Mary D. Leakey

Mary D. Leakey

1913 – 1996

Conducted breakthrough archeological studies

Major Field of Study:  Paleoanthropology

Specific Accomplishment:  Discovered several fossils contributing to the widely-held belief that humans evolved in Africa.

Home Town:  London, England

Youth Activities: Born Mary Douglas Nicole, she was influenced by her father’s work as a watercolor artist to take up drawing, a skill upon which she would later capitalize. The family stayed for a time in France where at age 12, Mary reviewed objects excavated from the caves at Les Eyzies and started her own collection of stone tools and system of classification.

Engineering and Science Achievements: Mary Leakey discovered numerous fossilized remains related to “hominins” or early humans, most notably:

  • Proconsul Africanus (1948)– a Miocene epoch ape which lived about 23-14 million years ago, thought to be a possible human ancestor.
  • Australopithecus boisei(1959) – known as the “Nutcracker Man” because of his large flat teeth, he dates to 2.3 to 1.2 million years ago, and is perhaps one of the first hominin species to use stone tools.
  • Homo habilis(1960) – possibly a direct human ancestor, known as “Handy Man” for the tools made by his species, which lived between 2.8 and 1.5 million years ago.
  • The Laetoli Human Footprint Trails (1978)– an 88-foot trail of the footprints of two early humans, captured in wet volcanic ash, in present-day Tanzania dating back 3.6 million years.  These are the oldest known early human footprints.

Additional Details:

Leakey achieved her prolific string of successes through a non-traditional approach.  As a young girl with a temperament not suited to constrained environments, she was expelled from two Catholic convent schools.  Moreover, she never earned a college degree, although she audited university courses.  The teenage Leakey worked at archeological sites in England and drew illustrations of artifacts for books publishing the findings of the digs.  Her work on the drawings for paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey’s book Adam’s Ancestors led to their marriage in 1936.

The Leakeys teamed up to work various paleoanthropological excavation sites in Kenya during the 1930’s – 1950’s.  Their most noteworthy efforts, though, came later at the Olduvai Gorge in the Tanzanian Serengeti plains.  This was the site of the Australopithecus boisei and Homo habilis finds, as well as numerous stone tools.

Mary and Louis made their work a “family affair,” often taking their three boys with them to the digs.   Son Richard Leakey went on to pursue his own career in paleoanthropology.  Mary continued working beyond Louis’ 1972 death, retiring from field work in 1983.  She recorded her experiences in several books, including: Olduvai Gorge: My Search For Early Man (1979), and her autobiography, Disclosing the Past (1984).


“Mary Leakey,” Wikipedia, retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Mary Leakey,” Leakey, a Century of the Family in East Africa web siteretrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Proconsul Africanus,” Wikipedia retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Paranthropus Boisei,” Wikipedia, retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Homo Habilis,” Wikipedia, retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Laetoli Human Footprint Trails,” Smithsonian, retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Mary Leakey,” retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Oduvai Gorge”, Wikipedia, retrieved 22 July 2016 from

“Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey,” Leakey, a Century of the Family in East Africa web site, retrieved 23 July 2016 from


Mary D. Leakey. Wikipedia.