The Leakey Family

Andrea Zuvich

July 2006

The Leakey family has had an enormous effect upon the anthropological community with its vast amounts of research and fossil evidence found in Africa. The prominent members of this family include Louis and his wife, Mary Leakey, and their son Richard, his wife Meave, and their daughter Louise. These five extraordinary people have helped bring more interest to the subject of mankind’s origins, and in doing so, have helped more people become acquainted with the field of Anthropology.

The Leakey tale began in Kenya where Louis Leakey was born in 1903 and raised by his English parents. Louis Leakey studied at Cambridge University, where he kept up with his childhood fascination with prehistory. After Cambridge, he went back to Africa where it is said that he wanted to get prove that would back up Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution[1]. In the late 1920s, Dr. Leakey married Englishwoman Frida Avern, with whom he would have two children. Louis aided many well-known anthropologists with getting support for their research, including the late Diane Fossey, whose interest was in gorillas; Birute Galdikas, who studies orangutans; and last but certainly not least, Jane Goodall, who studies chimpanzees[2]. He died in England in 1972.

Mary Nichol, and Englishwoman, met Louis Leakey at Cambridge University in the early 1930s, began an affair and soon married after Louis divorced his first wife. Mary’s contribution is actually more significant than that of her husband’s. Most of her work took place in Africa at Olduvai Gorge. It was there that she made several exhilarating finds, including the Zinjanthropus (or Australopithecus boisei) in 1959.

Richard Leakey is famous throughout the world not only for his numerous books on anthropological matters, but for his civil service work as well. He is exceedingly popular in Africa, he being the progeny of two exceptionally talented individuals. Richard made an excellent find, known as the “Turkana Boy,” in 1984- which was the  nearly complete remains of a young male homo erectus[3]. But, Richard suffered from bad health and he even was involved in a plane crash in the early 1990s.

Richard married Meave Epps in 1972, following his divorce from his first wife (perhaps reminiscent of his father’s marital behaviour?). Meave had success as a paleoanthropologist as well, for she recently discovered the hominid Australopithicus amanensis. Meave and Richard’s first daughter, Louise has currently won fame for her 1999 discovery of Kenyanthropus platyops[4].

The Leakey’s are still contributing to the world in many different ways. For instance, there is the Leakey Foundation – which was founded in order to help give young scientists the support needed for research of their own[5]. Richard has focused more on politics lately, but is still very well-known throughout Africa- he was even used as a character in John Le Carre’s novel, The Constant Gardener. Which goes to show that this family is known not only for their contributions to science but also for their political work.

Though their lives were filled with the same types of drama every family experiences; they were vastly more significant in the fact that they helped pave the way for future archæologists and anthropologists. Students of archaeology can learn much needed and useful information by reading their research and books and perhaps someday become as well-known in the anthropological community as they are.


1. Johanson, Donald C. “Scientists and Thinkers: The Leakey Family.” Time Magazine. March 1999.

2. The Leakey Foundation.

3. Louise Leakey. The Leakey Foundation.

4. “Richard Leakey”.

[1] Johanson, Donald C. « Scientists and Thinkers : The Leakey Family. » Time Magazine. March 1999.

[2] The Leakey Foundation.

[3] Richard Leakey.

[4] Louise Leakey.

[5] The Leakey Foundation.

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