By Neville Agnew and Martha Demas
In December last year, archaeologist Mary Leakey died at her home near Nairobi in Kenya, a few months short of her 84th birthday. Three months before her death, Mary was in the field for the last time, at Laetoli, giving advice and support to the GCI and Tanzanian Antiquities Department team working to conserve the 3.6-million-year-old hominid footprints, preserved in volcanic ash, that she had discovered in the late 1970s.
Matriarch of the famed Leakey family, discoverer of innumerable traces of humankind's origins, recipient of honors and degrees from numerous universities, trenchant and acerbic, generous and steadfast to those in whom she believed, Mary was revered—but she was also known as a determined and forceful personality to be reckoned with. She loved Laetoli no less than the renowned Olduvai Gorge 30 kilometers to the north, the site of her first great find in 1959—the skull of Zinjanthropus. She first visited Laetoli in 1935 with her husband, Louis Leakey, and then again in 1959. But it was not until 1977, when she returned after Louis's death, that the fossil footprint trails of three hominids were found. Described as one of the greatest scientific finds of the 20th century, the prints, indistinguishable from those of modern humans except for their smaller size, established the early date for bipedalism and resolved a debate in human evolution that had gone on since Darwin's day: Which came first—bipedalism or the development of the brain.
When the Tanzanian government approached the GCI to conserve the site of Laetoli, which was being overrun by the rampant growth of acacia trees, Mary Leakey was consulted. Although initially uncertain about the proposal to reexcavate the trackway to remove invading roots and then to bury it again, she gave wholehearted support to the project once convinced—despite adverse comment from some palaeoanthropologists who wanted the trackway lifted and installed in a museum in Tanzania. She lent her stature to the establishment of an international consultative committee for the project and contributed vigorously at the review meetings that preceded fieldwork. She visited Laetoli during the field campaign in 1995 and twice in 1996, traveling by vehicle from Nairobi (a 10-hour drive over rough roads) and living in the camp near the site. Mary relished camp life, including a drink and cigar at the fireside before the evening dinner gong sounded, and she remarked that she much preferred a tent to a house.
For someone who shunned the limelight and disliked being photographed, Mary tolerated well the inevitable demands when, in August 1996, the site was visited by the international media. As she said, "Perhaps it's for the good of the project"—but her smile suggested that in some ways, she enjoyed the attention after many years of retirement from archaeological excavation and discovery. She was deeply concerned for the footprints and gratified that steps were being taken to assure their long-term survival. These measures included meetings on site with the local Maasai people, many of whom remembered and revered Mama Leakey, as she was widely known in Kenya and Tanzania from her days in the area.
Mary labored unceasingly in eastern Africa for over six decades and, after years in the shadow of her husband Louis, achieved fame in her own right—although she never sought accolades. Her fieldwork, writing, research, and publications were extensive, and collectively constitute a record of an endlessly questing intellect. Mary Leakey's legacy of achievement will endure. She will be remembered as a remarkable woman who was her own person in all respects, and as such she serves as an inspiration to us all. As friend and supporter to the Laetoli project team, she will be greatly missed.
Neville Agnew is associate director for programs at the GCI. Martha Demas is project manager with the GCI's Special Projects.