Mary Leakey: Matriarch to three generations of archaeology royalty

Beginning with Louis and Mary Leakey, the Leakey family has made a name for itself in archaeology and anthropology.

Courtesy of The Leakey Foundation
Mary Leakey 100th birthday: Celebrated with a Google Doodle today, the famed paleontologist did not slow down her work to parent. She brought her three sons to the dig site as babies.

She was a talented artist, specializing in early Stone Age, able to flawlessly draw early tools and artifacts. He had a passion for fossils since he found arrowheads and tools as a child. Together, Mary and Louis Leakey would change the scientific world and leave a lasting family legacy.

It was 1936 when they married, unknowingly creating the family that would go on to dominate paleoanthropology. They had three sons, one of which inherited the family business. Since then, at least one member of each generation of Leakey children has been involved in major paleoanthropological finds.

According to, Richard Leakey, second son of Louis and Mary, first resisted the family business. Richard was hard working, smart, stubborn, and resented the idea of riding on his family name, causing a strained relationship with his father. Richard first dropped out of high school and joined the trapping and skeleton industry. This business would later become safari tours and when he became dissatisfied with that industry, Richard returned to his paleoanthropological roots.

In 1967, Richard, flying back from Nairobi, diverted from his path and flew over what is now Lake Turkana. He was surprised to see sediments and not the expected volcanic rock below him. He later returned to the region, finding tools and fossils. In 1969, Richard unearthed a Paranthropus boisei skull in the Koobi Fora region, near Lake Turkana. The skull catapulted Richard into his family business. 

Louise Leakey, born in 1972, has continued the Leakey legacy. As Richard's eldest child, Lousie joined her parents on expeditions when she was just a few weeks old. In 1977, Louise, at the age of 6, became the youngest person to find hominid fossils. In 1999, Louise and her mother, Meave, would find one of the most recent hominid fossil discoveries, the skull of Kenyanthropus platyops.

Not all of the Leakey children went into the family business. Though briefly involved in paleoanthropology, Richard’s brother, Jonathan changed careers. Jonathan made a major Homo Habilis discovery at the Olduvai that later became known as OH 7. However, feeling that the family was already well involved in the field, Jonathan turned to snake farming.

The youngest of Mary Leakey’s children, Philip, never went into the business. He chose to become a part of the Kenyan government, serving as a member of parliament and a cabinet minister until losing his seat in 1992. He and his wife, Katy, currently run The Leakey Collection, a company that exports handmade Maasai crafts.

From Louis to Louise, three generations of the Leakey family have made history. Louise, who continues her mother's work, has two daughters. Although Louise’s children, born in 2004 and 2006, are now far too young to make a decision, if history proves anything, one of those two girls will be the heir to the Leakey family business. 

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