"For some reason, that skull caught the imagination," Leakey recalls, pausing now and then to relight her slowly savored cigar or to chastise a dalmatian for being too forward. "But what it also did, and that was very important for our point of view, it caught the imagination of the National Geographic Society, and as a result they funded us for years. That was exciting."
How Zinj fits into the family tree is not something Leakey will speculate about. "I never felt interpretation was my job. What I came to do was to dig things up and take them out as well as I could," she describes. "There is so much we do not know, and the more we do know, the more we realize that early interpretations were completely wrong. It is good mental exercise, but people get so hot and nasty about it, which I think is ridiculous."
I try to press her on another bone of contention: Did we Homo sapiens emerge in Africa, or did we spring up all over the world from different ancestors, a theory referred to as the multiregional hypothesis? Leakey starts to laugh. "You'll get no fun out of me over these things. If I were Richard, I would talk to you for hours about it, but I just don't think it is worth it." She pauses. "I really like to feel that I am on solid ground, and that is never solid ground."
"The archaeological world should be grateful that she was in charge at Olduvai," notes Rick Potts, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who is studying Olorgesailie, a site about an hour south of Nairobi where the Leakeys found ancient stone axes in 1942. Now, as they did then, the tools litter the white, sandy Maasai savanna. The most beautiful ones have been stolen, and one of Leakey's current joys is that the Smithsonian is restoring the site and its small museum and plans to preserve the area.
Olduvai Gorge has not fared as well. After years of residence and work there, and after the death of Louis in 1972, Mary finally retired in 1984. Since then, she has worked to finish a final volume on the Olduvai discoveries and has also written a book on the rock paintings of Tanzania. "I got too old to live in the bush," she explains. "You really need to be youngish and healthy, so it seemed stupid to keep going." Once she left, however, the site was ignored. "I go once a year to the Serengeti to see the wildebeest migrations because that means a lot to me, but I avoid Olduvai if I can because it is a ruin. It is most depressing." In outraged voice, she snaps out a litany of losses: the abandoned site, the ruined museum, the stolen artifacts, the lost catalogues. "Fortunately, there is so much underground still. It is a vast place, and there is plenty more under the surface for future generations that are better educated."