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Mary Leakey, archaeologist and anthropologist

                 London Times,  December 10, 1996                
    
     
         Mary Leakey,  archaeologist and anthropologist, died in
    Nairobi yesterday aged 83. She was born on February 6, 1913.     
                   
         MARY LEAKEY  was the scientific anchor without which her
    husband, the anthropologist Louis Leakey, might have been dismissed
    as a mere controversialist with an exotic private life. For every
    vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting
    evidence tended to come from Mary, whose scrupulous scientific
    approach contrasted with his taste for publicity and enjoyment of
    personal battles.                                     
                   
        After his death in 1972, she enjoyed her most spectacular find,
    three trails of fossilised hominid footprints 3.6 million years
    old, which she discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania in 1978 and 1979.
    These showed that man's ancestors were already walking upright at
    a much earlier period than most anthropologists had believed. "At
    one point," wrote  Mary Leakey  of one of these tracks, "she stops,
    pauses, turns to the left to glance at some possible threat or   
    irregularity, and then continues to the north. This motion, so
    intensely human, transcends time."                              
                                     
        Born in London, she was the daughter of the landscape painter
    Erskine Nicol, who died when she was 13. Much of her childhood was
    spent in France, and it was the cave paintings of the Dordogne, to
    which her father introduced her, that kindled her interest in
    prehistory and her talent for drawing prehistoric artefacts. "I dug
    things up," she later explained. "I was curious, and then I    
    liked to draw what I found. The first money I ever earned was for
    drawing stone tools."                                           
                                  
        After seeing some of her work, Louis Leakey asked her to
    illustrate his book Adam's Ancestors and soon after she accompanied
    him to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. He was already married, with two
    small children, but after a painful divorce he married Mary in 1936
    and they made their home in East Africa. He was not to prove the
    easiest of husbands.                                            
                                                                     
        Mary Douglas Leakey had gained archaeological experience at
    Hembury Fort in Devon and at Jaywick Sands in East Anglia. In 1937
    she excavated Hyrax Hill near Nakuru in Kenya, an early Iron Age
    site, publishing the results in a long paper in the Transactions
    of the Royal Society of South Africa. Her competence as an   
    archaeologist was then widely recognised. Her next important work
    was at Olorgesailie, near Nairobi, an Acheulean site with
    spectacular concentrations of handaxes and fossil fauna. Here for
    the first time the actual living sites of early man were
    discovered.                                                      
    
        In 1948 Mary found on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria the skull
    of Proconsul africanus, a 16 million-year-old Miocene ape and at
    that time the only fossil ape skull known. This she painstakingly
    reconstructed from innumerable fragments. At Olduvai in 1959 she
    repeated the feat, piecing together her most spectacular find, the
    skull of Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei from more than 400
    tiny fragments. Later, by the newly developed potassium-argon
    dating technique, "Zinj" was dated to 1.7 million years and was in
    fact the first australopithecine skull to be dated.              
                                  
        This discovery was the beginning of world renown for the
    Leakeys and, more important for them, financial support from the
    National Geographic Society of Washington for their work at
    Olduvai, which had previously been done on the proverbial
    shoestring. It also proved the beginning of Mary's long association 
    with Olduvai as her permanent home. Here she could devote her time
    to research and writing, and enjoy her love of solitude. She shared
    her life with a pack of dalmatian dogs and many other animals both
    tame and wild, which were her other great interest equalled only
    by stone tools.                                     
                                                                     
        The detailed plans of hominid living sites that she made were
    unique at that time and were published in her book, Excavations in
    Beds I and II, volume three of the Olduvai Gorge monographs (1971).
    Apart from many papers in Nature and other scientific journals, her
    publications included a popular account of her life at Olduvai in
    Olduvai Gorge: my search for early man (1979).                
                                                                     
        Since her first visit to the United States in 1962 to receive
    the National Geographic Society's gold Hubbard medal jointly with
    her husband, Mary made yearly lecture tours of the US to raise
    money for research. She was awarded a number of medals, and
    honorary doctorates of science from the Universities of the
    Witwatersrand, Yale and Chicago, as well as a DLitt from Oxford.
    She was a Fellow of the British Academy.                         
                                                                     
        She loved small Cuban cigars and single malt whiskies, and
    preferred the outdoors to urban life. "Given the chance, I'd rather
    be in a tent than in a house," she once said. In the world of
    palaeoanthropology, where arguments often turn personal, she was
    a stickler for proper behaviour, publishing careful and detailed
    accounts of the evidence she had gathered. She only agreed to write
    an autobiography - Disclosing the Past, published in 1984 - after
    getting agreement that a book she had written on little-known rock
    paintings at Kandoa, Tanzania, would also be published.          
                                        
        In August of this year, after the Tanzanian Government and the
    Getty Conservation Institute had finally decided to protect the
    hominid footprints beneath a high-tech synthetic covering,  Mary
    Leakey travelled to Laetoli for a final look at her great
    discovery.                                               
     
        She is survived by her sons Jonathan, Richard and Philip.
    Richard Leakey followed his parents into palaeontology, becoming
    well-known for his researches east of Lake Turkana in Kenya. He
    became active in Kenyan politics and is the secretary general of
    the opposition Safina Party.                                
    
    
    
                                                                     
                      Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company      
                      December 10, 1996, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final 
                   
                   
    HEADLINE:  Mary Leakey,  83, Dies; Traced Human Dawn            
    BYLINE:  By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD                                   
                   
                   
        Mary Leakey,  matriarch of the famous fossil-hunting family in
    Africa whose own reputation in paleoanthropology soared with
    discoveries of bones, stone tools and the footprints of early human
    ancestors, died yesterday in Nairobi, Kenya. She was 83.         
                                                         
       Her family announced her death but did not give the cause,
    saying only that she died peacefully.                            
                                    
        Over half a century,  Mary Leakey  labored under the hot
    African sun, scratching in the dirt for clues to early human
    physical and cultural evolution. Scientists in her field said she
    set the standards for documentation and excavation in paleolithic
    archeology. They spoke of hers as a life of enviable achievement. 
                                                                     
       "She was one of the world's great originals," said Dr. Alan
    Walker, an anatomist at Pennsylvania State University who has long
    excavated fossils with the Leakey family. "Untrained except in art,
    she developed techniques of excavation and descriptive archeology
    and did it all on her own in the middle of Africa. It was an
    extraordinary life."                                           
                                                                     
        In a biography of the Leakey family, "Ancestral Passions,"
    published last year by Simon & Schuster, Virginia Morell
    characterized  Mary Leakey  as "the grande dame of archeology."  
                                                                     
       Beginning in the 1930's,  Mary Leakey  and her late husband,
    Louis, awakened the world to Africa's primary place in human
    origins with their spectacular discoveries and increasingly pushed
    back the time of those origins much earlier than had been thought.
    Until then, many scientists still believed the human birthplace
    would be found in Asia.                                         
                                                                     
       She discovered the skull of Proconsul africanus, an apelike
    ancestor of both apes and early humans that lived about 25 million
    years ago. In 1959, her discovery of a well-preserved skull of a
    hominid, a member of the extended human ancestral family, brought
    fame and substantial financial backing to the Leakeys.  A few years
    later, the two Leakeys uncovered the fossils of the first known  
    member of the genus Homo habilis, or "able man," in recognition of
    the many stone tools found among the bones.                      
                            
       From then on, the name Leakey was synonymous with the study of
    human origins.  The flamboyant Louis seemed to know just where to
    look to find revealing fossils; the envious spoke of "Leakey's
    luck." Meanwhile,  Mary Leakey worked in her husband's shadow,
    seeing to the plodding excavations and meticulous documentation of
    their finds.                                                    
                                                                     
       "Louis was always a better publicist than scientist," said E.
    Barton Worthington, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in
    London and former African explorer. "Mary was the real fossil
    hunter."                             
                                                                     
       After Louis Leakey's death in 1972,  Mary Leakey  overcame some
    of her natural shyness to assume direction of the family fossil
    enterprise, which by then one of their sons, Richard, joined as an
    expedition leader. Her operations centered on Olduvai Gorge and
    Laetoli, both in Tanzania. On the arid plain of Laetoli, she made
    her most sensational discovery in 1978: the earliest footprints of
    a human ancestor.                                                
     
    A Playful Moment, But a Fateful One                              
                   
       As often happens, the discovery of the prints was made by chance
    -- more Leakey luck. While tossing dried elephant dung in a playful
    camp fight, one scientist on Mrs. Leakey's expedition fell down and
    saw in the gray surface some curious indentations. They were
    imprints of raindrops and animals, now hardened to stone and
    recently exposed by erosion and weathering.                      
      
       After further exploration, scientists determined that the tracks
    were made about 3.7 million years ago. The animals had walked over
    volcanic ash when it was damp from rain, leaving impressions of
    their feet. The wet ash set like concrete and was later covered
    over by more ash and silt. There the tracks remained to be found
    by dung-throwing scientists.                                
                                                                     
       It was two years before a scientist uncovered a heel print that
    hinted of an even more significant find. It seemed to belong to a
    hominid. On Aug. 2, 1978, Mrs. Leakey spent three hours examining
    one of the clearest of these prints. She cleaned the crevices of
    the print with a small brush and dental pick. All the important
    elements were preserved: heel, toes and arch. She appraised the
    print from every possible angle.                                 
                         
       Finally, Mrs. Leakey stood up from her work, lit a cigar and
    announced, "Now this really is something to put on the
    mantelpiece."                             
                                                                     
       She was at last sure that a hominid had left this print and a
    trail of prints extending more than 75 feet across the plain. Two
    and possibly three individuals had walked this way 3.7 million
    years ago: the larger one, presumably a male; the smaller one,
    presumably female, and an even smaller individual, perhaps      
    their child, whose prints are sometimes superimposed on the others. 
                   
    In a Footprint a Clue To Human Behavior                          
                   
       Somewhere along the way, as Mrs. Leakey noted, the female
    appeared to pause and turn to her left. She might have sensed
    danger, possibly from a predator or the rumble of a volcanic
    eruption nearby. Then she resumed her walk to the north.         
                                                                     
       "This motion, so intensely human, transcends time," Mrs. Leakey
    wrote in the National Geographic magazine. "A remote ancestor --
    just as you or I -- experienced a moment of doubt."              
    
       These evocative footprints are the earliest known traces of
    human behavior.   At the time, the discovery established that human
    ancestors had begun walking upright much earlier than previously
    thought, long before the evolution of larger brains. Whether
    upright walking preceded the larger brain, or vice versa, 
    was still a much-debated issue among scholars.                   
                   
       With the discovery of a species called Australopithecus
    afarensis, based on the famous Lucy skeleton, the most likely
    identity of these prehistoric strollers was established. The
    species lived between 3.9 million and 3 million years ago, and from
    the fossils paleontologists have determined that they were   
    as capable of walking upright as modern humans.                  
                   
       "I think it's the most important find in view of human
    evolution," Mrs. Leakey was quoted by The Associated Press as
    saying in an interview in September. "I was really looking for
    tools, but we never found any at the site." 
                                                                     
    In Stone Age Art, Two Interests Merged                           
                   
       She also looked back fondly on what she called another highlight
    of her career. She was a budding artist before she met and later
    married Mr. Leakey, when she turned to fossil hunting and
    archeology. In 1951, her two interests merged briefly.           
                                                          
       Mrs. Leakey recorded on drawing paper some 1,600 of the
    thousands of late Stone Age paintings in the Kondoa-Irangi region
    of Tanzania. The work gave her "a great sense of happiness and
    well-being," she wrote in her autobiography, "Disclosing the Past,"
    published in 1984, because the drawings afforded a glimpse of the
    lives of the hunter-gatherers who painted them. "No amounts of   
    stone and bone could yield the kinds of information that the
    paintings gave so freely," she said.                             
                   
       One of her last books was a collection of these Stone Age
    drawings, entitled "Africa's Vanishing Art: the Rock Paintings of
    Tanzania" and published in 1983.  
                                                                     
       Art and, to some extent, prehistory were part of  Mary Leakey's 
    heritage. She was born Mary Douglas Nicol on Feb. 6, 1913 in
    London. Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a prolific and fairly
    successful landscape painter, as was his father before him. Her
    mother, Cecilia Marion Frere, was a descendant of John Frere, a  
    British prehistorian who in 1797 first recognized Stone Age flint
    implements as primitive tools and weapons.                       
                                 
       After World War I, the family spent months each year in
    Switzerland, France or Italy, where the father painted and took
    Mary to archeological ruins and the caves painted by Cro-Magnon
    hunters. As she said, this was the source of her early interest in
    archeology.                                                    
                                                                     
       "Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity," she wrote in
    her autobiography. But formal education was not for her.         
                       
       Bored by class work and her fellow students, Mary was expelled
    from two schools and so, with attending a university out of the
    question, decided to pursue independent studies in drawing and
    archeology. "I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly
    never would," she wrote.                         
                                                                     
       At the age of 20, Mary Nicol, a sometime illustrator of stone
    tools and occasional participant in archeological digs, met Louis
    Leakey, 10 years her senior, married and an established figure in
    African archeology with a position at Cambridge University. He
    asked her to help him with drawings for a book, and she readily
    agreed. A romance followed, and then scandal.                    
                   
    Scandal in Cambridge Led to Magic of Africa                      
                   
       They would marry as soon as his divorce came through. Meanwhile,
    they did nothing to conceal the intimacy of their relationship,
    living together for more than a year in a cottage near Cambridge.
    This eventually cost him his post at Cambridge, the memory of which
    was dancing lightly through  Mary Leakey's mind years later as she
    walked up the aisle at Cambridge to receive an honorary doctorate
    degree.                                                          
                    
       The two were married in 1936 and set out for Africa, where he
    had grown up as the son of British missionaries. As Mrs. Leakey
    wrote later, she was never the same again after "Africa had cast
    its spell" on her. Much of their marriage was spent at dig sites.
    "Given the chance, I'd rather be in a tent than in a house," 
    she said in a recent interview with Associated Press.            
                   
       It was a discovery by the Leakeys in 1959 that, according to Dr.
    F. Clark Howell of the University of California at Berkeley, marked
    "the beginnings of paleoanthropology in a modern sense." The pace
    of exploration quickened. Geologists and anatomists joined the
    quest, a multidisciplinary approach that the Leakeys did much to
    promote.                                                 
                   
       On a July day in 1959, as Louis lay ill in camp, Mary stumbled
    on some teeth and part of a jaw on a slope of Olduvai Gorge.
    Rushing back to her husband, she exclaimed, "I've found him --
    found our man."                                    
     
       How the couple celebrated is not recorded. But in her
    autobiography, Mrs. Leakey wrote that after an earlier major find
    they "cast aside care" and that was how their son Philip "came to
    join our family."                              
    
       The 1959 discovery turned out to be a 1.8 million-year-old
    fossil known as the "nutcracker man" because of its huge jaws and
    molar teeth. It was later designated Australopithecus boisei.    
    
    As Two Lives Diverged, A New Independence                        
                   
       From 1968 until Louis Leakey's death in 1972, he and  Mary
    Leakey  were separated. He spent more and more of his time in the
    celebrity whirl, raising money and lecturing, while she stuck to
    her digging at Olduvai. She was becoming more independent, opposing
    some of her husband's more sensational interpretations of
    discoveries.                                                  
                   
       "I ended by losing my professional respect for Louis; and it had
    been very great indeed," she wrote. "Once that was so I was no
    longer able to offer the concurrence and unquestioning adulation
    he now seemed to demand."                
                   
       Another unsettling episode in her life was the controversy
    between her and Richard Leakey, on one side, and Dr. Donald C.
    Johanson, the discoverer of Lucy, on the other. She insisted on the
    removal of her name from the joint authorship of a paper that made
    assumptions about the place of the Lucy species human evolution. 
                                                                   
       Mrs. Leakey retired from fieldwork in 1983, still smoking small
    Cuban cigars and accompanied by her beloved Dalmatians. Her honors
    were many for a woman who never finished high school: medals from
    the National Geographic Society, the Geological Society of London
    and the Royal Swedish Academy and many honorary degrees.         
                   
       She is survived by her three sons, Jonathan, Richard and Philip,
    all of Kenya, and by 10 grandchildren.