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Archeologist Mary Leakey dies at 83


She unearthed clues to man's origin

December 9, 1996
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST (2030 GMT)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- Renowned British archeologist Mary Leakey died Monday, leaving it to those who came after her to explore the mysteries of the origins of mankind.

Leakey brought the world closer to understanding those mysteries with fossil discoveries in Tanzania and Kenya. Her greatest discovery came in 1978, when she discovered evidence that man walked upright much earlier than had been thought.

In 1947 while working in Kenya, Leakey and her husband, archeologist Louis Leakey, discovered the skull of Proconsul africanus, an apelike ancestor of both apes and early humans that lived 25 million years ago.


In 1959, she discovered the pre-historic skull of a human-like creature dubbed "Zinjanthropus" in digs at Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge. It brought worldwide attention to the Leakeys' work and to east Africa as the possible cradle of mankind.

Louis Leakey died in 1972, but his wife carried on the couple's work. In 1978, she uncovered the oldest evidence of the origins of man, a trail of footprints.


The prints, preserved in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania, showed that early hominids walked upright 3.5 million years ago.

In an interview in September, she called the discovery "The most important find in view of human evolution." She said when she and colleagues stumbled on the footprints, "they looked startlingly like our own."

icon (82 K / 7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound) walking

A petite woman who smoked cigars into her 80s, Leakey remained active in her later years.

In August, at age 83, she traveled to Laetoli to look once again at the footprints before they were covered with synthetic materials to preserve them. They will not be uncovered for another 50 years.

Clive Gamble, professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton in England, said Mary Leakey's "interpretation of ... the scattering of stones and bones where early humans lived moved us toward thinking about what they did, who they were.

"She breathed new life into them ... all within a scientific framework. She kept meticulous records, made scrupulous analysis and was always careful to publish her findings," he said.


Leakey's son Richard Leakey, famous in his own right as a paleontologist and wildlife conservationist, said his mother died peacefully in Nairobi.

He told reporters that he was proud of his mother's work and added that her contributions had been overshadowed early in her career by the publicity afforded to her husband.

"In the 1950s and 1960s Louis got most of the publicity probably because of chauvinism of the time. But Mary was the centerpiece of the research."

Now he carries on the work of his parents, in the quest to find the beginnings of the human race.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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