ANCESTRAL PASSIONS: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings by Virginia Morell

ANCESTRAL PASSIONS: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings

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In this terrific biography of the Leakeys--Louis, Mary, and Richard--science journalist Morell manages to be exhaustive while keeping things nimble. The Leakey family first set up shop at Kikuyu Station back in 1902, when Reverend Harry Leakey (Louis's father) settled in then Kenya Colony as a missionary. Louis was born there in 1903 and by 13 was already hot on the trail of Stone Age man. It was at Olduvai, a veritable gold mine of fossils and ancient tools, that he made his reputation, and Morell vibrantly conveys the flavor of that archaeological dig: the thrill of the chase and the excitement of a find. Mary Leakey, Louis's second wife (with whom he initially had an adulterous liaison; Louis was never known for his sexual reticence), was not just along for the ride at Olduvai; she uncovered many of the most famous finds. Of their children, it was Richard who took up the torch and carried it perhaps even further than his illustrious parents. Morell employs letters, journals, interviews, and articles to provide a nearly blow-by-blow, you-were-there reportage of the Leakeys' life in Africa: their perpetual penury, their intramural clashes of personality, their extramural duelings with the larger archaeological community. Without ever descending into pyschobabble, Morell renders good character sketches of the three--Louis as an inspired charismatic with a ferocious range of curiosity; Mary as a gifted bone-digger with what might be mildly termed a crotchety edge; and Richard as a smooth, ambitious creature with a nose for both money and fossilized remains. Morell also sprinkles an extraordinary amount of graspable archaeological and paleoanthropological theory into the narrative, spiced with the rivalries and tensions that seem to beset all scholarly endeavors. Morell gives real zip to the glacially slow work of field archaeology and serves up the ""first family of anthropology"" in dramatic, erudite style.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1995
Page count: 624pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster