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PHOTO: Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania (photo credit:

Olduvai Gorge is a rich and diverse archaeological site found in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. It is situated in the Great Rift Valley, an ancient geographical fracture caused by the separation of two tectonic plates and runs through Ethiopia, Kenya, and into the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania.

The Leakey’s (Louis, Mary and their children) were instrumental in putting Olduvai Gorge on the map.  Louis Leakey was born in Kenya, and his research in Olduvai Gorge was inspired by Charles Darwin’s book, ‘Descent of Man’ (published in 1871), in which Darwin suggested that the earliest humans probably once lived in Africa, based on the fact that humankind’s closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, live there.

Louis Leakey’s first trip to the Olduvai Gorge in 1931 was prompted by a much earlier discovery in this region, namely a modern-looking skeleton discovered by a German scientist, Hans Reck (1913). Although by this time there had already been several finds of earlier hominids (humans and their close extinct ancestors), indicating an origin for humans in Asia, Leakey was adamant about finding proof predating those finds to confirm his theory and Darwin’s assumption that the earliest human forms originated in Africa. During the 1931-expedition, he found primitive stone axes in ancient sediments, evidence that humans’ predecessors had indeed lived in Africa, but no hominid remains.

Hans Reck’s find was later proved not to be ancient but simply a later burial within far older sediments. In 1960, however, Leakey’s son, Jonathan, discovered the type specimen for Homo habilis (one of the earliest species in the genus Homo). The first H.habilis fossils found in Olduvai Gorge were in the same stratigraphic layer as early types of stone tools called Oldowan tools (named after the first place this stone tool industry was identified).

Olduvai Gorge has so far delivered evidence of two hominid holotypes (Australopithecus bosei and Homo habilis) as well as the remains of Homo erectus. The stone tool artefacts show the evolution in human technology from Olduwan (oldest) to Acheulean, Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age. The abundance of animal and plant fossils identified by various scientists in this field has led to the identification of new taxa. At the same time, complementary geological work provided an extensive understanding of the palaeogeography and stratigraphic sequence throughout the gorge.

More recent research provides an ecological perspective on human adaptability to unstable environments over two million years ago at the Olduvai Gorge’s western side.  This predates the earliest known hominids and Oldowan industries from the basin’s eastern side by more than 180,000 years. The efficacy of the Oldowan industry tools thus also stood the test of time through various ecological circumstances and would stay in use for approximately 1 million years when it was surpassed by the Paleolithic (Acheulean) industry.

Over the years, the Olduvai Gorge has revealed remarkable discoveries, and recent discoveries suggest that it continues to be a place where the history of evolution is unravelled. In 1979, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Text: Loudine Philip l Archaeologist l National Museum


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Staff writer

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