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When Mary Douglas Nicol was born 100 years ago today, the idea of human physical evolution was only a few decades old, and very little evidence of any human-like creatures beyond ourselves and living apes had been discovered.

Some specimens of Neanderthals had been found, but the most complete belonged to an aged, worn, arthritic man. This contributed to a common view that whatever ancestors we had were, like Hobbes’ image of primitive life itself, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Through a life of dedication to research and exploration of Africa’s Rift Valley, Mary met and married Louis Leakey and together they brought to light some of the most significant and spectacular remains of ancient human ancestors more apelike, and more clearly energetic and capable than many had ever considered possible. The discovery in 1960 of Homo habilis, the “handy man” marked the earliest known expert stone tool makers, and the footprints at Laetoli revealed for the first time a snapshot of our apelike forebears in action. Read more.

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