Mary and Louis Leakey worked together in the search for the origins of man. Mary’s fabled perspicacity for digging and sifting was matched by her acerbic manner and love of good strong cigars. Of the famous duo, Mary was the one with the lucky spade. In 1948, Mary uncovered the skull and facial bones of the much ballyhooed hominid that came to be known as “the missing link.” In her trademark no-nonsense manner, Mary mused, “For some reason that skull caught the imagination.” In 1959 in the Olduvai Gorge of northern Tanzania, she discovered some teeth and the palate bone of the oldest ancestor of man up to that point. Upon finding other bones, they were able to determine that the five-foot, barrel-chested, small-brained, and browless hominid Zinjanthropus had walked upright a million years ago. Three years after Louis Leakey’s death in 1972, working widow Mary surpassed her own historical findings when she found the tracks of bipedal creatures 3.6 million years old, preserved in volcanic ash, and she later unearthed the jawbones of eleven other humanoids carbondated to 3.75 million years old! Mary passed the torch, or rather spade, to her son when she died in December of 1996 at the age of eighty-three. We owe a great deal of our new understanding of human evolution to Mary’s nose for old bones! “Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father’s career,” said son Richard E. Leakey. “He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician.”
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