Case Study

Olduvai Gorge; The Cradle of Life

Olduvai Gorge is one of the most important historical sites in the world. It is recognised internationally for the discovery of the world's oldest Homosapien fossils and is known locally as Tanzania's 'cradle of mankind'.

An Anthropologists Dream

Formed roughly 30,000 years ago due to aggressive geological activity - the river cuts through several layers of earth creating four independent beds, the oldest estimated to be about 2 million years old, Olduvai is one of the most important historical sites in the world. It is recognized internationally for the discovery of the world's oldest undisputed Homosapien fossils. Traces of an early stone tool culture led to the conclusion that this is where humans began to evolve.The area remains essential for research to this day. Frequently referred to as Tanzania's 'cradle of mankind', the gorge is thirty miles long, three-hundred feet deep, and part of the World Heritage Site, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

History of Olduvai Gorge

Whilst travelling in East Africa in 1911, German neurologist and archaeologist Professor Wilhelm Kattwinkel discovered the fossil-rich site he subsequently named Olduvai after the Masaai name for the sisal plant 'Oldupai'. In 1913, together with geologist Hans Reck, he found the first fossils of hominins. Following the First World War, Mary and Louis Leakey visited Reck in Berlin to view the Olduvai fossils; they surmised that the gorge could be a site for stone tools, based on the findings Louis had made in Kenya's Kariandusi prehistoric site. In the late 1930s, Louis and Mary Leakey found stone tools in Olduvai. Their work was interrupted by political uprisings in nearby Kenya; however, they returned in the late 1950s, seeking evidence of the people who had made the prehistoric tools of previous finds.

A Hominid Skull

On a day in 1959, Mary found fossilized parts of a hominid skull no one had recorded before, and during the next three weeks, they painstakingly pieced together 400 pieces to comprise an almost complete skull. Further discoveries were made during this excavation, evidencing that these hominids were evolving and taking the first steps towards what we are today.

The Leakey's Legacy

Over the forthcoming years, the Leakey's spectacular discoveries brought widespread attention to the field of paleoanthropology. Public support and interest meant further funding and expeditions. The number of fossils discovered in East Africa caused both confusion and controversy but, ultimately, a further understanding of early human history. After the death of her husband in 1972, Mary became director of excavations at Olduvai Gorge. Mary went on to train her son, Richard, in the field of palaeoanthropology, thus ensuring the Leakey family legacy continues;  the site curated by Mary and Louis is still continued to this day by the family.

Visiting Olduvai Gorge

A visit to the Olduvai Gorge centres on the museum, which opened in 2017 and overlooks the gorge. The different sections of the museum allow visitors to learn about the various fossils found whilst a resident guide explains the history and significance of the site and the current research taking place. Many of the excavation sites are still in operation, and for a small tip, it may be possible to do an escorted drive into the gorge to visit the active digs.

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