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Lay for the Day
7th August

1903: Louis Leakey is born at Kabete Mission, near Nairobi, Kenya. He would become perhaps the single most influential, and also controversial, figure in the search for human origins in the 20th century, mainly through the archaeological investigations he undertook with his wife Mary at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. He also initiated the famous field studies of our nearest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, respectively.
This Lay is the last third of a sequence the first part of which appears on 19th December (the birthday of Louis and Mary’s son Richard Leakey); and the second part on 12th September (the anniversary of the discovery of the painted caves at Lascaux).
The first section below refers to two fossil species discovered by the Leakeys – Australopithecus boisei, apparently a forest-dwelling, heavy-set ape walking on two legs; and Homo habilis (‘handy man’), which is the earliest species allocated to the genus Homo. I have conflated the latter with its supposed descendant Homo erectus (‘upright man’), who is regarded as the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. The poem envisions australopiths and early humans living side by side in Africa, an idea which Louis Leakey always maintained, in the face of considerable opposition, and which was given strong support by Richard Leakey’s discovery in 1972 of ‘Skull 1470’ – apparently a three-million-year-old example of Homo habilis. The son managed to bring this treasure for his father to see only a few days before his death.

Originals, ix–xi


The great-jawed southerners,
bipedally bovine, browsing
unmolested in the clearing,
masters of the arts of chewing leaves:

how should handy upright man,
their neighbour striding out,
regard these boss-browed munching shapes?
As food perhaps – or with a kind of awe

as, jack of all landscapes,
he leaves them behind,
the last rugged head
of the wordless, slipping away.

Beyond lie the ungainsayable waves
of the spoken, braiding and abrading,
kin and clan, the handaxe and the ember-pot,
the past imperfect and the future.

Furtive among abundant green
keen-eyed erectus sees their silent troop
saunter hairily by and vanish
in dim, australopithecene peace.


Then what with our greed
we lost, a higher place
than the rest indeed,

where labouring saints
on the earth irrigated with sweat
reach to shoulder the sweet burden
and bring it down the ladder.


She dips the brush.
It wavers like a snake
on the face of the rock
without touching
then darts across
and back, and slows,
the stroke unloading
ochre on the stone,
on the flank of black-
maned chestnut mare
and foal she adds to the herd.

John Gibbens
from Three Histories

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar