When Louis Met Mary: The Start of a Paleontological Dynasty -- In 1929, an enthusiastic Cambridge graduate named Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey traveled to Berlin to bet fellow archaeologist Hans Reck, who had a few years back extricated some particularly interesting fossils from a gorge in Tanzania, that the same gorge would reveal more of its secrets to Leakey within 24 hours. Reck accepted the bet, and he and Louis duly set off to what the Maasai called Olduvai Gorge, after the sisal-type plant that grew here. Reck lost the bet, which cost him all of £10. Louis, born of missionary parents in Africa at the turn of the century and initiated at age 13 into the Kikuyu tribe he grew up with, wanted more. He was determined to prove that homo sapiens originated in Africa -- a concept we now take for granted, but one met with total skepticism at the time.
A Christian and Darwinian, Louis was, by all accounts, a complex, charismatic figure. When he met the young Mary Nicol in 1933, he was looking for an illustrator, his wife having taken ill with morning sickness. Mary, the daughter of an English landscape artist who had spent a lot of time at Les Eyzies and the Dordogne, was fascinated with prehistory as a child, and after the death of her father when she was just 13, became what her mother described as "a difficult child." She was expelled from two consecutive convent schools for minor misdemeanors (refusing to recite poetry, creating explosions in the chemistry lab) and proved impossible to tutor privately. Mary wanted nothing more than to draw and study archaeology, but as her academic history ruled out a university education (ironically, she would be awarded many doctorates from these very universities), she turned to scientific illustration, which is why she was recommended to Louis when he was looking for a replacement illustrator for his book, Adam's Ancestors. The attraction between the two free-spirited individuals was immediate. Louis left his wife, and after she granted him a divorce in 1936, he and Mary were married in a civil ceremony witnessed by the son of a Kikuyu chief. They spent all the time they could at Olduvai: 2 decades on and off, patiently scouring the 48km (30-mile) gorge for the tools and fossils of ancient hominids, and raising a family of three sons.
It was the chain-smoking Mary who finally made the discovery that would catapult the Leakey name into the annals of paleontology. A fragment of bone caught her eye and, hours of careful brushing later, she discovered a set of hominid-looking teeth. With great care, Mary and Louis uncovered Australopithecus boisei, "Nutcracker Man," who would finally prove, without doubt, the existence of hominids some 2 million years ago in East Africa. Mary had proven Louis right.
Louis needed more than just painstaking excavation to sustain him, and a year after Mary's major discovery, they agreed that she would become director of excavations at Olduvai while he would head off to raise awareness and funds. Convinced that field research in primates was key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution, Louis particularly fostered female researchers, including Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas; at least two of them became known as "Leakey's Angels" and became romantically linked to him.
When, dogged by ill health, Louis died of a heart attack in London in 1972, Mary kept working in Olduvai, and in 1976 she discovered the Laetoli hominid footprint trail, left in volcanic ash some 3.6 million years ago. Mary finally retired in 1983 at age 70, passing the baton to second son Richard, who had led his first fossil-hunting expedition in 1964 and married archaeologist Margaret Cropper in 1966. When this relationship failed, he married primate researcher Meave Epps, whose own paleoanthropological discoveries included Australopithecus Anamensis (1995) and Kenyanthropus platyops (2001). When their daughter, Louise, completed her Ph.D. in paleontology in 2001, she took her place in what has, to all intents, become the family "business" -- uncovering the story of man's genesis.
Today Olduvai Gorge (entry Tsh3,000) is still under excavation, with three international groups working here between June and August, but anyone can visit the gorge, either as a day trip from the Ngorongoro Crater (about 90 min. away) or en route to Serengeti. It's a worthwhile stop, with a good talk and a basic museum attached, but little to evoke the passions that flowed within and between the Leakey family who made the sight so famous.
Flamingos Facing Ground Zero? -- Despite the fact that the lesser flamingo is on the IUCN Red List and that Lake Natron is the only site in East Africa where it can breed successfully (one of only five sites in the world), a development proposal by Tata Chemicals Ltd., India's leading manufacturer of inorganic chemicals, and the National Development Corporation of Tanzania, is currently under serious consideration. Making the usual deal-sweetener promises (local investment and job opportunities), Tata wants to build a soda ash plant on Lake Natron's shores for the production and export of sodium carbonate, or washing soda, used predominantly in the manufacturing of glass and in swimming pools to reduce the effects of chlorine and raise pH. In addition to the actual plant, which will pump water from the lake, this would involve building housing for more than 1,000 workers and a coal-fired power station to provide energy for the plant complex. In addition, there is a possibility the developers may introduce a hybrid brine shrimp to increase the efficiency of extraction. Naturally, experts rate the chance of the lesser flamingoes continuing to breed in the face of such mayhem as "next to zero." As a result of this commercial pressure, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCCA) has stepped in and proposed that Ol Doinyo L'Engai and the lake be incorporated into NCAA, which will then place "periodical tourism activities under official control." While this will certainly protect Lake Natron, and their efforts to do so are lauded, it is unclear how it will affect the villages living in the shadow of their Mountain of God, not one of which wishes to be moved despite the NCAA having declared their home "hostile and unsafe for humans." What is clear is that it will become a great deal more expensive to travel here, should the NCAA succeed.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.