Forty years ago in Laetoli, Tanzania, an elephant dung fight between a couple of paleoanthropologists led to a discovery: a fossilized animal print, at least 3.6 million years old. But the site had an even bigger surprise in store. After years of excavation, the team discovered the unmistakable footprints of early hominids — possible human ancestors.
The crew was part of an archaeological dig led by Mary Leakey, the pioneering subject of this Op-Doc video who died 19 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1996. Her colleagues, several of whom help narrate, uniformly remember her as an extraordinary character. Leakey was exacting in her science, and expected the same of her workers. (Her artifact tagging and recording systems are now considered standard practice within archaeology and paleoanthropology.) After her husband, the pioneering paleontologist Louis Leakey, died in 1972, she commanded teams of mostly men when it was still exceedingly rare for a woman to lead an archaeological dig, especially in Africa.
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