepted for the arrival of humans in the Americas was about 12,000 BCE. On the basis of the time required for the evolution and distribution of native American languages, Louis hypothesized that the arrival must have been thousands of years previously. He encouraged Ruth to view the apparent artifacts she was finding as older than 100,000 years.
Mary did not share his visionary view. She was increasingly disrespectful, viewing him as incompetent, from 1963 on. The old intimacy was gone. Her professional opposition began over Calico Man. Under the rationale of trying to stop Louis from making a mistake that would tarnish his reputation, she persuaded the National Geographic Society to refrain from publishing Calico and pull funding from the project, but Louis found other means. On March 26, 1968, Alan and Helen O'Brien of Newport Beach, California, and some prominent Californians formed the Leakey Foundation. When Louis stayed with them when he was in California, the O'Briens noticed that he was very much underpaid on the lecture circuit. From then on Louis worked with them in fund-raising.
Mary's opposition soon turned into a major schism in the palaeoanthropological village. For example, in 1968 Louis refused an honorary doctorate from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, primarily because of apartheid in South Africa. Mary accepted one. Now it was Louis' turn to be concerned about her reputation. The two still cared about each other, but were apart and conducted different professional lives.
In the last few years Louis' health began to fail more seriously. He had his first heart attacks and spent six months in the hospital. An empathy over health brought him and Dian Fossey together for a brief romance, which she broke off. Richard began to assume more and more of his father's responsibilities, which Louis resisted, but in the end was forced to accept. Everything bad seemed to happen to him in a run of unfortunate luck: he had more heart problems, he was swarmed by bees and nearly killed, he had a stroke, he was involved in controversy over Calico man, and he had to brook Mary's opposition. One good thing that happened is that he found increasing support and comfort in his friend, Vanne Goodall (mother of Jane Goodall), whose London apartment Louis visited when he could.
Mary wanted to cremate Louis and fly the ashes back to Nairobi. Richard intervened. As Louis was a Kikuyu, he ought to be buried in Kikuyuland. He was flown home and interred at Limuru near the graves of his parents.
In denial, the family did not face the question of a memorial marker for a year. When Richard went to place a stone on the grave he found one already there, courtesy of Rosalie Osborn. The inscription was signed with the letters, ILYFA, "I'll love you forever always", which Rosalie used to place on her letters to him. Richard left it in place.
|First Publication Date||Title||Notes |
|1931||The Stone Age Culture of Kenya Colony||Written in 1929. Illustrated by Frida Leakey.|
|1934||Adam's Ancestors: The Evolution of Man and His Culture||Multiple editions with rewrites, the 4th in 1955. Illustrated by Mary Leakey. Book reviews:|
|1935||The Stone Age races of Kenya||Proposes Homo kanamensis.|
|1936||Kenya: Contrasts and Problems||Written in 1935.|
|1936||Stone Age Africa: an Outline of Prehistory in Africa||Ten chapters consisting of the ten Munro Lectures delivered in 1936 by Louis to Edinburgh University and intended by him as a textbook. Illustrated by Mary.|
|1937||White African: an Early Autobiography||Louis described it as a "pot-boiler" written in 1936 for Hodder & Stoughton.|
|1951||The Miocene Hominoidea of East Africa||With Wilfrid Le Gros Clark. Volume I of the series Fossil Mammals of Africa published by the British Museum of Natural History.|
|1951||Olduvai Gorge: A Report on the Evolution of the Hand-Axe Culture in Beds I-IV||Started in 1935. Names the Olduwan Culture.|
|1952||Mau Mau and the Kikuyu||Online at Quaestia.|
|1953||Animals in Africa||Photographs by Ylla.|
|1954||Defeating Mau Mau||With Peter Schmidt. Online at Quaestia.|
|1965||Olduvai Gorge: A Preliminary Report on the Geology and Fauna, 1951-61||Volume 1.|
|1969||Unveiling Man's Origins||With Vanne Morris Goodall.|
|1969||Animals of East Africa: The Wild realm|
|1970||Olduvai Gorge, 1965-1967|
|1974||By the Evidence: Memoirs, 1932-1951||Written in 1972 and published posthumously. Louis finished writing on the day before his death.|
|1977||The Southern Kikuyu before 1903||Published posthumously. The manuscript remained in Louis' safe for decades for lack of a publisher. It was 3 volumes. He refused to follow editorial advice and shorten it.|