Museum of Natural Mystery – Exhibit 10: Hearts and Hominids
How A Pair of Unlikely Valentines Defined Human Origins
February 16, 2017 at 10:38 am
In honor of Valentine’s Day, CC and I take a look at perhaps the most famous couple in all of paleoanthropology: Mary and Louis Leakey.
Between the two of them, Mary and Louis changed the world’s perceptions about how and where humanity came to be. Their discoveries drew a clear line between we modern humans our most primitive ancestors by tracing our origins back to Eastern Africa.
Their first major discovery together was Proconsul africanus, which existed during the Miocene epoch between 23 to 14 million years ago. Proconsul has a body type similar to monkeys, but limbs that suggest its movement and climbing would have resembled that of apes.
Its teeth are noticeably ape-like, but its skull structure shares features in common with those of early humans. Scientists today think proconsul was a bridge between monkeys and apes, but also a likely ancestor to humanity.
One morning in 1959, at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Mary Leakey came upon a jaw and teeth in the ground while Louis was home sick. The creature she’d found was Australopithecus boisei (also known as Paranthropus boisei), a robust species of early hominid.
Although closer on the spectrum to primates than humans, this Australopithecine species walked upright and may have developed tool use. It is thought to be a precursor to the creatures that evolved into modern humans.
One year after the discovery of Australopithecus boisei, the Leakeys discovered Homo habilis. The Latin name translates to “handy man,” as the creature’s remains are frequently surrounded by primitive tools for smashing or cutting.
In terms of human evolution, Homo habilis is about as far backwards as one can go and still be within the Homo genus — as far from modern humans as one can get. And yet it is recognizably one of us. Alongside the discovery of Proconsul africanus and Australopithecus boisei, the Leakeys illustrated a timeline of humanity’s long journey to the present.
The story of the Leakeys’ relationship is as fascinating as that of their discoveries, if not moreso. The widely-known narrative of Mary and Louis is that of a couple traveling around Africa with their children and their dogs, making scientific breakthroughs everywhere they went. They were very much in love, and instilled a love of science in their children and grandchildren.
This is all true, of course. It’s just that details have been left out of that truth, possibly in the interest of protecting reputations. Mary and Louis’s introduction and courtship took place during Louis’s first marriage, causing an inevitable divorce between himself and his first wife. Indeed, young Louis was said to be incredibly handsome and charming. He had no shortage of women clamoring for him, which was always a sore spot for the women in his life.
Young Mary, on the other hand, was an abrasive, cigar-smoking firecracker with little patience for people. The two must have seemed like a bizarre pairing.
The scandal of their affair nearly caused the Leakeys to lose all of their funding. If not for their major discoveries, they may never have recovered. However, although most of their finds were actually discovered by Mary, Louis often received the credit for her work. Louis, it seems, was the more popular of the two and the frontman for their scientific duo. He traveled from location to location, securing grants and accumulating renown. Meanwhile, Mary stayed at excavation sites doing fieldwork and raising their children.
The lack of credit may have been a point of contention for the couple, causing a rift that only grew wider as their ideas about human evolution began to diverge. The couple was separated by the time of Louis’s death in 1972. Mary Leakey, however, went on to make one of the most significant discoveries of her career after Louis’s passing: several sets of Homo habilis footprints preserved in volcanic ash. The roughly 2 million-year-old footprints shed new light on ancestral human social dynamics and reinforced Mary Leakey’s reputation as a scientist, independent of her husband.
The narrative of the Leakeys is simultaneously a story of one of the most effective and loving married couple in the history of archaeology, and of a husband who cast a long shadow over his wife’s achievements before she was able to break free. Nevertheless, their work together cemented Africa as the birthplace of humanity.
Museum theme by Michael Guy Bowman
Listen to more at: bowman.bandcamp.com
Rachel: Designer #UkuleleWitch @rachelvice
Tour Guide: Emery Coolcats, Carolynn Calabrese
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