Donald C Johanson

Name ID 272

See also

Willis, Delta The Leakey Family: Leaders in the Search for Human Origins
Page Number: 100
Extract Date: 1978

Golden Linnaean Medal

In 1978 Johanson and White decided to announce a new name for the discoveries. Johanson was one of many scientists scheduled to speak at a Nobel Symposium in Sweden in May. The conference would honor Mary Leakey, who would receive a medal from the King of Sweden for her scientific work.

Mary Leakey received the Golden Linnaean Medal, the first woman to do so. But she also endured one of the most embarrassing moments in her life. Johanson spoke before she did, and announced the new name for the species from Ethiopia - and in this species, he included Mary Leakey's discoveries from Laetoli. In fact, the jaw LH 4 was featured as the type specimen, or model, for the news species name Australopithecus afarensis. Australopithecus is the formal genus name for the australopithecines, and afarensis denotes the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia where they were found. But the model specimen came from Tanzania.

Johanson talked at length about the discoveries at Laetoli, which scooped Mary's own speech. She was angry and embarrassed. During the coffee break, she confided to Richard: "How am I going to give my paper now? It's all been said." Richard said later that she felt that she "was going to look as if she was a fool, repeating the material." More controversial, Johanson had named her discoveries, using a designation that was totally at odds with what she believed. Because Johanson named them first, that name stuck. When she stood up to give her talk, Mary Leakey could not say that the finds from Laetoli were Homo as she thought they were. She just expressed her deep regret that "the Laetoli fellow is now doomed to be called Australopithecus afarensis."

Some scientists suggest that White and Johanson lumped the Laetoli finds in with the others to give the new species an older date. The fossils that Mary Leakey found in Tanzania were nearly four million years old - at the time, the oldest hominids ever discovered.

The controversy continues today. In 1990 more fossils were found in Ethiopia that suggest there may have been two species, rather than one as Johanson and White claimed. But the Leakeys withdrew from this debate; they decided that their best defense was just to keep working and find more evidence.

Extract ID: 3277

See also

Dente, Jenny Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey 1913-1996
Page Number: 13
Extract Date: 1974-1978

Laetoli

Mary first visited Laetoli, an area 30 miles south of Olduvai, in 1935 but didn't establish a permanent site there until 1974. In July of 1975, the first serious excavations began. Early digs revealed an abundance of hominid materials which were dated (by finding the age of overlying lava flows) at more than 2.4-million-years-old, placing them much earlier in time than any found at Olduvai. An even more exciting find occurred in 1976 when visitors to the site accidentally stumbled upon what seemed like fossilized animal prints. "Site A," as it came to be called, ended up containing almost 18,400 individual prints.

Then, in 1978, two short parallel trails of hominid prints were found by a man named Paul Abell, again by accident. Eventually, these trails were found to extend more than 80 ft in rock that was dated at 3.6-million-years-old. The prints were made by two individuals walking side-by-side, with a third deliberately stepping in the footprints of the largest individual; Mary liked to believe that they were of the genus Homo, but other scientists, including Donald Johanson (of "Lucy" fame) think they might be of the Australopithecus line. (In fact, this was a big point of contention in a vicious feud between Leakey and Johanson.)

Despite all of the questions that the footprints raised, and that remain unanswered even today, Mary deemed their discovery as one of the most important made in her lifetime. For instance, the absence of stone tools at the site leads scientists to believe that bipedalism preceded the use of tools. Mary later explained, "The discovery of the trails was immensely exciting-something so extraordinary that I could hardly take it in or comprehend its implications for some while." After their excavation, Mary finished her stay at Laetoli, ending also the most memorable stage of her archaeological career.

Extract ID: 3317

See also

Johanson, Donald C and Edey, Maitland A. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind
Page Number: 222

an owl-eyed young man

In the general rush to handle the fossils there was one person who hung back: an owl-eyed young man with thick glasses, lank blond hair and a White lab coat, who stood off to one side. I attributed that to shyness. I found out that the young man was an American who had worked at Koobi Fora for a couple of seasons as a paleontologist for Richard Leakey and who was now working for Richard's mother. His name was Tim White.

Not long ago I reminded Tim of that day. 'You were lurking in a corner as if you were too timid-to come out. Do you remember? I went over and introduced myself and we got talking.' 'I wasn't timid, for God's sake. I was just being sensibly cautious. Here you were, the smooth young hotshot, shooting off your mouth about all your great fossils. I'd never met you before. I didn't know if you could tell a hippo rib from a rhino tail. I was just waiting for you to fall on your face, say something really dumb.'

That brought a cackle from Owen Lovejoy, who was listening to the conversation. 'Tim's a show-rne man,' I explained. 'The original prickly, stubborn, I-won't-believe-it-until-you-can-prove-it-withfossils type. He'll argue with anybody about anything.' 'Don's a nail-polish salesman, a real operator. I felt I had to watch him. Also, he was buying all that guff about Homo at three million that the Leakeys were dishing out.' He turned to me. 'You were, you know. '

I wasn't buying it, ' I said. 1 was thinking it. In the context of what we knew at the time, it made sense to think it.'

It made sense if you swallowed a lot of junk about dates, and didn't bother to look at primitive dental features. It made sense if you were careless and naive.' 'Me careless? Naive?' 'Yeah, both.'

For all White's suspicions about me as a fly-boy at that first meeting in Nairobi, and for all my misinterpretation as shyness of what was actually an uncompromisingly cold approach to science, coupled with an idealism about it that made it hard for Tim truly to admire more than one or two people in the field, we got on well from the beginning. Tim discussed some of the fossils Mary Leakey was beginning to find at Laetoli. Finally he stepped forward to examine the Hadar specimens. After looking at them he said something that I will never forget: 1 think your fossils from Hadar and Mary's fossils from Laetoli may be the same.' He showed me a couple of them. They seemed nearly identical.

That was a stunner. The two places were a thousand miles apart. Provisional dating of the Laetoli specimens gave them an age of 3.7 million years. That was three-quarters of a million years older than the 3.0 million assigned to the Hadar basalt by Aronson, Granted, he had cautioned that the basalt might be older. But Basil Cooke's pig evidence that might confirm an older date was three years in the future.

Were the Hadar and Laetoli fossils one species? How on earth was that to be dealt with?

Tim and I agreed to keep in touch.

Extract ID: 3280

See also

Johanson, Donald C and Edey, Maitland A. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind
Page Number: 248

The world heard about the footprints

For several decades Laetoli had just missed as a hominid fossil site. Louis Leakey had a try there in 1935, but came up emptyhanded. He did not know that a tooth he had sent to the British Museum labeled as a baboon's was a hominid canine. Not only was it the first adult australopithecine tooth ever found, but it was the first of any kind since the discovery of the Taung Baby. Nevertheless, it lay unnoticed in the Museum collection until 1979, when it was spotted and properly identified by White.

Leakey, meanwhile, not realizing that he had had in his hand the oldest hominid fossil then known, packed up and moved to Olduvai. He was followed at Laetoli in 1938-1939 by a German named Kohl-Larsen, who recovered a bit of an upper jawbone with a couple of premolars in it, and a well-preserved alveolus - or socket - for a canine tooth.

The trouble with those early Laetoli finds was that they were far too old and far too primitive for anyone then to dream that they were not apes or monkeys; the imagination of the 1930s was simply not elastic enough to accommodate them, even though that same imagination was saying to itself, 'Look deeper into time for older ancestors.' This is an odd, schizophrenic view that still persists today.

By 1974, when Mary Leakey decided to have a go at Laetoli, her mind at least was ready to recognize and accept very old specimens of Homo. When one of the Leakey-trained Kenyan field experts, Karnoya Kimeu, took it upon himself to cut a road in to the deposits through the thicket and came out with a hominid, Mary Leakey moved in with a team of her own. In the next couple of years she or her workers found forty-two teeth, some of them associated with bits of jawbone. One in particular, LH-4 (Laetoli Hominid 4), was a fine specimen, a mandible with nine teeth in place.

But what sets Laetoli apart from every other site in the world is some footprints that have been found there, certainly one of the most extraordinary cases of preservation and discovery in all of paleoanthropology.

Laetoli has a nearby volcano, Sadiman, that is extinct today. Not quite four million years ago it was active. One day it spat out a cloud of carbonitite ash. This stuff has a consistency not unlike that of very fine beach sand, and it powdered down over the surrounding landscape in a layer that reached a thickness of about half an inch before the eruption stopped. This fall of superfine cinders must have been extremely unpleasant for the local animals and birds while it was coming down, but there is no evidence that it did more than make them uncomfortable, because they stayed in the area. That first puff of ash - probably not lasting more than a day - was followed by a rain. The ash became wet and, almost like a newly laid cement sidewalk, began taking clear impressions of everything that walked across it: elephants, giraffes, antelopes, hares, rhinos, pigs. There were also terrestrial birds like guinea fowl and ostriches, and even the small tracks of millipedes.

In the hot sun of Laetoli the wet ash layer quickly dried and hardened, preserving the footprints that crisscrossed it. Then, before it could rain again, Sadiman spoke a second time. Another cloud of ash drifted down, covering the first and sealing in the footprints. This happened a number of times over a period estimated to have been no longer than a month, producing a single volcanic tuff about eight inches thick. .But because of the periodic puffing of Sadiman and the periodic hardening of the ash that fell, the tuff is actually composed of between a dozen and two dozen distinct thin layers. Some of these layers have been exposed recently by erosion, and are visible here and there at Laetoli in the form of a gray substrate wherever the mat of coarse turf above them has been carried off.

One afternoon in 1976, some of the more boisterous members of Mary Leakey's field team were amusing themselves by throwing hunks of dried elephant dung at each other. This may seem a peculiar pastime, but recreational resources are limited on paleontological digs, and there are times when young spirits need to blow off steam. One who felt this urge was Andrew Hill, a paleontologist from the National Museum of Kenya, who, while ducking flying dung and looking for ammunition to fire back, found himself standing in a dry stream bed on some exposed ash layers. One of these had some unusual dents in it. When Hill paused to examine them, he concluded they probably were animal footprints. That diagnosis was confirmed when a larger area was surveyed and other prints found. But no serious effort was made to follow up this extraordinary discovery until the following year, 1977, when a number of large elephant tracks were found by Mary Leakey's son Philip and a co-worker, Peter Jones, and alongside them some tracks that looked suspiciously like human footprints.

The world heard about the footprints later that year when Mary Leakey came to the United States to report on them in a series of press conferences and interviews. To many it seemed almost inconceivable that anything so ephemeral as a footprint should have been preserved for so long. But Mary was positive about the hominid ones. She went on to describe the latter as having been made by a creature that was an imperfect walker; the prints indicated that it had shuffled. She also reported the probable presence at Laetoli of knuckle-walking apes and the existence of a water hole around which the animals and birds appeared to have clustered. She even saw some evidence of panic in the tracks, suggesting that the animals had been fleeing the eruption.

Those revelations by Mary Leakey electrified everybody who heard them. She resolved to devote much of the next season's effort at Laetoli to footprints, and asked the American footprint expert Louise Robbins to join her team. White went to the Laetoli site for the first time that year, and found three other young scientists there: Peter Jones, Paul Abell and Richard Hay. These men had some doubts about Mary's interpretation of the footprints. White questioned the presence of knuckle-walking apes; he had examined those prints and said that they had been made by large extinct baboons that walked flat-footed. Jones said there had been no panicky exodus from the area, because birds, which could have flown away easily and quickly, continued to walk about in the ash it was crisscrossed with their tracks. Hay could find no evidence of a water hole.

These disagreements made for a good many nights of heated argument in camp, during which the supposedly human footprints had their ups and downs. No one could agree on them. Then Paul Abell, prospecting alone one day, found a broken impression - but a much clearer one - that he said he was quite confident was a hominid print. White and Jones made some Polaroid shots of it and came back with a strong impression that Abell was right. They recommended that excavation in the area be started immediately. But Louise Robbins, the footprint expert, examined it and declared that it was the print of a bovid (a hoofed animal). She told Mary Leakey that further investigation would be a waste of time. The men objected.

By then Mary Leakey had become thoroughly exasperated by all the arguing that had been going on. She announced that there would be no excavation. Jones, now convinced that it was a hominid, continued to plead with her for permission to make an excavation. A very small one, he said, was all he asked. Mary was adamant. Louise Robbins, the authority, had spoken; there was too much incomplete excavation at the site already. If there was going to be any digging, let it be done by somebody who had nothing better to do. She pointed to Ndibo, the maintenance man, the man in camp with the least archeological training.

Ndibo, however, proved equal to the task. He returned to camp the next day and reported not one, but two footprints. One was very large. He held his hands up, about a foot apart.

'Those Africans are always exaggerating,' said Mary. But she did go out to have a look, and there they were. White was permitted to start an excavation.

The direction of the prints indicated that their maker had been walking north under some sections of turf that had not yet been eroded. Because of the dense tangle of roots at the bottom of the turf, the task of exposing a clear ash surface without destroying it - not to mention the exact ash out of a dozen or more thin layers of it turned out to be extraordinarily difficult. But Tim is an extraordinarily patient and determined man. He found another print, and then another. He proceeded to protect the prints by hardening them with a preservative, which he poured into them in very small amounts, letting the material dry and then strengthening it by adding more. Working with agonising slowness, he inched his way farther and farther into the turf and discovered that the trail consisted of the tracks of two hominids.

Now he had the riveted attention of the entire camp. Others joined the work and ultimately were able to reveal more than fifty prints covering a distance of seventy-seven feet. Louise Robbins, her interest in the footprints suddenly rekindled, issued another opinion: indeed there were two hominids; they were probably walking together; one (with slightly larger prints) was a male; the other, possibly pregnant she said, was a female; on the evidence of the prints, this type of hominid had been an erect walker for at least a million years.

These are entertaining speculations. There is no way of telling what sex the makers of the footprints were, if one was pregnant, or how long their ancestors had walked erect. The hard truth is that 3.7 million years ago erect hominids of indeterminate sex did walk through fresh-fallen ash at Laetoli and leave an imperishable record of their passing. After seventy-seven feet their trails disappeared under the overlying ash; the particular layer that marked it has been washed away. Tim's work on the footprints stopped at that point, which also marked the end of the season. But he felt strongly that the trail could be picked up again a little farther along and that it would yield more prints if proper excavation were carried out. Work in that direction was done in 1979 by Ron Clarke, and the trail picked up again.

Tim was not a party to this further work. His arguments with Louise Robbins over interpretation of the footprints have made him as unwelcome now at Laetoli as he is at Lake Turkana - a pity, because in each instance he was only trying to help the proprietors.

Tim's concern today is that as more prints are found, they be handled with the utmost care. They are supremely fragile, and the slightest mistake in excavating them can destroy them completely. Some have already been damaged. They are not like fossils, those rocklike models of durability. They are only spaces, mere shapes in a relatively soft and frangible matrix. If that matrix is nudged incorrectly, it will crumble - and the footprints will be gone.

But, by a wildly improbable linkage of random events, they are there. Sadiman had to blow out a particular kind of ash. Rain had to fall on it almost immediately. Hominids had to follow on the heels of the rain. The sun had to come out promptly and harden their footprints. Then another blast from Sadiman had to cover and preserve them before another obliterating shower came along.

All this had to happen over a period of only a few days. And the volcano had to synchronise its activity with that of the seasons. If its bursts had not come just when they did - at the beginning of the rains - the footprints would not have been preserved. A month or two earlier, during the dry season, the ash would not have had the consistency to take a sharp imprint. It would have been a hopelessly blurry one, a mere dent, like the one a passerby today makes in the dry sand on the upper margin of a beach. If it had come later, at the height of the rainy season, it is overwhelmingly likely that there would have' been too much rain; the footprints would have been washed away before they could have been baked hard by the sun. Indeed, there had to be just what the beginning of a rainy season produces: sporadic showers interspersed with intervals of hot sun.

All things considered, the preservation and recovery of the Laetoli footprints are nothing short of a miracle. They confirm without a shadow of a doubt what Lucy confirmed at Hadar: that hominids were fully erect walkers at three million B.C. and earlier. At Hadar the evidence is in the fossils, in the shape of leg and foot bones. But at Laetoli, where the fossil remains - some extremely scrappy and enigmatic postcranial bits, jaw parts, and some teeth - are of very poor quality, there is no way without the footprints of deducing how those hominids got around.

'Make no mistake about it.' says Tim. 'Thev are like modern footprints. If one were left in the sand of a California beach today, and a four-year-old were asked what it was, he would instantly say that somebody had walked there. He wouldn't be able to tell it from a hundred other prints on the beach, nor would you. The external morphology is the same. There is a well-shaped modern heel with a strong arch and a good ball of the foot in front of it. The big toe is straight in line. It doesn't stick out to the side like an ape toe, or like the big toe in so many drawings you see of australopithecines in books.

I don't mean to say that there may not have been some slight differences in the foot bones; that's to be expected. But to all intents and purposes, those Laetoli hominids walked like you and me, and not in a shuffling run, as so many people have claimed for so long. Owen Lovejoy deduced all that from studying the Hadar bones. Now the footprints prove him right. I think they rank with the most wonderful and illuminating discoveries in decades. Although it didn't end too happily for me, I'm still grateful that. I was lucky enough to have participated in the work on them.'

Extract ID: 3281

See also

1981 Publishes: Johanson, Donald C and Edey, Maitland A. Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind


Extract ID: 215

See also

Darch, Colin (Ed) Tanzania
Extract Author: Edited by Mary Douglas Leakey, John Michael Harris.
Page Number: 44 item 122
Extract Date: 1987

Laetoli: a Pliocene site in northern Tanzania.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. 561p. bibliog. plans.

This monograph is a lavish description of work carried out from 1974 to 1981 at one of the richest hominid sites in Africa, in northern Tanzania, at a place named after a local Maasai word for the lily. The book also contains a strong attack on the idea of a species named Australopithecus afarensis, proposed by Donald Johanson and others after the discovery of the 'Lucy' remains in Ethiopia in 1977. Mary Leakey first excavated at Laetoli in 1935 with the late Louis Leakey, but nobody realized for over forty years that this site was actually both richer and older than Olduvai and it was only in the mid-1970s that Mary Leakey returned to Laetoli to begin serious and systematic work. The Laetoli layers are in fact around 3.5 to 3.7 million years old, and include the famous footprints left, probably, by a man, a woman and a child strolling across an area of damp ash for a few moments, with a human gait. This comprehensive book covers the whole Laetoli succession in a wide range of disciplines, and brings together work from thirty-three contributors in fourteen carefully and systematically written chapters.

Unfortunately, T. D. White's descriptions of the hominid remains do not appear in this book, for reasons explained by M. Leakey in chapter 5. For White's most recent contribution on the footprints, see Tim D. White and Gen Suwa, 'Hominid footprints at Laetoli: facts and interpretations' (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 72 [April 1987], p. 485-514. bibliog.), dealing with the fossil footprints of the Australopithecines.

Extract ID: 3279

external link

See also

Scientific America
Extract Author: Marguerite Holloway
Extract Date: 1994 Oct

Mary Leakey: Unearthing History

This profile of Dr. Leakey, written by former news editor Marguerite Holloway, originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of Scientific American.

Mary Leakey waits for my next question, watching from behind a thin curtain of cigar smoke. Leakey is as famous for her precision, her love of strong tobacco--half coronas, preferably Dutch--and her short answers as she is for some of the most significant archaeological and anthropological finds of this century. The latter would have hardly been excavated without her exactitude and toughness. And in a profession scarred by battles of interpretation and of ego, Leakey's unwillingness to speculate about theories of human evolution is unique.

These characteristics have given Leakey a formidable reputation among journalists and some of her colleagues. So have her pets. In her autobiography, "Disclosing the Past," Leakey mentions a favorite dog who tended to chomp people whom the archaeologist didn't like, "even if I have given no outward sign." So as we talk in her home outside Nairobi, I sit on the edge of a faded sofa, smiling exuberantly at her two dalmatians, Jenny and Sam, waiting for one of them to bite me. I quickly note details-- her father's paintings on the wall, the array of silver trophies from dog shows and a lampshade with cave painting figures on it--in case I have to leave suddenly. But the two dogs and soon a cat and later a puppy sleep or play, and Leakey's answers, while consistently private, seem less terse than simply thoughtful.

Leakey first came to Kenya and Tanzania in 1935 with her husband, the paleontologist Louis Leakey, and except for forays to Europe and the U.S., she has been there ever since. During those many years, she introduced modern archaeological techniques to African fieldwork, using them to unearth stone tools and fossil remains of early humans that have recast the way we view our origins. Her discoveries made the early ape Proconsul, Olduvai Gorge, the skull of Zinjanthropus and the footprints of Laetoli, if not household names, at least terms familiar to many.

Leakey was born in England, raised in large part in France and appears to have been independent, exacting and abhorrent of tradition from her very beginnings. Her father, an artist, took his daughter to see the beautiful cave paintings at such sites as Fond de Gaume and La Mouthe and to view some of the stone and bone tools being studied by French prehistorians. As she has written, these works of art predisposed Leakey toward digging, drawing and early history: "For me it was the sheer instinctive joy of collecting, or indeed one could say treasure hunting: it seemed that this whole area abounded in obje cts of beauty and great intrinsic interest that could be taken from the ground."

These leanings ultimately induced Leakey at the age of about 17 to begin working on archaeological expeditions in the U.K. She also attended lectures on archaeology, prehistory and geology at the London Museum and at University College London. Leakey says she never had the patience for formal education and never attended university; she never attended her governesses either. (At the same time, she is delighted with her many honorary degrees: "Well, I have worked for them by digging in the sun.")

A dinner party following a lecture one evening led her, in turn, to Louis Leakey. In 1934 the renowned researcher asked Mary, already recognized for her artistic talents, to do the illustrations for a book. The two were soon off to East Africa. They made an extraordinary team. "The thing about my mother is that she is very low profile and very hard working," notes Richard E. Leakey, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, an iconoclast known for his efforts to ban ivory trading and a distinguished paleontologist. "Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father's career. He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician. He was much more excitable, a magician."

What the master and the magician found in their years of brushing away the past did not come easily. From 1935 until 1959 the two worked at various sites throughout Kenya and Tanzania, searching for the elusive remains of early humans. They encountered all kinds of obstacles, including harsh conditions in the bush and sparse funding. Success too was sparse--until 1948. In that year Mary found the first perfectly preserved skull and facial bones of a hominoid, Proconsul, which was about 16 million years old. This tiny Miocene ape, found on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, provided anthropologists with their first cranium from what was thought to be the missing link--a tree-dwelling monkey boasting a bigger brain than its contemporaries.

Proconsul was a stupendous find, but it did not improve the flow of funds. The Leakeys remained short of financial support until 1959. The big break came one morning in Olduvai Gorge, an area of Tanzania near the Great Rift Valley that slices East Africa from north to south. Again it was Mary who made the discovery. Louis was sick, and Mary went out to hunt around. Protruding slightly from one of the exposed sections was a roughly 1.8-million-year-old hominid skull, soon dubbed Zinjanthropus. Zinj became the first of a new group--Australopithecus boisei--and the first such skull to be found in East Africa.

"For some reason, that skull caught the imagination," Leakey recalls, pausing now and then to relight her slowly savored cigar or to chastise a dalmatian for being too forward. "But what it also did, and that was very important for our point of view, it caught the imagination of the National Geographic Society, and as a result they funded us for years. That was exciting."

How Zinj fits into the family tree is not something Leakey will speculate about. "I never felt interpretation was my job. What I came to do was to dig things up and take them out as well as I could," she describes. "There is so much we do not know, and the more we do know, the more we realize that early interpretations were completely wrong. It is good mental exercise, but people get so hot and nasty about it, which I think is ridiculous."

I try to press her on another bone of contention: Did we Homo sapiens emerge in Africa, or did we spring up all over the world from different ancestors, a theory referred to as the multiregional hypothesis? Leakey starts to laugh. "You'll get no fun out of me over these things. If I were Richard, I would talk to you for hours about it, but I just don't think it is worth it." She pauses. "I really like to feel that I am on solid ground, and that is never solid ground."

In the field, Leakey was clearly on terra firma. Her sites were carefully plotted and dated, and their stratigraphy--that is, the geologic levels needed to establish the age of finds--was rigorously maintained. In addition to the hominid remains found and catalogued at Olduvai, Leakey discovered tools as old as two million years: Oldowan stone tools. She also recorded how the artifacts changed over time, establishing a second form, Developed Oldowan, that was in use until some 500,000 years ago.

"The archaeological world should be grateful that she was in charge at Olduvai," notes Rick Potts, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who is studying Olorgesailie, a site about an hour south of Nairobi where the Leakeys found ancient stone axes in 1942. Now, as they did then, the tools litter the White, sandy Maasai savanna. The most beautiful ones have been stolen, and one of Leakey's current joys is that the Smithsonian is restoring the site and its small museum and plans to preserve the area.

Olduvai Gorge has not fared as well. After years of residence and work there, and after the death of Louis in 1972, Mary finally retired in 1984. Since then, she has worked to finish a final volume on the Olduvai discoveries and has also written a book on the rock paintings of Tanzania. "I got too old to live in the bush," she explains. "You really need to be youngish and healthy, so it seemed stupid to keep going." Once she left, however, the site was ignored. "I go once a year to the Serengeti to see the wildebeest migrations because that means a lot to me, but I avoid Olduvai if I can because it is a ruin. It is most depressing." In outraged voice, she snaps out a litany of losses: the abandoned site, the ruined museum, the stolen artifacts, the lost catalogues. "Fortunately, there is so much underground still. It is a vast place, and there is plenty more under the surface for future generations that are better educated."

Leakey's most dramatic discovery, made in 1978, and the one that she considers most important, has also been all but destroyed since she left the field. The footprints of Laetoli, an area near Olduvai, gave the world the first positive evidence of bipedalism. Three hominids (generally identified as Australopithecus afarensis ) had walked over volcanic ash, which fossilized, preserving their tracks. The terrain was found to be about 3.6 million years old. Although there had been suggestions in the leg bones of other hominid fossils, the footprints made the age of bipedalism incontrovertible. "It was not as exciting as some of the other discoveries, because we did not know what we had," she notes. "Of course, when we realized what they were, then it was really exciting."

Today the famous footprints may only be salvaged with the intervention of the Getty Conservation Institute. "Oh, they are in a terrible state," Leakey exclaims. "When I left, I covered them over with a mound of river sand and then some plastic sheeting and then more sand and a lot of boulders on top to keep the animals off and the Maasai off." But acacia trees took root and grew down among the tracks and broke them up.

Although Leakey steers clear of controversy in her answers and her writings, she has not entirely escaped it. She and Donald Johanson, a paleontologist at the Institute of Human Origins in Berkeley, Calif., have feuded about the relation between early humans found in Ethiopia and in Laetoli. (Johanson set up his organization as a philosophical counterweight to the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation.) And some debate erupted about how many prints there were at Laetoli. Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley claimed that there were only two and that Leakey and her crew had made the other track with a tool during excavation. Leakey's response? "It was a nonsense," she laughs, and we are on to the next subject.

A subject Leakey does not like. "'What was it like to be a woman? A mother? A wife?' I mean that is all such nonsense," she declares. Leakey--like many other female scientists of her generation, including Nobel laureates Rita Levi-Montalcini and Gertrude Belle Elion--dislikes questions about being a woman in a man's field. Her sex played no role in her work, she asserts. She just did what she wanted to do. "I was never conscious of it. I am not lying for the sake of anything. I never felt disadvantaged."

Leakey just did her work, surviving bitter professional wars in anthropolog y and political upheavals. In 1952 Louis, who had been made a member of the Kikuyu tribe during his childhood in Africa, was marked for death during the Mau Mau uprising. The four years during the height of the rebellion were terrifying for the country. The brakes on Mary's car were tampered with, and a relative of Louis's was murdered. The house that Leakey lives in today was designed during this time: a low, White square structure with a central courtyard where the dogs can run at night.

These pets are very important to Leakey--a source of companionship and safety out in the bush. She admires the traits in them that others admire in her: independence and initiative. (Any small joy that I have about emerging from her house unbitten fades sadly when I reread the section in her autobiography about her telepathic dalmatian and learn that he died years ago.)

We seem to have covered everything, and so she reviews her discoveries aloud. "But you have not mentioned the fruits," she reminds me. One of Leakey's favorite finds is an assortment of Miocene fossils: intact fruits, seeds, insects--including one entire ant nest--and a lizard with its tongue hanging out. They lay all over the sandy ground of Rusinga Island. "We only found them because we sat down to smoke a cigarette, hot and tired, and just saw all these fruits lying on the ground next to us. Before that we had been walking all over them all over the place." She stops. "You know, you only find what you are looking for, really, if the truth be known."

Extract ID: 3304

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Genesis International Research Association
Page Number: 2
Extract Date: 1997

GIRA: Why the human feet?

2. Why the human feet?

During the time Johanson was discovering various bone fragments of several afarensis specimens in Ethiopia, Mary Leakey had a field party at Laetoli, Tanzania about 30 miles south of Olduvai (Figure 3). She had also discovered afarensis bone fragments within the Laetoli Beds of Pliocene age (Figures 1 & 3). On the upper surface of the Laetoli Beds, her team discovered a thin layer of volcanic ash in which they found numerous footprints of birds and animals. They found footprints of rabbits, guinea fowl, rhinos, giraffes, elephants and several kinds of animals that no longer exist in Africa. They also found human footprints showing both heel and big toe marks of an adult and a child (p.24 of Human Origins, Leakey). These were human footprints, because apes do not have a heel bone. Mary Leakey also reported the footprints of knuckle walking apes. So, the following season she brought an American footprint expert, Louise Robbins, to confirm the find. Anthropologists Tim Whyte, Peter Jones, Paul Able, and Richard Hay were also on the team. Mary's knuckle walking footprints, a water hole and evidence of a panicky exodus which she had observed the year before were questioned. The arguments regarding her interpretation became so intense, over several days, that Mary became thoroughly exasperated, to the point where she threatened the suspension of the Field Party and that there would be no more excavation that season (Johanson & Edey,p.246-247).

Do you not believe Mary Leakey, Louis Leakey's wife, knew what knuckle walking footprints looked like? She had lived in Africa for years, where modern day, knuckle walking, apes lived.

Is it possible that her peers realized that if these footprints were ape footprints they would then be faced with an unsurmountable problem of having to reconstruct their hominid with apes feet instead of human feet?

It would have destroyed their Darwinian Thesis that afarenses could have been an upright walking human ancestor.

Extract ID: 3297

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The Talk Origins Archive

Creationist Arguments: Anomalous Fossils: Laetoli footprints

Laetoli footprints: according to most creationists, these are modern human footprints that are dated at 3.7 million years ago, long before humans were meant to exist. Creationists emphasize the close resemblance between these and modern human footprints, but often neglect to mention their extremely small size and the fact they may also be similar to the feet of the australopithecines living at the same time. Exactly how similar they are is a matter of some debate.

Tuttle (1990) thinks the footprints are too human-like to belong to A. afarensis, and suggests they may belong to another species of australopithecine, or an early species of Homo. Johanson, who has often said that Lucy was fully adapted to a modern style of bipedality, claims (Johanson and Edgar 1996) that the A. afarensis foot bones found at Hadar, when scaled down to an individual of Lucy's size, fit the prints perfectly. Stern and Susman (1983), who have argued that Lucy's foot and locomotion were bipedal but not yet fully human-like, believe that the footprints show subtle differences from human prints and could have been made by afarensis. Clarke (1999) believes that the Laetoli tracks could have been made by feet very similar to those of the new australopithecine fossil Stw 573.

In short, there is a wide range of opinions about the nature of the footprints and whether A. afarensis could have made them. Most creationists usually cite only Tuttle, whose conclusions they find most convenient. The most honest conclusion, for now, is to admit that although no-one can be entirely sure what made the Laetoli footprints, it seems quite likely that they belonged to australopithecines.

Extract ID: 3302
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