Technology The Leakey clan, the "Indiana Jones" of anthropology

The Leakey clan, the “Indiana Jones” of anthropology


Throughout the History of Science there have been great scientific sagas, among the best known are the Curie, the Bohr and the Darwin. The Leakey may not be as popular among the general public, although they have written some of the brightest pages of human evolution.

About four million years ago the Rift Valley was drawing a highland scenario, without lakes or rivers, where saber-toothed cats camped at ease. One day, towards the end of the dry season, the Sadiman volcano erupted and in its ashes left multiple animal imprints.

Laetoli’s footprints
At least there are traces of twenty different species, from hyenas to giraffes, through antelopes, hares, rhinos or elephants. In 1976 Mary Leakey (1913-1996), the lady of anthropology, discovered that, in addition, there were traces of three hominids – Australoptihecus afarensis.

These fossilized tracks showed that 3.6 million years ago our ancestors were already walking on two legs. It was a truly extraordinary discovery.

In this finding, like so many times in the history of science, luck played a fundamental role. Apparently, they were discovered while some team members played throwing dry elephant droppings.

It was not the first discovery this scientist made, which we could call the Indiana Jones female; previously, and together with her husband Louise Leakey (1903-1972) she had carried out valuable research work in the Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania). With a meager budget this marriage had found a skull of Zijanthropus boisei.

Third generation of paleontologists
Leakey genes left the mark of scientific curiosity in the next generation. In 1959, Mary, with the help of her son Jonathan, discovered the remains of a Homo habilis, two million years old.

In 1969 Louise requested, in a brief announcement published in the Times newspaper, an assistant to the Primate Research Center. Responded Maeave, an unemployed and greatly enthusiastic marine zoologist. Some time later this young woman would become part of the family by marrying Richard Leakey, another of the Leakey’s children.

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Meave Leakey was the discoverer of species like Australopithecus anamensis and Kenyanthropus platyops, the latter with her daughter Louise, a seventeen-year-old teenager. For two decades Meave was the Head of the Department of Paleontology of the National Museum of Kenya.

We also owe Richard Leakey some of the findings that have allowed us to rebuild the long journey of human evolution. Among his most important discoveries are the man of Kibish – the oldest Homo sapiens – a skull of Paranthropus boisei (1969) and another of Homo rudolfensis (1972).

Leakey’s angels or the “trimates”
In addition to the anthropological findings, Louis Leakey, the patriarch of the family, was one of the great drivers of primatology. In 1957 he supported with great success a very young Jean Goodall in the study of chimpanzee behavior.

His clinical eye was repeated in 1966, when he instilled in Dian Foseey the importance of studying apes to understand human evolution. This American zoologist would become one of the most recognized scientists in the study of gorilla behavior over the years.

Three years later, at the end of a conference, Biruté Galdikas approached him with the aim of getting a boost in his initiative to study orangutans. Only two years later, with the help of the paleontologist, the young woman was in Borneo studying these apes.

Jean, Dian and Biruté became, in this way, the “angels of Leakey”, a term coined by Galdikas in clear allusion to the famous television series. A qualifier much more romantic than “ape ladies” (ladies-jumpsuit) with whom he met for some time.

It would not be fair to finish this genealogical review without mentioning, even if in passing, Colin Leakey (1933-2018), the result of the marriage between Louis Leakey and Frida Avern, his first wife. This scientist was an internationally recognized authority in the study of legumes.

Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at the Hospital de El Escorial (Madrid) and author of several popular books. .


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