Zinjanthropus - The Missing Link?

In 1959, after a search of 28 years, Dr. L.S.B. Leakey, a British scientist, and his wife Mary, discovered a skull in East Africa which he called Zinjanthropus, or "East Africa Man". He dubbed it Zinj, and confidently claimed it to be 600,000 years old. "There is no riddle to the dating of our new discovery," he reported in the September 1960 National Geographic, pp 421ff. Judging by the fossils of animals found near Zinj, he very confidently dated him at more than 600,000 years. This was far older than the oldest "missing link" prior to that time, and Leakey basked in the adulation heaped on him by the world media.

But a year later, scientists using the potassium argon process of dating, judged his age to be 1,750,000 years, nearly three times Leakey's estimate. He was obviously staggered, and began to retreat. In the National Geographic of October, 1961, he wrote, "Until recently, pending exhaustive dating tests, we could only say that Zinjanthropus lived 'more than 600,000 years ago,' though Mary and I both believed that he eventually would prove to be far older than that." However, the previous year he had been quite definite in dating him at 600,000 years, and in one case wrote, "roughly between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago" in speaking of the ages of the animals found with Zinj.

Perhaps he should have stopped while he was ahead. But in February of 1961 it was reported that he had found the bones of a child, closer to modern man than Zinj, at a level below that of Zinj. This consisted of two tiny pieces of jaw bone and a tooth.

Then a discovery of more modern-type man at the 14,000,000 year level was reported, and Leakey, trying to keep Zinjanthropus in the running, toyed with the idea that there were two types of man existing simultaneously.

In the National Geographic, October 1961, p. 577 he wrote, "I said before that Zinjanthropus seemed to be the world's oldest established man, since we see no reason to doubt that he made the tools at the site where we found him." In 1960 he had written, "we had discovered the world's earliest known human." A year later he was obliged to write, "Zinjanthropus seemed to be...."

In the April 13, 1964 Newsweek he had completely changed his opinion. He had discovered a man, older than Zinj, which he called Homo Habilis, meaning "Man having ability." "Homo", of course, meant that he was a man, not a half man. He had lived between 1 and 2 million years ago, much older than Java man, Peking man, Neanderthal man, or even Zinj. He was like modern man, but smaller, walked upright, had hands capable of precision work, used tools and built shelters. The floor of a hut and hand tools were discovered in the same location. Zinjanthropus was now admitted to have been an animal, not a man.

Leakey, far from discovering the world's oldest link between man and ape had actually eliminated all such links! He was obliged to say, "The textbooks have to be completely rewritten-- including one of my own now in press."

TIME Magazine, July 28, 1958, a year before Leakey discovered Zinjanthropus, had written, "The true missing link is still to be found." With the discovery of fossils of human beings who existed before all of the previously discovered "missing links", the statement is still true.

What was the effect of this embarrassing turn of events on Leakey personally? His wife in her autobiography, "Revealing the Past," tells us:

"For my part (during the last four years of his life, between 1968 and 1972) I had to watch Louis decline from the height of his intellectual powers and the fullness of his charm to become irritable and irrational, someone for whom his colleagues had quite frequently to cover up, out of respect for what had once been: to watch and to be powerless to bring him any help or comfort or support. He became someone utterly different from the Louis I had married and loved and admired, the Louis whose stature in his profession had perhaps never been equaled. And I have no doubt at all that he thought I, too, had changed, had become cold and uncaring, had abandoned him when he needed me most.... if you like, Zinj was one of the root causes of all this too." (page 140)

Leakey was now stripped of the mantle of honor he had felt he so richly deserved for the discovery of Zinjanthropus. Death was rapidly approaching and there was no time for a new discovery. In an irrational attempt to compensate and "prove" his virility, he turned to the comfort young women could give him. It was for this that his wife became cold, as she reports in her biography.

The pagans had a saying, "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." I cannot help but think of this when I consider the life of Leakey. The Bible says, " [It is] a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb 10:31) But to the Christian the hands of God are not fearful. "The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." (Deut 33:27).


Bill Carrell