ML 139377

AudioDateDownLeftRightUpCloseReportGallerySettingsGiftLanguageGridListMapMenuPhotoPlayPlusSearchStarUserVideo

Interview :04 - 36:32 Play :04 - More
Audio »
More
Video »
Browse
species »
Virginia Morrell  

Age/Sex
Identification
Solicitation
Behavior
Note

 

100%

 

 

 

Leakey family biography; Human origins  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
1 Jun 1999

    Geography
  • United States
    Oregon
    Jackson County
    Locality
  • Ashland; Jefferson Public Radio
    Latitude/Longitude
  • 42.19139   -122.70083
    Channels
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Recorders
    Microphones
    Accessories
    Equipment Note
  • Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono

Virginia Morell
with Don Smith
Jefferson Public Radio
6/1/99

Starts with Don prepping her¿

DS
00:00:30 Tell me your name and what you do. 00:00:33

VM
00:00:34 My name is Virginia Morell and I am a writer. I am a biographer of the Leakey family. I wrote a book that was published in 1995, Ancestral Passions; the Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind¿s beginnings. It¿s the first biography of the entire Leakey family. That was by Simon and Schuster.

DS
00:00:54You¿re a science writer?00:00:56

VM
00:00:57 Yes, I also work for the Journal of Science as a correspondent and I write for National Geographic Magazine.

DS
00:01:03 We are doing this piece on the Leakeys¿(Conversational asides between Don and Virginia) Start with the big question. Asses the work of the Leakeys in the context of the century. What more do we know?00:02:43

VM
00:02:44 (Begins and then is cut off by Don¿.. Standby.. Technical asides) 00:05:11 When Louis and Mary started looking for human origins in East Africa, actually Louis started about 1926 and he started looking in East Africa because he had grown up there and at the time very little was known about human origins overall. There was a general feeling that people had evolved in Eastern Asia, probably somewhere in China and very little attention was focused on Africa so Louis was really a pioneer and a rebel and he had been told by some of his professors at Cambridge University that he was certainly wasting his time going to look in Africa at all, that everyone knew that humans had evolved in China, so why was he bothering to look in East Africa where he had grown up. But he was quite certain that based on his own understanding of Africa because he had grown up there and also because of Charles Darwin¿s writings which he had argued that probably we would find our ancestors in Africa because that¿s where you found gorillas and chimpanzees. So Louis felt that we would find our first clues or first traces of human ancestry in Africa as well. And so, he was very much a rebel and a pioneer. And he started his first expeditions, his first ones in 1926 and was joined about 10 years. Later by Mary who had been a protégé of his. She had illustrated a number of his books and they had subsequently fallen in love and had run off to East Africa together, about 1935.

DS
00:06:47 So you can attribute the belief that humans developed in Africa to Louis? 00:06:59

VM
00:06:59 That was very much Louis¿s idea and there were other people certainly were looking in South Africa. People had found material as well that suggested that Africa was going to be the primary continent. But it wasn¿t a widely accepted notion. There was probably a little bit of racism involved in that thinking. And also some of the earliest fossils had been found in Indonesia and China but Louis thought that we could push our human ancestry even further back if we were to concentrated in Africa and he knew that there were good fossil exposures, the kind of landscape where you would find fossils. He knew that kind of landscape was there in Kenya and he thought that hat was the place to look. He always had this kind of intuition and sort of a way of jumping ahead of his fellow scientists that irritated them. But he would follow upon his hunches and in this particular case he was absolutely right. And once, it took the Leakeys a long time to actually find the material that actually showed that that was the case, but once they had made their biggest discoveries, which happened in the late 50¿s and early 60¿s, everyone was looking at East Africa as the prime place and people told me that it became and absolute bone rush. People just, everyone knew that that was the place then to look and it was certainly based on the Leaky family discoveries.

DS
00:08:19 Louis knew at an early age that he wanted to be an archeologist. 00:08:28

VM
00:08:29 Yes, he did. He¿d received a book about Stone Age man as it was called from an aunt as a Christmas present. An aunt in England had sent it out to him and he was growing up as a missionary¿s son in Kenya and he¿d looked, and when he looked in this book there were drawings of stone tools that these Stone age Men had made and I think that that world was somewhat close to the kind of people that he was living with. Not that the Kikuyu were Stone Age but they certainly dressed still in animal skins and used spears and bows and arrows and things of that sort and Louis was looking around the country around him and he was would find these pieces of obsidian that were chipped and shaped exactly like the stone tools in his book and he showed them to the museum director at the museum there in Nairobi and he was told in fact, that they are stone tools and so all of this was very inspiring to him and he decided right at that time, he was just about 13 years old, that that was going to be his life¿s calling, and he was going to do everything that he possibly could to find out about Stone Age man.

DS
00:09:32 And right there in E. Africa? 00:09:34

VM
00:09:35 And in East Africa, yes.

DS
00:09:37 So he went to Cambridge then back to E. Africa and joined by Mary. Was she an artist, interested in archeology or¿?00:09:48

VM 00:09:49 It¿s hard to say about Mary, she was sort of both, she certainly was strongly interested in archeology. She¿d grown up partly in France. Her father was a landscape painter and they¿d spent a good part of her childhood in France and he had died when she was a young girl. But before he passed away he had taken her to some of the early cave art sites that they had found in France and they were doing digs in them and they were allowed to look through all of the leftover, all of the material that the archeologists weren¿t interested in and she found all these broken stone tools and things and she too developed a real passion for the field. She was a very much a rebellious young woman and she managed to get herself thrown out of her secondary school, that would be like high school. But it wasn¿t as if she wanted to stop learning. She then chose to go off to the University of London audit courses on archeology. And became great friends with a number of women archeologists and worked on their digs and, developed all the skills that she would need as an archeologist and then used her artistic ability to illustrate the finds that they were making. So, she was introduced to Louis at a dinner that was being held in his honor, he had found a number of important fossils in East Africa at this point, this would be about 1934, 33, 34. He was 30 years old and he was already being celebrated as the rising young star of human origins. So, there was a dinner held in his honor, she was introduced to him at the dinner. And he was, he actually hired her then to illustrate a book of his that he was working on and that particular work association then led to a friendship and then to a very passionate love affair. Louis was married at the time and the father of one baby girl and his wife was pregnant with her second child so it was quite a scandalous romance.

DS
00:11:50 And this was kind of a pattern that he was setting?00:11:53

VM
00:11:54 Yes, he always had an eye for the ladies and in turn they always had an eye for Louis. There was something about Louis that drew women to him. For starters, I think he genuinely liked women and simply not in a sexual way. He appreciated them, he enjoyed talking to women. I think for a lot of women particularly in that time from the 30¿s to the 50¿s it was unusual to have a man actually ask you your opinions and draw you out and be interested in you as a person. And Louis was interested in women and he enjoyed their company and in many cases this proved seductive.

DS
00:12:32 How was their relationship?00:12:38

VM
00:12:39 Oh I think that it was very passionate. Just the few glimpses.. Mary was a very reserved woman, very private, very shy. When I would interview her it was always difficult, you felt, it was always as if you were sort of interviewing Queen Victoria. She would sit there. She usually wore a very pressed, white blouse that was impeccably pressed and absolutely starched clean and a navy blue skirt that covered her knees and her practical shoes and she smoked these little black cigars and she had one bad eye and she had her glasses and she would sit absolutely soldier straight and she fix you with this stare and you would have to ask her your questions and it was quite and ordeal. It was obviously awkward to ask her too much about how romantically she and Louis were involved but she did say to me that she did feel that it was because of that early romance that their marriage endured many of the other things, hardships, the lack of money, the arduousness of the work that they undertook in looking for human art and fossils .And just then the various friendships with other women that Mary had to put up with, or Mary chose to put up with. But initially yes, she was warned by people that although Louis was very brilliant and very close to being a genius, if not a genius it was also akin to a certain madness and that she should be careful. But, I think that they were just absolutely, passionately in love and that overrode every consideration.

DS
00:14:23 She was a very good fossil hunter 00:14:24

VM
00:14:25 Yes, she had a very keen eye for the fossils and actually found some of the first ones that helped ease their financial situation. Because they did break the rules of society then and Louis left his wife to take Mary with him to Africa and they weren¿t married, he ruined his chances for a career at Cambridge University and actually at any University in England. He was sort of blacklisted at that time. This was 1935. So he got a, he had various odd jobs that he was doing in Kenya and then they would go off and spend every spare nickel that they had looking for fossils or archeological sites and in 1948 she had found the first really truly big discovery that they had of a fossil of an early type of ape called Proconsul and it was dated, now we know to about 18 million years ago. That¿s how old fossil this fossil was, and it was very intact skull and it landed Louis, once again on the front page, Mary too. Although here was once again this feeling that because he was the trained scientist and she was regarded more as his helper or partner at that time.
And subsequently then, she went on to find things such as the major discovery at Oldivi Gorge in Tanzania where they spent years and years searching. I think that they spent 30 years knowing that there had to be fossils of they early Hominids, these early humans there because their stone tools were everywhere littering the gorge but they couldn¿t seem to find the bones that went along with the tools and then one day in 1959, Mary came across just the upper part, or the lower jaw of this fossil which Louis eventually named ---rapus and it was the first indication that yes indeed they would find the bones of our ancestors in Tanzania, in East Africa and associated with stone tools.

DS
00:16:25 And then she found the famous footprints.00:16:27

VM
00:16:27 And she also found the famous footprints. That was later in her career after Louis had passed away. She found and she put on all the digs at Oldivi Gorge and she directed the excavations there and through those excavations there, actually their children, Jonathan found the first pieces of a fossil that was called Homohabalus, it became known as man, the toolmaker and it was thought that that particular early human had made the earliest tools that were found in Oldivi Gorge that were dated about 2 million years ago.

DS
00:17:01 It was Mary who found ---rapus, the footprints at Lytoli. So who is the more important Paleontologist, Louis or Mary? 00:17:18

VM
00:17:19 It¿s a very tricky thing to say because certainly any time you go out to look for fossils it¿s a bit of a treasure hunt and what has to be said first although, to put this all in context is that Louis had the vision, it was Louis¿s idea that East Africa was the place to look for these things. And early on in his career, he or members of his team did find important fossils or stone tools that began to show that yes, East Africa had a prehistoric past, something that was highly disputed. So, when Mary joined him, she joined his vision. But it was Louis who had the idea and it was Louis who had first found stone tools at Oldivi Gorge and who was absolutely convinced that this was the place to look. And Mary may have had a better eye when it came to fossils although, Louis himself, he found the first skull of Homoerectus, which is our most immediate ancestor at Oldivi Gorge, too. So, he wasn¿t just sitting on his honches, letting her do all the work, not by a long shot.

DS
00:18:22 They worked for along time before they had success. 00:18:26

VM
00:18:27 Yes, they spent about 30 years. The first trip that Louis made to Oldivi Gorge was, I believe about 1930 and Mary was not on that expedition but Louis had organized it with a German fellow who had gone to the Gorge sometime in the late teens or early 20¿s and this fellow had determined that there were certainly the bones of ancient mammals things, odd looking elephants and curious looking giraffes that were extinct mammals were there. The kinds of things that you would expect. But he thought, no you aren¿t going to find any human fossils there. But Louis was absolutely certain that Hans Wreck was wrong and he organized an expedition and took Hans Wreck with him and as soon as they drove to the Gorge, got to the edge of it, it was this mammoth expedition, from Nairobi, it took them days to drive down to the edge of Oldivi Gorge and Louis immediately, ran down the slopes and came down with a hand ax and said, see, I know that they are here. So, yes, but from that point from 1959 so from 1930 basically, to 1959 all they found at the Gorge were stone tools and they had no verification that they would actually find the bones that went along with the tools until Mary found the lower jaw in 1959 which they then named ---rapus.

DS
00:19:54 Were they discouraged? 00:19:55

VM
00:19:56 I don¿t think so because they., part of the reason that kept them going was that it wasn¿t as if they were looking everyday for 30 years. I think if that had been the case you might say that they were completely wacky to keep persisting but they would go down, and Louis was the director of The Natural History Museum in Kenya in Nairobi and he had a 2 week leave every year and they would pack up and they would either go down to Oldivi Gorge to look for fossil and they had other sites in Eastern Kenya where they would look also. So they would spend about 2 weeks. A year intensively searching and trying to find the material that would back up their claims, of course when you had that small of a window of opportunity, it¿s going to take you much longer to explore and area that¿s as large as Oldivi Gorge so it¿s really quite remarkable that they found anything at all.

DS
00:20:51 But they never thought to give up? 00:20:54

VM
00:20:55 Not that I could ever detect from any of their writings or letters. Every time they went they would make discoveries. They would find tools, they would find say like the bones of a hippo and the scattering of tools around it which indicated that humans had sat there and carved up this animal and taken it somewhere to eat. So, they were always finding things that gave them a better idea that yes, people were here, we just have to keep looking and finding the bones, they must be in the Gorge here somewhere and Louis had this ability, I think, that he could picture the Gorge at the time of early humans. He had a very vivid imagination so whenever he would find say, a pile of bones and the tools surrounding them that showed that these people had been there he was quite certain that there had to be a place where he would find the human bones as well and I¿m sure all of that just kept him going.

DS
00:21:55 Let¿s talk about Oldivi Gorge. Where? What? Why? Etc.. 00:22:01

VM
00:22:02 Oldivi Gorge is part of the Rift valley which is a big split in the earth in East Africa and it¿s what¿s important about it is that¿ several million years ago it was part of a big plain in East Africa and there was a big lake there, Oldivi lake and there were streams coming down to the lake and it was a very lush landscape, very different from what it is today. Today it is a very dry savanna and there is just a seasonal stream the Oldivi Stream that runs through the Gorge but at the time that our ancestors were living there it was an extremely lush landscape full of animals and grasses and fish and quite beautiful, I would think. At any rate, as time went by, the land changed. There were earthquakes and volcanoes and erupting and the land was covered over by ashes and also some of the land was lifted up, some of it had dropped down because of fault activity from earthquakes. And all of this earlier period was buried by earth and sediments and ash fall layers and because it was buried some of these things such as the hand axes and the bones of some of these early ancestors were buried and they were preserved and then over time as the Gorge began to open up again, as the earthquake faults began to separate the earth and wind and the erosion from the Oldivi Stream would cut back down through the earth and it would expose layers of these past events so that if you walk along the edge, the sides of the Gorge you are sort of walking through past time and the bottom of the Gorge exposes landscape from about 2 million years ago and all the way up to the top. I think the last layer that they look at is about 100,000 years ago. So, you have this like layer cake of past evolutionary events that we look at and so you can see, these are the early stone tools, these very primitive stone tools, found on the lower levels of the Gorge 2 million years ago and as you go up trough the layers of the Gorge you encounter changes in the tools as people become more technologically advanced and you see changes in the animals and you see changes in the human fossils. And it¿s so important because it gives you this continuous layer of human evolution which is very rare to see. I don¿t think that there¿s another site where you have such a continuos record from 2 million years ago up to our most immediate ancestors, early homosapiens.

DS
00:24:59 They found a lot, some headlines. Which discovery was the most important? 00:25:18

VM
00:25:19 Well, certainly the sum total because it gave us such a picture of our origins from 18- 20 million years ago when they began to find, when they found the first ape-like creature up until early Homosapiens 100,000 years or so ago but the find that really put the Leakeys on the map was the find in 1959 that Mary found at Oldivi Gorge the fossil that they called ---rapus. This big toothed, big jawed creature with a crest that ran down the center of his skull that would have anchored big chewing muscles. And the reason that skull was so important was not only because it was so complete and it was the first skull from Oldivi Gorge but because at that time there were some young scientists at Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley, who devised a new dating technique and they could actually go to the Gorge they could take samples of the soil, the volcanic ash
and they could date that volcanic ash. And when they did that, Louis had been saying, ¿oh probably this fossil is maybe half a million years old, it shows that humans were around for 500,000 years¿ and everyone was amazed at those dates. But when these young men ran their test on the volcanic ash that had covered this fossil they came back with a date of 1 million 500,000 years ago and that¿s what gave the Leakeys and the skull and Oldivi Gorge everywhere these huge headlines that were just around the world. No one had any idea that humankind was that old, that we had been on this planet for more than 1 million years and it just sent shockwaves around the world. And that¿s when the other paleontologists and paleoanthropologists began packing their bags and heading for East Africa. They wanted to find fossils that old too.

DS
00:27:03 Operation s fell apart in 1984 when Mary retired? 00:27:10

VM
00:27:11She tried to keep things going. She had some young Africans. Some Kenyans and some Tanzanians that she had hoped would continue the work. Tanzania at the time had gone through a period of having the border closed between Kenya and Tanzania so it wasn¿t an easy thing to continue. You had to have someone who was willing to drive in from Nairobi or come in from Dar Es Salaam. Oldivi is really quite remote and you always had to bring in your food supplies and your water and your gasoline to keep your vehicles running so to have that kind of capability it¿s expensive and I think that it was difficult thing for the Tanzanians to manage on their own. There were also disputes. Other scientists that wanted to come in and look at the Gorge didn¿t always go about it in the right way and I think that they offended some Tanzanians. Honestly, I don¿t know what the current situation is .

DS
00:28:15 But Mary became embittered about his? 00:28:21

VM
00:28:22 Um, ¿ Are you asking me this? ¿ I know what upset her, I don¿t remember the year 1986 or 87, there were some young American paleontologists, Don Johanson and Tim White, who had, Mary had helped both of them get started in their careers and they had subsequently turned against the Leakeys for whatever reason and they had been particularly unpleasant to Mary and they then got permission to go to Oldivi Gorge and look for fossils and usually when one does this, you contact the scientists that had worked at the site previously because what people most want is to have a continuous record. That has to override sort of all personality disputes and any disharmony. You just simply want to have this continuous record of what was found at the Gorge. Particularly at a site that is as important as Oldivi. And it¿s hard to understand why this wasn¿t done but Don Johanson who was leading this expedition, did not write to tell Mary what he was doing and not ask her permission but to tell her that he was going to look at her site¿.
(Tells the story about how she was annoyed at this.)

DS
00:30:12 Is there anything left to find there?00:30:20

VM
00:30:21 I think that there is, particularly because Mary was so¿ precise in the drawings of her maps and the documentation of everything that was found at Oldivi Gorge. Every single site that she excavated, each piece of bone, each stone was drawn on to a map so you can go back to he sites that she excavated and you can actually sort of reexcavate, them if you will. All of the material from the Gorge beautifully documented and because of that, if you wanted to go back and say, test some new theory regarding human evolution or human behavior in the Gorge, you have this wonderful record to look back at and then you could do your own excavations that might shed some new light on a particular question. I think that there are some questions about how these people lived in the Gorge itself were they living, did have sort of base camps pr did they just tra.. just visit the Gorge on a random basis were they living there for periods at a time. A lot of those questions are still being debated and certainly Mary¿s early record of what she found, compared to the way that one might do an excavation today, I think by looking at those two together you could answer a number of those sorts of questions.

DS
00:31:47 At the end of Louis¿s life their relationship sort of fell apart? But he was a mentor to some. 00:32:10

VM
00:32:11 Yes, Louis is always looking for young people to inspire. I think that this is also part of him being a visionary and him being able to see the way a field is shaped or how research ought to be done and he would come to the United States and gave lectures all over the country and he would have these students in the palm of his hand and people ready and willing to go off to Africa to do what was important, whatever Louis said was important, they wanted to do and when Louis would talk to young people on a one to one basis he had this charisma and this inspirational ability and he managed to get people started on careers basically answering questions that he wanted answered which wasn¿t a harmful thing but he couldn¿t take the time to have them all answered himself so he had a way of inspiring these young protégés and sending them off. Had his most famous one¿s are the young women that he sent off to look at the great apes. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, --- and it was his idea that if we looked at the Great Apes we might have a better idea about how our early ancestors got started, if we understood something about their behaviors etc.. Talking about Rosemary Osmond and Goodall

DS and VM talking about how he hit on Jane Goodall¿

DS
00:35:07 Is this what you call a dynasty? 00:35:08

VM
00:35:09Yes, it is definitely a dynasty, especially when you bring Richard into it who carries on his parents traditions and his wife, Meave making all her fantastic discoveries at Lake Trikana in Northern Kenya and their daughter, Richard and Meave¿s daughter, Louise is also carrying on the family tradition and is now finishing her doctorate in paleoanthropology at a University in England and leading her own expeditions to lake Trikana.

Out on 00:36:33

Close Title