The Leakeys: A Biography
(Prometheus, Nov. 24, 2009)
It's hard to imagine the study of human origins without the Leakey family. Three generations of Leakeys have scratched in the baked, unfriendly soil of East Africa to unearth fossil evidence of the earliest humans and their ancient ancestors. In the process they have practically defined the field of paleoanthropology, while eliciting admiration as well as controversies and criticism. In this engrossing biography, prolific writer and educator Mary Bowman-Kruhm tells the story of three generations of Leakeys. Beginning with patriarch Louis Leakey, a native of Kenya, she describes how he turned his boyhood love of exploring the Kenyan countryside into a scientific profession that eventually garnered international recognition. As the author shows, Leakey struggled in the early years, often barely able to make a living. The end of World War II, a trip to Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, and an injection of money from a benefactor led to the discovery of Proconsul africanus, an 18-million-year-old skull that was a precursor to both later evolving apes and humans. Then Leakey and his wife, Mary, discovered fragments of what came to be known as Paranthropus boisei, which lived about 1.75 million years ago. These findings brought the Leakeys great attention and important funding from the National Geographic Society.Bowman-Kruhm intersperses her discussion of the Leakeys' important scientific contributions with interesting asides about their personal life: from the trying 1950s when the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya threatened all of their lives; through Louis's interest in young proteges, including Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey; to the rocky relationship between the Leakeys and Donald Johanson, the discoverer of "Lucy."By the time of Louis's death in 1972, Mary and their son Richard were making dramatic finds on their own. When Richard discovered a rich cache of fossils in northern Kenya, he soon attained a level of acclaim to rival his father and mother's. Eventually, he turned his attention to fighting for the cause of wildlife conservation, a passion that he continues to the present. Today, the paleontology work of the Leakey family continues, carried on mainly by Meave, Richard's wife, and their daughter, Louise, at Koobi Fora in northern Kenya. They regularly report the results of their research at the Koobi Fora Research Project Web site (www.kfrp.com).