In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Louis Leakey

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Life
  • Difficulties at Kanjera and Kanam
  • Changing Personal Life
  • Miocene Apes of Rusinga Island
  • The Pan-African Congress on Prehistory and New Excavations
  • Leakey and the Mau Mau Movement
  • Zinjanthropus
  • Homo Habilis
  • New Primate Fossils and Scenarios of Human Evolution
  • Contributions to Primate Research
  • Advances in Paleoanthropology
  • New Fossils
  • The International Omo Research Expedition and the Calico Early Human Site
  • Acclaim and Legacy
  • Posthumous Works

Anthropology Louis Leakey
Matthew R. Goodrum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0023


Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (b. 1903–d. 1972) became a prominent paleoanthropologist during the mid-20th century primarily as a result of his excavations at Olduvai Gorge and other sites in East Africa. Leakey discovered the fossil remains of several new hominid species—most importantly Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei and Homo Habilis—as well as stone artifacts from the Stone Age, and thus made significant contributions to the understanding of primate evolution in Africa. Leakey’s research, which was conducted in close collaboration with his wife Mary (Nicol) Leakey, helped to shift the opinions of the paleoanthropological community to the idea that the earliest phases of human evolution occurred in Africa and therefore the fossil remains of the earliest human ancestors would be found in Africa. Leakey also helped to create institutions dedicated to paleoanthropological research in Africa and did much to promote that research.

General Overviews

There are a large number of biographies that either focus primarily on Louis Leakey or treat Louis and Mary Leakey as a team. These vary from entries in biographical dictionaries to book-length monographs. The biographies that focus primarily on Louis are listed here, while those that treat Louis and Mary together are listed in Changing Personal Life. Many of these works resemble one another in the subjects they cover and the perspective they take, as well as the subjects they do not cover. They devote considerable attention to Leakey’s personal life, to his most famous fossil discoveries, and his views on human evolution. Cole 1975 offers a detailed and integrated account of each of these aspects of Leakey’s career, while Clark 1973 and Gjerløff 2008 focus more on Leakey’s excavations and hominid fossil discoveries. Few of these biographies, however, attempt to investigate Leakey’s discoveries and ideas within the context of paleoanthropological theories, discoveries, or debates during the 20th century. Mulvey 1969 is representative of the sort of short biography written for a popular audience which took advantage of the substantial public interest in Leakey’s work at that time. Silverberg 1964 and Shaw 1973 place Leakey’s major fossil discoveries in the general historical sequence of other major fossil discoveries, illustrating Leakey’s significance in hominid paleontology in the 20th century. It is interesting also that there is extensive English-language scholarship on Leakey, yet while there is also a large body of literature by French scholars on the history of paleoanthropology and Paleolithic archaeology there are few works in French or other languages that focus on Leakey in a similar fashion. This has probably led to a skewed perspective on Leakey’s career and his contributions to paleoanthropology. The few noteworthy exceptions that exist can be found in their relevant places throughout this article and they offer perspectives that could usefully be employed in extending our understanding of Leakey’s historical significance. Isaac and McCown 1976 directly addresses the influence of Leakey’s research and discoveries on late-20th-century paleoanthropology. Historians and biographers interested in Leakey will find Ofcansky 1985 particularly useful for the bibliography it contains of Leakey’s publications.

  • Clark, John Desmond. 1973. Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, 1903–1972: Proceedings of the British Academy, 447–471. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy.

    An informative biographical sketch of Leakey’s life and work. Outlines his early archaeological expeditions and discusses his major publications, his activities during World War II, and the major discoveries at Olduvai Gorge. Contains a useful account of the creation of the Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology and provides a handy list of the awards he received and honorary lectures he delivered during his career. Reprinted in Human origins: Louis Leakey and the East African evidence, cited in this section.

  • Cole, Sonia Mary. 1975. Leakey’s luck: The life of Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, 1903–1972. London: Collins.

    Offers a detailed and very informative biography of Leakey’s life and scientific work utilizing a wide variety of unpublished archival sources such as letters and Leakey’s diary. Cole devotes considerable attention to the people who were instrumental in Leakey’s career, were involved in some way in his research, or were significant in his life.

  • Gjerløff, Anne Katrine. 2008. Louis Leakey. In Icons of evolution: An encyclopedia of people, evidence, and controversies. Vol. 2. Edited by Brian Regal, 545–572. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    One of the best short biographies of Leakey. It covers many aspects of his personal life and scientific career—not just his major discoveries—and successfully represents his work within the context of broader historical developments in paleoanthropology.

  • Isaac, Glynn Llywelyn, and Elizabeth R. McCown. 1976. Human origins: Louis Leakey and the East African evidence. Vol. 3, Perspectives on human evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin.

    A collection of papers intended as a memorial volume honoring the work of Leakey following his death. The papers devoted to Leakey’s life show the ways that Leakey’s ideas and discoveries helped to shape the growing science of paleoanthropology during the 20th century while also arguing that some of his more controversial claims and ideas acted to spur further research.

  • Mulvey, Mina White. Digging up Adam: The story of L.S.B. Leakey. New York: D. McKay, 1969.

    A biography of Leakey written for a general audience which covers the major events of his life and his scientific achievements. It is an uncritical work that presents Leakey in a very positive light but does contain a great deal of information about his research and discoveries.

  • Ofcansky, Thomas P. 1985. L.S.B. Leakey: A biobibliographical study. History in Africa 12:211–224.

    DOI: 10.2307/3171721

    Useful bibliography of Leakey’s publications because it not only contains his books and scientific papers but also includes his many publications in newspapers in Britain and in Kenya, as well as his articles on nonscientific subjects. The bibliography is divided into two sections: (1) books and pamphlets and (2) articles. The references are listed alphabetically within each section.

  • Shaw, Thurstan. 1973. Africa and the origins of man: A memorial lecture in honour of Dr. L. S. B. Leakey. Nigeria: Ibadan Univ. Press.

    A short biographical sketch of Leakey’s career and major scientific discoveries. There is a brief description of the major developments in the history of human origins research and how Leakey’s work fits into that broader history.

  • Silverberg, Robert. 1964. Man before Adam: The story of man in search of his origins. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith.

    A history of paleoanthropological research during the 19th and 20th centuries meant for a popular audience. Chapter 8 presents Leakey’s main discoveries and offers an insight into how he was viewed during the height of his career.

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