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Mary Leakey, Fossil Hunter

December 9, 1996 at 12:00 AM EST
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: “A real fossil hunter” was how a fellow scientist described Mary Leakey. Through decades of work in East Africa, Leakey, who died today at age 83, made discoveries that provide clues into the human past. To tell us about her and her work, we’re joined by Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins program at the Smithsonian Institutionin Washington, and a former colleague of Mary Leakey. Thank you for joining us. What discovery should Mary Leakey be remembered for?

RICHARD POTTS, Smithsonian Institution: Oh, a whole series of discoveries in and around the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. One, of course, was the trail, a series of trails, of fossilized footprints. It went on for about 20 meters or 20 yards, 25 yards. That showed that early humans were walking upright on two legs. The date of that was three and a half million years old, a very long time ago. Also the discovery of the famous fossil known as Zinjanthropus, a name that’s been a bit forgotten but she discovered that in 1959. And it was the first really significant early human discovery in the Rift Valley of East Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what do those tell us that we wouldn’t have known otherwise?

RICHARD POTTS: Well, one of the most important revolutions in our thinking about human origins is the change from a single trunk. We used to envision our evolution as a tree with a single trunk, with ape-like fossils or ape-like species at the base with human beings, of course, up on top. We know that it’s a much more complex tree with many branches, and Mary Leakey’s discoveries helped to establish some of those extra branches on our family tree through which we trace our own ancestry back through time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To what extent are her contributions different from her husband, Louis Leakey, who was a scientist?

RICHARD POTTS: Right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And they worked together.

RICHARD POTTS: Mary Leakey would not have gone to East Africa without Louis’s initial invitation for a variety of reasons. He needed someone to illustrate his–one of his books that he was doing in East Africa and to help him in the field, but there surely was a romantic interest as well at that point. But Louis was extremely flamboyant, a wonderful popularizer of the discovery of hominid fossils, early human fossils. And Mary was much more of the behind-the-scenes person. She was the real scientist in the family, the person who wanted to stay out of the limelight.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And yet she never–she wasn’t a trained scientist, was she?

RICHARD POTTS: No, but she always had a great love for the origin of things, for discoveries about pre-history, and also for drawing, drawing of stone artifacts, of cave paintings, which she greatly admired and enjoyed work on in East Africa, and that gave her a tremendous degree of skill in observation and in detail.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give me some examples of some of the things that she observed through her–and how she did it–how she went about what she was doing.

RICHARD POTTS: Sure. Well, as an example, in the early 1960s, she led the earliest excavations on what were at that time the oldest known stone tools and actual sites. It was typical in anthropology to go around and strive for the luck of what you find on the surface. Nature does the first excavation of eroding sediments that contain fossils of early humans and stone tools. Leakey–Mary Leakey this is–decided to dig, and she took the painstaking effort of digging sometimes some fairly large holes in the ground and pulling things out and recording every single detail about where they came from and what they were. And that–that discovery–there are discoveries of stone tools that were four times older than had been known previously, were very important, but more important–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Important–go ahead.

RICHARD POTTS: But more important than that was the legacy she left of description, of recording, and young researchers like myself or younger researchers like myself have come along and have been able to stand on that–that legacy, and to do new things.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did she get into this?

RICHARD POTTS: Well, she grew up in England, and she spent a bit of time in France, where she learned about pre-history. France was, of course, a big center of prehistoric studies in the 1920s, 1930s. And she was then very, very good at drawing, as I mentioned, and she was asked to draw stone artifacts for several volumes by archaeologists in England. Louis then came upon her at a dinner party, and he at least was fascinated with her and asked her to come to East Africa to help him.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what was she like as a person? How would you attribute this fascination?

RICHARD POTTS: She was very driven. She was extremely curious about the pre-history and the roots of all humankind, and I think that she believed Louis when he said go to East Africa to find it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And of course she loved East Africa.

RICHARD POTTS: She loved East Africa. That’s right. And that made her a very complex person. It was–she was very simple in the sense of her enjoyment of the natural world, of the Rift Valley, and of everything about it, from the birds to the fossils in the ground, and everything. But at the same time, I think that her enjoyment of that led her in complex ways to shun some people. And she led for a number of years a fairly reclusive life.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But she also liked Cuban cigars and malt whiskey I heard–I read somewhere.

RICHARD POTTS: Yeah. I think on one to one, which I had the fortune to experience, she could have a good time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you think she would like to be remembered?

RICHARD POTTS: I think–you know, it’s interesting–one time when she was, in fact, drinking scotch and smoking cigars and she said to me, you know, I think that a scientist would be very lucky if maybe one or two of their ideas were remembered past their lifetime. And I think that she knew that the interpretations meant less than the legacy of actual discovery and of the actual part of work of describing those and documenting those and caring for those finds, that what really belonged to all people, and I think that’s what she wants to be remembered for.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Dr. Potts, thank you for helping her be remembered in that way.

RICHARD POTTS: Thank you, Charlayne.