Exploring Olduvai Gorge, a rich archaeological site in East Africa where evidence of the first humans was found

Stephen Nartey February 03, 2023
Olduvai Gorge. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ingvar

The Olduvai Gorge sits in the Great Rift Valley between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Park. It is close to another fossil-rich enclave, Laetoli.

The gorge came about as a result of intense erosion and geological changes that occurred some two million years ago. Olduvai is a corruption of the native Maasai word Oldupai which means “wild sisal plant” that grows in the area, according to Live Science.

The gorge, which is located in the East African nation of Tanzania, reveals evidence of the presence of early humans on earth. Hundreds of fossil bones and stone tools which predate millions of years bear testimony that early humans evolved in Africa.

This reality is what has earned the gorge the moniker the “cradle of mankind”. Archaeologists say recent excavations in Ethiopia and South Africa take back further the age when the first humans walked the face of the earth.

The quest to discover the gorge began with German physician and archaeologist Wilhelm Kattwinkel. In 1911, he decided to take a trip through German East Africa and visited the enclave in anticipation of stumbling on ancient artifacts. After finding several fossil bones of an extinct three-toed horse, people were moved to visit the area, according to BlackPast. Geologist Hans Reck in 1913 learned about the remains of early humans which were buried in the gorge. The exploration of the gorge was disrupted by World War I.

In 1931, Kenyan-British archaeologist Louis Leakey undertook another expedition and came across dozens of hand axes. In 1935, he made another trip to the gorge with his wife, Mary Leakey, and geologist Percy Edward Kent. They made several treks to the region and at some point introduced their son, Jonathan Leakey, to the gorge. They found pieces of animal bones, human remains and handmade tools.

In 1960, Jonathan made an excavation at the gorge and found a jawbone for homo habilis, early humans who settled in the gorge some 1.9 million years ago.

Mary Leakey later found footprints of early human ancestors when she undertook an expedition to the gorge in 1978. It attracted interest from the scientific community because it settled a contentious debate on the study of early humans, according to The Getty Conservation Institute.

Researchers have dedicated decades to the research into the evolution of humans with a specific interest in fossil bones. The fossils may have given an insight into happenings in the past but archaeologists maintain there are still questions about human evolution which beg answers. One of the teething questions bothers on whether early men had the level of intelligence that enabled them to walk upright. But, evidence found in Olduvai Gorge suggests early men walked upright.

There is a museum at Olduvai Gorge which was built in 1976 to commemorate the efforts of Mary Leakey. An Olduvai Gorge monument was erected in 2018 to recognize the presence of early men in the region. The monument was built by artist Fest Kijo, who used two large concrete skills symbolizing the first two early humans found at the gorge.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 3, 2023


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