The Magnificent Mary Leakey
Mary Leakey died on December 9, 1996. She loved to smoke Dutch cigars, as if everyday were some kind of celebration; strong tobacco was one of her vices. Hers was a life of constant commencement. She never attended colleges, though she did receive numerous honorary degrees in Britain and America: "I have worked for them by digging in the sun," she said.
She first gained recognition in 1948 for discovering a 16 million year old fossilized cranium of a hominid thought to be the missing link, one she called "Proconsul". But she only found it and named it.
"I never felt interpretation was my job," she said. "What I came to do was to dig up things and take them out as well as I could. There is so much that 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." She really was a no-nonsense woman, one who was perhaps more preoccupied with nonsense than she realized. As an explorer of concrete material, her primary and determined pursuit of fossils, bones, and human origins antagonized the speculative nature of her profession. She found beauty in the tangible history of human ancestry. "What was it like?" was simply not a question she entertained. More important was the question "What was it?"
Once, three "man-apes," as Leakey called them, traversed a plain, accidentally leaving some of the most formidable scientific data we have about our ancestor-cousins. Is that how it happens? Is our universe a continuum of chaos out of which we construct a simplicity that is both pleasing and functional? And is ours a reality by these attempts—or perhaps because of them—that is defiant, and is the universe speaking contumely by working toward some monolithic, seemingly deliberate reckoning?
"Fortunately," Leakey said, "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."
She found the footprints in Tanzania. They are the accidental byproduct of a deliberate walk by three hominids so long ago, but were only footprints to her. Never mind the "functional, morphological, and behavioral variables of bovid limb morphology as they relate to locomotor patterns." It was a stroll, one that may have been similar to her own there on the Laetolil Bed. Could her footprints have looked that much different?
Annie Dillard, in her book For the Time Being, writes:
On the dry Laetoli plain of northern Tanzania, Mary Leakey found a trail of hominid footprints. The three barefoot people—likely a short man and woman and child australopithicus—walked closely together. They walked on moist volcanic tuff and ash. We have a record of those few seconds from a day about 3.6 million years ago—before hominids even chipped stone tools. More ash covered the footprints and hardened like...