The leakeys, by Mary Bowman-Krum . Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2010. No. of pages: 183. Price: US$ 17-00. ISBN 978-1-59102-761-4 (paperback).


The exploits of the Leakey family, and particularly Louis Leakey, have held a fascination for me since long before I read a second-hand copy of Cole (1975) about 12 years ago. For the public, the three ‘sexiest’ areas of palaeontology are dinosaurs, Ice Age mammals and ancient humans, and the geologists who collect them, particularly those who are ‘colourful’ (e.g. Dingus and Norell, 2010). What could be more fascinating than a whole family of collectors who specialise on fossil humans from exotic East African sites?

Mary Bowman-Kuhn has had a wonderful story to record and has produced a readable account for the non-specialist. I once taught a course for non-honours students on diverse geological topics, including palaeoanthropology, and this book would have been good background reading. It lacks the scientific depth of, say, Stringer (2011), but provides fascinating detail of the human side of collecting, influenced by relationships, logistics and politics.

This is not to say that Bowman-Kruhm's non-technical approach doesn't stutter in places, even at the beginning. The first sentence of the introduction (p. 11) asks ‘How and why did early humans come to be?’ Just four pages later, the first sentence of chapter 1 enquires ‘How and when did humans evolve?’ before calling palaeoanthropology ‘a first cousin of archaeology’ – pfui! For reasons I find obscure, however ancient a fossil hominid, it is an archaeological, not geological artefact to Bowman-Kruhm.

Some comments I found peculiar, one in particular perhaps a platitude for the creationists. ‘[T]he details [of evolution] are still being worked out’ (p. 32) – this could be said of any field of study that is not, itself, fossilised. Why say it at all? Long live incomplete knowledge in all fields.

More than one British institution seems to have caused the author some confusion, such as the ‘British Museum's Natural History Branch’ (p. 49), which is a new name to me for my old office. And ‘the riddle of who perpetuated the [Piltdown Man] hoax remains unanswered’ (p. 49) ignores the wealth of evidence that incriminates Charles Dawson (Walsh, 1996; Russell, 2003). I'm confused that ‘Toward the end of the rainy season water was in short supply’ (p. 53). And the author more than once (e.g. p. 62) refers to the formation of geological strata as the accumulation of soil! Bowman-Kruhm avoids mention of the out of Africa hypothesis, seemingly arguing against it; ‘… Homo ergaster was able to trek from Africa and become the ancestor of later Homo populations’ (p. 112). There is also confusion over igneous geology, when the author talks of an erupted ash containing ‘… a high degree of carbonatite’ (p. 113).

In short, the book is readable, but trips over scientific details that a geologist or palaeontologist would regard as routine. As I intimated earlier, not a book for an honours class, but maybe background reading for some courses.