Happy Birthday, Zinjanthropus

Celebration / by Sean B. Carroll /

The Leakeys’ discovery of the “Nutcracker Man” 50 years ago electrified the scientific community and refocused thinking about the origin of humans back on Africa.

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Photo courtesy of The Leakey Foundation 

This week we celebrated two achievements that occurred a decade apart, exactly 40 and 50 years ago. These advances sparked a profound change in our perspective of who we are, of our past, and of our future. The more recent of the two milestones is the signal achievement of the Space Age: the first manned landing and walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. The images and heroes of that epic are familiar (and rightly so), and much was said on this occasion about the impact of the Apollo program.

But we also marked the anniversary of a much less well-remembered, giant leap in the progress of our species—in our understanding of humankind’s biological and technological roots in the Stone Age. On July 17, 1959, after almost three decades of searching, Mary and Louis Leakey found the first hominid fossil remains in East Africa, at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Their discovery electrified the scientific community, made headlines around the globe, and refocused thinking about the origin of humans back upon Africa.

The moonshot was the epitome of what the collective talent and massive resources of a nation can accomplish. The fragmented skull of a small-brained biped was the reward for the indefatigable efforts of two iconoclasts willing to live for years in the bush, just barely scraping by, in the hope of finding something that would upend the scientific world. It is that spirit as well as the substance of their landmark discovery that I wish to celebrate.

Accustomed as we are now to thinking about Africa as the cradle of humankind, it may seem hard to fathom that this was in doubt until as recently as the Leakeys’ find. Back in 1871, Darwin had speculated that humans originated in Africa based on our resemblance to chimpanzees and gorillas. But others thought us more closely related to Asian apes such as the gibbon or orangutan. In the early 1890s, Dutch physician Eugene Dubois discovered a fossil hominid (now known as Homo erectus) on the island of Java. With additional discoveries in China in the 1920s, most anthropologists and paleontologists favored an Asian origin for humanity.

But not Louis Leakey. The son of British missionaries who raised him largely in Kenya, young Louis often encountered stone tools scattered about the Rift Valley. He decided early on that identifying the makers of those tools would be his life’s quest and managed to make his way to Cambridge to study anthropology and archeology. When he divulged his desire to search for early humans in Africa, one professor told him not to waste his time since “everyone knew he had started in Asia.”

Mary Nicol also had a passion for archeology. The daughter of a well-traveled landscape painter, Mary lived in several countries as a child. A rebellious student, she was expelled from several schools. The cave paintings of southern France cast a spell on her, however, and despite her spotty schooling, she managed to find work assisting on archeological digs and as an illustrator. Her work caught Louis’s eye and he asked Mary to illustrate a small book he was writing about the Stone Age. She agreed. And though Louis was married at the time, the two kindred spirits fell in love. Mary soon joined Louis in Africa.

They first visited Olduvai Gorge together in 1935. Traveling from Ngorogoro Crater to the Serengeti plains, and then on to the gorge, Mary was captivated by the dramatic landscape and the spectacular wildlife. Mary and Louis married and decided to make East Africa their home.

Mary quickly proved herself an exceptional archeologist, much more thorough than Louis. She pioneered techniques for excavating habitation sites and for cataloguing the large numbers of artifacts associated with them. Everywhere that she and Louis dug they found tools—first hundreds, then thousands, and then tens of thousands. There were hand axes, cleavers, scrapers, choppers, and other implements. They also found heaps of fossil animal bones, many with tell-tale butchery marks that revealed how some of the tools were being used by early Africans. But as for the toolmakers themselves, they were still phantoms.

Years passed and little Leakeys arrived, three boys and a daughter—although the girl died tragically when just three months old.

The parents continued to find more tools. On a weekend trip to Olorgesailie in Kenya, they discovered hordes of hand axes and choppers lying on the surface of the land that were later found to be more than 700,000 years old.

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