HISTORY CORNER: Who was your Daddy? The search for the birth of mankind

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  • Kenya-British anthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) examining skulls found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa. PUBLIC DOMAIN

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    CREATIVE COMMONS New Court, St. John’s, Cambridge where Louis Leakey studied and earned his doctorate in African prehistory.

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    LEAKEY FOUNDATION ARCHIVES Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall whom he mentored and encouraged to study chimpanzees.

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    LEAKEY FOUNDATION ARCHIVES Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) and wife, archeologist and anthropologist Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey (1913-1996), digging at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, Africa.

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    FLICKR COMMONS Louis and Mary Leakey, two of the 20th century’s most renowned paleoanthropologists.

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    CREATIVE COMMONS Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the Leakeys found skulls and bones of early man.

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    DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND Dian Fossey devoted the last years of her life in the mountains of Rwanda studying and protecting the mountain gorillas, her work encouraged and supported by Louis Leakey.

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    LEAKEY FOUNDATION ARCHIVES Louis and Mary Leakey examining palate of “Zinjanthropus,” one of their most important finds.

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    CREATIVE COMMONS Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, located northwest of Ngorongoro Crater, site of Louis and Mary Leakey’s most important discoveries of early humanoids.

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    Photo by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Leakey family excavating at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

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    CREATIVE COMMONS Louis Leakey protégé primatologist Birute Galdikas and orangutan baby in Borneo, Indonesia.

  • Kenya-British anthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) examining skulls found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa. PUBLIC DOMAIN

  • 1

    CREATIVE COMMONS New Court, St. John’s, Cambridge where Louis Leakey studied and earned his doctorate in African prehistory.

  • 2

    LEAKEY FOUNDATION ARCHIVES Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall whom he mentored and encouraged to study chimpanzees.

  • 3

    LEAKEY FOUNDATION ARCHIVES Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (1903-1972) and wife, archeologist and anthropologist Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey (1913-1996), digging at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, Africa.

  • 4

    FLICKR COMMONS Louis and Mary Leakey, two of the 20th century’s most renowned paleoanthropologists.

  • 5

    CREATIVE COMMONS Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the Leakeys found skulls and bones of early man.

  • 6

    DIAN FOSSEY GORILLA FUND Dian Fossey devoted the last years of her life in the mountains of Rwanda studying and protecting the mountain gorillas, her work encouraged and supported by Louis Leakey.

  • 7

    LEAKEY FOUNDATION ARCHIVES Louis and Mary Leakey examining palate of “Zinjanthropus,” one of their most important finds.

  • 8

    CREATIVE COMMONS Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, located northwest of Ngorongoro Crater, site of Louis and Mary Leakey’s most important discoveries of early humanoids.

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    Photo by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Leakey family excavating at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

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    CREATIVE COMMONS Louis Leakey protégé primatologist Birute Galdikas and orangutan baby in Borneo, Indonesia.

Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve being the first humans on Earth in the Garden of Eden, but is there archeological evidence of the origin of mankind?

Kenya-British paleo-anthropologists/archeologists Louis and Mary Leakey spent 40 years patiently excavating prehistoric gorges and hillsides of the eastern Serengeti Plains in Tanzania, and elsewhere searching for the answer.

Louis Leakey strongly supported Charles Darwin’s belief that it was in Africa.

On the morning of July 17, 1959, Louis was feeling ill at the excavation site called Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania so he stayed in camp.

Mary however went out into the field and saw a piece of bone that “seemed to be part of a skull” and looked hominid.

After uncovering the artifact, she found it was a jawbone with two large teeth. “I’ve got him,” she said.

For weeks, they kept digging and found more bone fragments, including a piece of cranium, and concluded that they’d discovered a species ancestral to humans — the Australopithecines.

They later named it Zinjanthropus boisei, meaning “East Africa man” — the prefix “Zinj” being ancient Arabic for the East African coast.

More skulls, bones and rudimentary stone tools were soon found.

Leakey was an eclectic and pursued his varied interests with unbridled passion — his enthusiasm infecting others and also changing the landscape in his corner of the scientific community.

Responding to his zeal were three women who would become famous worldwide and remembered as The Trimates, or “Leakey’s Angels.”

They were Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birut Galdikas.

Leakey was an ardent supporter of wildlife preservation and encouraged Goodall to pursue a long-term field study of chimpanzees in the wild. Likewise, he encouraged Fossey to study the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Galdikas to study and protect the gentle orangutans in Borneo.

Leakey’s interest in primates was predicated on the theory that their behavior today may be similar to behavior of early man.

Jane Goodall was born in 1934 in Hampstead, London. Her father gave her a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee, igniting a lifelong love of animals.

Leakey met Goodall when she visited Kenya and hired her as a secretary, later sending her to study chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960.

Two years later, he got her into Cambridge to earn a Ph.D. in ethology (animal behavior). She was only the eighth person admitted for doctoral work without an undergraduate degree.

Then she returned to Africa.

Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees led her to debunk some popular misconceptions of the species.

They are smart enough to make rudimentary tools and are not strictly vegetarians, she claimed, and after witnessing chimpanzees in organized warfare and cannibalism, their dark side showed they’re not as loveable as Tarzan’s Cheeta.

Discarding traditional animal research protocols of giving study animals numbers so researchers would remain objective, Goodall gave names to the chimps she’d studied in the wild.

Today, she is considered the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees.

Following in Leakey’s footsteps, Goodall travels extensively promoting her causes, through the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots & Shoots organization for schoolchildren up to college students that has more than 140 chapters worldwide, promoting environmental, conservation and humanitarian issues.

Born in San Francisco in 1932, Dian Fossey was another superstar in primate studies whose career was launched by Leakey.

When her parents divorced and mother remarried, her stepfather treated her unlovingly and wouldn’t even allow her to have a pet.

She consoled herself by turning to animals, and later paid her own way through college, earning a degree in occupational therapy at San Jose State College in 1954.

In 1963, she took a trip to Africa, touring Kenya, Tanzania and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), meeting the Leakeys at Olduvai Gorge.

Louis Leakey talked to Fossey about Jane Goodall’s work and the importance of long-term research of the great apes.

Leakey was impressed with her when they met again three years later in Kentucky and invited her to study the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains bordering Rwanda, Congo and Uganda — despite her lack of experience — and offered to find funding.

She jumped at the opportunity and quickly audited a primatology course.

In 1967, Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, a remote camp high in the cold and misty rain forests of the Rwanda side of the Virunga.

There she faced the same agonizing terror of poachers that Jane Goodall did.

Years later, one report said, “Fossey’s favorite gorilla Digit was killed in 1978. Later that year, the silverback of Digit’s Group 4, named for Fossey’s Uncle Bert, was shot in the heart while trying to save his son, Kweli, from being seized by poachers.”

She began spending more time fighting against poaching than doing research, and personally financed four-man patrols that destroyed nearly a thousand gorilla traps.

Her love of animals made her wilderness home a sanctuary for stray, sick, injured or abused animals — including a monkey named Kima who lived in her cabin.

Not everyone spoke well of Dian Fossey. A review of a book written about her said, “The author gives a candid and vivid portrait of Fossey’s mercurial personality, her ill treatment of staff and research students, and her alcohol-fueled tirades.”

A Wall Street Journal article described her as “a racist alcoholic who regarded her gorillas as better than the African people who lived around them.”

Early in the morning of Dec. 27, 1985, Fossey was discovered murdered in the bedroom of her cabin, hacked to death by a machete.

She is buried in a burial site she built for her deceased gorilla friends, and lies next to Digit and other gorillas killed by poachers.

To this day, her murder remains unsolved.

In the wilds of Borneo, Leakey’s third protégé Bruté Galdikas also battled to save the orangutans from poachers.

She’s a Lithuanian-Canadian primatologist, conservationist, ethnologist and author who approached Louis Leakey about studying orangutans while she was a student at UCLA.

Leakey and the National Geographic Society agreed to fund her to study the red-haired primates in Borneo — her studies leading to a doctorate at UCLA.

Galdikas was 25 when she arrived in Borneo, and lived in a primitive bark and thatch hut near the Java Sea that she named Camp Leaky.

She stayed there for 30 years.

The poachers were her constant enemy, selling the orangutans as pets. Her camp became a rehab center for them when their owners no longer wanted them.

She’s now an authority on orangutans and is a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.

In the early ’30s, Louis Leakey was married to Frida Avern and they had two children. He also was working on a book “Adam’s Ancestors,” with the help of paleoanthropologist Mary Nicol.

Shockingly for those times, he divorced Frida and married Mary.

The divorce was scandalous to Cambridge investigators probing his morals. Grant money dried up, and his scholarship was attacked.

The couple then returned to Kenya and had three children of their own, and worked well together — until years later.

Back in Kenya, their financial woes were alleviated however when Louis was hired for African intelligence work. He also continued excavations on the sly.

Then National Geographic came to the rescue with salary and grant money which enabled him to continue his paleo pursuits openly during most of World War II — making notable discoveries of ancient man, notably Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

The 1950s were chaos in Kenya Colony, with the Kikuyu fighting for independence from British rule and attacking white settlers.

Speaking fluent Kikuyu, Leakey played a key role in mediation efforts — frequently supporting both sides.

Meanwhile, he and Mary split up and each continued their research separately.

Leakey began suffering from arthritis and traded field work for lecturing in the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Louis Leakey was a maverick in the scientific community. His work was constantly under attack and because he often ruffled feathers, honors he deserved eluded him. Nevertheless, he stuck to his beliefs.

The Leakey Foundation asserts, “In the face of great opposition, he strongly supported Darwin’s assertion that human evolution began in Africa. As it turns out, Leakey’s early, controversial, yet unwavering position that Africa was the cradle of humanity has held up against modern scientific scrutiny and is now universally accepted.”

He left his footprint.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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What are we?

“The broadest of the terms is ‘hominoid,’ which refers to members of the superfamily Hominoidea, both present and past. Today it comprises humans, the gibbons, and the great apes (orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorilla).

“As taxonomic classification changes with new molecular findings, modern humans and their ancestors are referred to by either of these two terms: ‘hominid’ (traditional classification) and ‘hominin’ (new classification). ‘Hominin’ is the preferred term.”

— National Geographic Style Book

Fossey’s final words…

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

— Dian Fossey, last entry in her diary

Post War research…

“After World War II, Louis Leakey became curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum in Nairobi, and worked with other organizations that focused on prehistoric research and inquiry. In 1948, at Rusinga Island, Mary Leakey discovered the fossil remains of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans that existed more than 18 million years ago.”

— Biography Newsletter

The Energetic Louis Leakey…

Louis Leakey always pursued his interest with intense passion. He relished excavating and traveling the world and lecturing about it. He wrote eight books and countless academic papers, while constantly fundraising for his projects, as well as for others. It was only the arthritis that slowed him down.

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Invitation to readers…

Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

‘Look for History Popcorn every Wednesday brought to you by Ziggy’s.’

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