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
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
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."
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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
"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
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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