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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3500-Year-Old Mummy Discovered in Forgotten Egyptian Tomb

As the site of the ancient city of Thebes, the modern-day Egyptian city of Luxor is filled with archaeological treasures. But until recently, two forgotten tombs—both located in the necropolis of Dra' Abu el-Naga, an important non-royal cemetery—hadn’t been fully explored. Now, National Geographic reports that experts have finally excavated these burial sites and discovered a 3500-year-old mummy, along with ornate funerary goods and colorful murals.

While excavating one of the two tombs, known as Kampp 150, experts found linen-wrapped remains that Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities believes belong to either "a person named Djehuty Mes, whose name was engraved on one of the walls ... [or] the scribe Maati, as his name and the name of his wife Mehi were inscribed on 50 funerary cones found in the tomb's rectangular chamber."

In addition to the mummy, archaeologists discovered wooden statues, masks, earthen pots, a cache of some 450 statuettes, and around 100 funerary cones—conical mud objects, which were often positioned outside a tomb's center, and could have served as identifying markers or as offerings—inside Kampp 150.

The Associated Press reported that the second tomb, known as Kampp 161, is thought to be approximately 3400 years old—about 100 years newer than its neighboring chamber—as its design is characteristic of other such structures dating back to the reigns of Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV.

Inside Kampp 161, archaeologists discovered wooden funerary masks, a decorated coffin, furniture shards, and the mural of a festival or party depicting the tomb's unknown resident and his wife receiving ceremonial offerings.

German scholar Friederike Kampp-Seyfried surveyed and numbered both tombs in the 1990s, which is how they got their names, but she did not fully excavate nor enter either one.

Officials celebrated the rediscovery of the tombs on Saturday, December 9, when they publicly announced the archaeological finds. They hope that discoveries like these will entice foreign travelers to visit Egypt, as political unrest has harmed the country's tourism industry in recent years.

“It’s truly an exceptional day,” Khaled al-Anani, Egypt's antiquities minister, said in a statement. “The 18th dynasty private tombs were already known. But it’s the first time" anyone's ever entered them.

Check out some pictures of the newly revealed relics below.

Mustafa al-Waziri, director general of Luxor's Antiquities, points at an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis.
Mustafa al-Waziri, director general of Luxor's Antiquities, points at an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo, on December 9, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian archaeological technician restores artifacts found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
An Egyptian archaeological technician restores artifacts found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo, on December 9, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian laborer stands next to an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Ancient Egyptian wooden funerary masks and small statuettes found in and retrieved from the newly discovered 'Kampp 150' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
A picture taken on December 9, 2017 shows ancient Egyptian wooden funerary masks and small statuettes found in and retrieved from the newly discovered 'Kampp 150' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t National Geographic]

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Kohske Takahashi, i-Perception (2017)
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Can You Figure Out This Newly Discovered Optical Illusion?
Kohske Takahashi, i-Perception (2017)
Kohske Takahashi, i-Perception (2017)

Ready to have your mind boggled? Take a look at the image above. What shape are the lines? Do they look like curves, or zigzags?

The image, spotted by Digg, is a new type of optical illusion published in the aptly named journal i-Perception. Discovered by Japanese psychologist Kohske Takahashi, it’s called the “curvature blindness illusion,” because—spoiler—the contrast of the lines against the gray background makes our eye see some of the lines as zigzags when, in fact, they’re all smooth curves.

The illusion relies on a few different factors, according to the three experiments Takahashi conducted. For it to work, the lines have to change contrast just at or after the peak of the curve, reversing the contrast against the background. You’ll notice that the zigzags only appear against the gray section of the background, and even against that gray background, not every line looks angled. The lines that look curvy change contrast midway between the peaks and the valleys of the line, whereas the lines that look like they contain sharp angles change contrast right at the peak and valley. The curve has to be relatively gentle, too.

Go ahead, stare at it for a while.

[h/t Digg]

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