National Geographic: Mysteries of Mankind


of a century

before their single-minded

perseverance finally paid off.

The year was 1959.

We appeared to have got

what we were looking for.

Here at last was a man or

a man-like creature,

apparently the earliest known man

in the world.

It would turn out to be a

teen-aged male,

and not a true human,

but a more primitive hominid

an australopithecine.

And yet surely, like us,

he had cried when hungry as a baby,

wobbled his way onto two upright legs,

knew pain, love, and ioy.

Then in the way of all flesh, he died.

The boy died near the edge

of what was then a lake.

The skeleton is missing,

perhaps washed away or destroyed

by scavengers.


the skull was buried by sediments.

Over the centuries water

soluble minerals turned bone to stone

as layer upon layer of deposits buried

the skull ever deeper into the earth.

Some layers were volcanic ash laid down

when a nearby volcano erupted.

Gradual geological uplift typical

of the Rift Valley

and subsequent erosion brought

the fossil once again to the surface.

The odds of finding a hominid fossil

are said to be one in ten million.

Because the Leakey's fossil was found

in a deposit with volcanic ash,

it could be accurately dated.

Volcanic ash contains radioactive

potassium that decays

into argon gas

at a known rate over time.

Human evolution was then believed

to begin no more

than one million years ago.

Yet here was

a fossil nearly double that age.

The scientific world was stunned.

Today, the addition of lasers

to the dating technique

enables scientists to date minuscule

samples even more accurately.

A single grain of ash,

seen magnified here many thousands

of times,

can produce a date much more

reliable than ever before possible.

The name and age of

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