British-born Kenyan palaeontologist and anthropologist whose discoveries of fossil hominids in east Africa established that region as the likely origin of Homo sapiens.
Leakey was born in Kenya, where his parents were missionaries, and attended Weymouth College and St John's College, Cambridge. Following an injury while playing rugby, he took leave from his studies and joined an archaeological expedition to east Africa, the first of many. His PhD in 1929 was for a thesis about a Stone Age site in Kenya. He later spent two years studying the customs of the Kikuyu tribe, among which he had lived as a boy. He worked for British Intelligence in Nairobi during World War II and afterwards was appointed curator of the Coryndon Memorial Museum, Nairobi (1945–61). Working on Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria in 1948, Leakey discovered a skull of Proconsul africanus, an apelike ancestor of modern primates, which lived 25–40 million years ago. Leakey concentrated his search for further fossil remains in east Africa, especially in the Olduvai Gorge in what is now northern Tanzania. In 1959, his wife Mary Leakey (1913–96) discovered the upper jaw and palate of a hominid, named Zinjanthropus by Leakey and now called Australopithecus boisei. In 1964 his son, Richard Leakey (1944– ), found a lower jaw of the same type. The Leakeys also unearthed fragments of another hominid, Homo habilis, which had a larger brain than the australopithecines. Leakey maintained that this was ancestral to Homo sapiens while Zinjanthropus, which lived at the same time, eventually died out, a view currently favoured by palaeontologists. Leakey gave many lectures throughout the world and wrote many books, including Adam's Ancestors (1934), Olduvai Gorge (1952), and Unveiling Man's Origins (1968). Although Leakey's interpretation of his finds was often questioned, their value remains undisputed.