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3 minute read
John S. Major

The leakey family again finds itself back in a familiar place: the headlines. Not only did Meave Leakey draw worldwide attention last week for her latest discovery of hom inid fossils, but in addition her husband Richard, trying to address an opposition political rally in the Kenyan town of Nakuru two weeks ago, was among a group beaten by a mob wielding ax handles and whips. As Virginia Morell shows in Ancestral Passions, her splendid new collective biography of the Leakey family (Simon & Schuster; $30), this is no surprise; Leakeys have been prominent and colorful figures in paleontology and Kenyan affairs for almost a century.

The patriarch of the scientific clan was the larger-than-life Louis. Born in Kenya’s highlands in 1903, the son of British missionaries, he grew up speaking Kikuyu with his friends and feeling more African than European. While doing research at Cambridge, he precipitated the first of many Leakey scandals. He deserted his first wife and two young children to marry artist and archaeologist Mary Nicol. He was also unable to document fully some of his early fossil claims. Undeterred, he returned to Kenya to vindicate himself.

Not a careful scientist, Louis invariably claimed too much credit for finds made by Mary and others on his team, and he ascribed too much significance to each find. Endlessly charming, he attracted a retinue of adoring young women (including the future luminaries Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall), treating each, says Morell, “as if he were Paris handing Aph ro dite the prized apple.” During World War II, he ran a British spy network against the Germans in East Africa. Later he used his intelligence skills against the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

Envious rivals railed at “Leakey’s luck” in finding hominid fossils–yet of course it was not luck at all but rather a combination of energy, optimism, persistence, a superb field team–known among scientists as the “Hominid Gang”–and an intimate knowledge of his native terrain. He and Mary made many significant finds, notably the fossil of the species they named Homo habilis (handy man), the earliest known tool user. Since the death of Louis in 1972, his unwavering position that Africa was the cradle of humanity has been rewarded with universal acceptance.

Mary, estranged from Louis in later years, blossomed as a scientist. It was she who, at Laetoli in 1978, led the team that found the earliest known prehuman footprints, from 3.6 million years ago. She continues her research in retirement.

Meanwhile, Louis’s scientific and activist legacy is carried on by son Richard and daughter-in-law Meave. Among Rich ard’s major finds are further evidence of Homo habilis and, with Alan Walker in 1984, “Turkana Boy,” a 1.6 million-year-old skeleton of a strapping, adolescent Homo erectus. As director of the Kenya Wildlife Service from 1989 to 1994, Richard revitalized the country’s national parks and deterred poachers, but he made political enemies in the process. As combative and tough as his father, he has survived a kidney transplant and the loss of both legs below the knee after a plane crash.

Today Meave and their eldest daughter Louise, the heir to the family business, handle most of the fossil work, while Richard runs an environmental consulting firm and takes on the dangerous task of leading political opposition to Kenya’s President, Daniel arap Moi. He scoffs at suggestions that he has his own sights set on the presidency, but few think that at 50 he has reached the limit of his ambitions, or of his capacity for achievement. After all, he is a Leakey.

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