Olduvai Gorge: Where the Man Originated
In the North of the African country called Tanzania lies a unique gorge where an ancient volcano preserved the history of humankind for us. The remnants of the first humans and the first stone tools found here answered many questions we asked about ourselves. In this feature, we cover the history of the most important discoveries.
What Is the Olduvai Gorge
In Tanzania, Africa, somewhat south of the equator, there is a special place holding scientists’ attention for more than half a century. In 1960, the Leakey spouses, a couple of anthropologists who worked there for many years, found the remains of a previously unknown Hominids (Hominidae in Latin) is a family in the order of primates that unites the genus human (Homo) and three genera of so-called great apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees). It was a Homo habilis, that is the “handy man”, the first representative of Homo genus, an immediate ancestor of the modern human.
After this vital discovery, many others were to follow, including those made in different parts and regions of Tanzania and other East Africa is the part of the continent east of the Nile that most anthropologists consider the most likely cradle of humanity. In addition to Tanzania, East Africa includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, and several other modern states, including several island states, including Madagascar (according to the UN). countries. All of those gave one clue after another, until a unified theory of the African origin of man was built. Today, once the results of genetic studies have been received, the theory is considered to be generally accepted. Apparently, it was the descendants of Homo habilis that first left Africa and began the expansion of humans on Earth.
Other excavation sites in Tanzania are also known, for example, Laetoli; these yielded generous findings to the scientists. But the site which gained the most fame is exactly Olduvai is nowadays the most common name of the gorge (it has a derivative adjective Olduvan, e.g., Olduvan gorge, Olduvan culture). In some sources, you can find the name Oldupai or even Oldovan (cf. Oldovan culture). There is also a version that the original discoverer of the gorge, Wilhelm Kattwinkel, mistakenly named it Oldoway. which is 150 km (90 miles) away from the town of Arusha. Here, in Eastern Serengeti, within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we humans came to understand our history had begun in this location. A qualitative evolutionary transition from an Australopithecus to Homo happened here, in the sunny and plentiful Ngorongoro area.
A monument shaped as two huge fossil skulls was erected in Ngorongoro to commemorate the discoveries that significantly impacted our notion of ourselves. The figures of the monument show the actual skulls dug out in Olduvai; these belonged to two genera of Homo, which have been unknown until then. In the gorge proper, a museum of anthropology and human evolution operates, where the unique exhibits are kept.
What Is so Interesting about Olduvai
The Story of the Olduvai Discovery
There’s an anecdote circling among the anthropologists about how the gorge was discovered. In 1910, a German scientist who was fond of butterflies set out to explore the Ngorongoro volcanic crater and, having seen an attractive butterfly, he chased it. In a stroke of ill luck, the scientist stumbled, fell from the precipice, and went unconscious. When he came to, he found himself lying in the gorge full of bones and tools of the ancient humans. This version has a strong cinematographic touch to it. Even more so if one recalls the first finding of the said German: the bones of a prehistoric three-toed horse.
That German scientist was Wilhelm Kattwinkel, a doctor and anthropologist. It is a fact that in 1910 and 1911, he went to German East Africa was a colonial territory corresponding to the current mainland Tanzania. It existed from 1885 to 1918. After Germany's defeat in World War I, the territory came under British rule and was renamed Tanganyika. on an expedition. His goal was to study the tsetse disease. Speaking of which, this article on immunizations prior to a trip to Tanzania contains more information about the tsetse disease.
And so, it was Kattwinkel from Germany to realise that he came across a potentially fascinating archaeological digging site and dubbed it Olduvai. The name was given by mistake, based on the Masaai word Oldupai, which the local tribe used to refer not to the place itself but to a plant which is widely spread there. For English speakers, the most popular description of the plant is sisal, otherwise known as agave, albeit these both names are wrong, and under the modern classification, the plant falls into Sanserevia genus. Confess, o Reader, these scientists have already confused you, but this is only to be expected. They do it even to themselves. We’ll have a chance to confirm this statement somewhat later on.
The First Findings and Oblivion
Other scientists from Germany, among whom there were Wilhelm von Branca and Hans Reck, rushed to that place, so rich with items to be discovered. An expedition led by Hans Reck, who specialised in volcanology, found a skeleton in 1913. At Reck’s estimate, the finding’s age might have been 150,000 years.
It was exactly due to volcanic lava that the findings from the Olduvai Gorge have been preserved so excellently. A geological feature of the relief, a canyon wall with clear separation into five different strata, made dating the findings much easier. But, for the sake of argument, what would have happened if it turned out that a skeleton found had been re-buried later? The age of discovery initiated a long line of disputes in which all i’s were dotted later by means of radiocarbon dating: it showed that the skeleton was “merely” 17,000 years old.
Louis Leakey, an anthropologist from Britain who then worked in the neighbouring Kenia, came close to the same values in his estimations. He made the discoveries of the same age himself, too. The British scientist was reputed to be lucky; his insight quite often led to success during excavations. Years later, upon the end of World War I and the postwar political reorganisation of the former German colony now under British rule, Leakey set up a new expedition to Olduvai. He invited Hans Reck to go with him, and the two made a zesty wager for 10 pounds that Leaky would find something of interest on the very first digging day.
It took Louis Leakey a mere six hours of work upon his arrival at the digging site in September 1931 to find an ancient tool, a cleaver made of volcanic rock. He won the wager, and in the following days, the archaeologists gathered a set of 77 similar cleavers. A great amount of other objects were found, too, and the archaeologists had those sent to Britain posthaste; the age of the findings was estimated as several hundred thousand years. Such bold assumptions were shot down in flames, and Louis Leakey fell out of grace both among the scientists and the laypeople.
Some further setbacks for the anthropologist, a series of public scandals stemming from his personal life, criticism by his opponents, problems with his career at Cambridge, and then the World War and the Kenyan Mau Mau Rebellion diverted both the scholar's attention from his initial research and public awareness from the gorge in East Africa. It was not until the 1950s that Louis Leakey and his wife Mary returned to continue their intensive investigations at Olduvai.
In July 1959, there was another expedition to Olduvai. Louis Leakey was present at the excavations, but his health no longer allowed him to fully engage in field research. On the morning of July 17, the scientist did not feel well, and he remained in the camp, while his wife, archaeologist Mary Leakey went to the excavation site. That day she found a fragment of an unusual bone: part of a jaw with two teeth. It looked as if it belonged to a hominid, but certainly not a modern man or humanoid apes.
”I’ve got him!” exclaimed Mary joyfully as she headed back to the camp.
In the following days, a skull, nicknamed the Nutcracker, was collected from the remaining debris found nearby. It was suggested that this was a new species of Australopithecus, which was titled Zinj, or zanj, was the name given by the Arabs to the slaves who were brought to the Arab Caliphate from Africa. The same word was used to refer to the entire indigenous population of East Africa, as well as the coast and islands of the single Swahili culture. Today the word is preserved in the name of Zanzibar ("zanji bar" - "land of black people"). After the new finds and a more detailed study of the remains, this hominid species was more accurately named Paranthropus boisei, and its time of life was determined to be 1.75 million years ago. In this way, it was found that it was most likely a member of a sister group to humans, which became extinct. However, the controversy continues to this day, and no final verdict has been rendered.
A chipped pebble was found next to the Nutcracker, and it clearly served as a primitive stone tool. Louis Leakey suggested that the hominid species found was the first animal in history to use tools. The excavation continued, and the next discovery again caused a furore in the scientific community.
In the following year, 1960, Louis Leakey was no longer able to direct the excavations because of illness, so Mary Leakey became the director. At the same time, several remains were found that interested anthropologists from around the world, and in parallel, geophysicists dated the layers in which the finds were made, which determined their ages to range from 1.89 million years ago to 1.75 million years ago. All this instantly brought back keen interest in Olduvai and in Louis Leakey himself, and several major grants were awarded for further work.
Thus, in 1960, parts of the skeleton of Homo erectus, which is considered the direct ancestor of modern humans (Homo sapiens), as well as fragments of the skeleton of Homo habilis, were found in the Olduvai Gorge. And while erectus had been found before in Asia and Europe, the habilis found in Olduvai was the first specimen. A total of two finds of erectus and six of habilis were made in Olduvai. It turned out that it was habilis that belonged to the stone tools, for which anthropologists called it “handy”.
Homo habilis is deemed to be the first representative of the genus Homo (which is us people), as they surpassed the older australopithecine apes in several descriptive characteristics at once. Further findings in neighbouring Kenya suggested that the human species already existed between Today, the remains of the supposedly oldest discovered member of the genus Homo date back to about 2.8 million years ago. The find was made in 2013 in Ethiopia. These conclusions were made possible due to a breakthrough made by the Besides the spouses Louis and Mary Leakey, their son Jonathan worked in the Olduvai Gorge (it was he who found the first homo habilis bones). Later, important discoveries of the remains of Homo habilis were made by the couple's other son, anthropologist Richard Leakey, who worked with his wife, paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey. Now the family business is continued by their daughter, Louis Leakey's granddaughter, anthropologist Louise Leakey. in Tanzanian Olduvai.
As far back as Charles Darwin suggested, if there were anywhere to look for the ancestors of man, it would have to be Africa. Louis Leakey shared this idea, and it was his efforts that were successful. Before the discoveries at Olduvai, the human race was thought to be only about 600,000 years old. The Olduvai Gorge showed that our lineage can safely be added up to at least a million years.
The First Human Tools
The stone tools discovered by the anthropologists Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge told us a lot about human evolution. They also gave the name to the very first stone-working culture that appeared on Earth. The Oldowan culture includes not only the tools found in Olduvai but also similar finds in other African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia) and even in other parts of the world (the Caucasus, Crimea, Eastern Europe).
Another name used to refer to Oldowan culture is “pebble culture”. Essentially, the first stone tools were pebbles chipped into bits.
The simplest variant is a stone broken in half. It has a sharp edge, which means that it can be used to cut meat. It was Homo habilis, i.e., the species of the “handy human” which separated itself from the australopithecines and other primates and were the first to adapt to making such simple tools. It is the ability to make tools that is one of the most important features that allow us to distinguish humans from other animals that used only their own bodies: claws and fangs.
The stones may come in different types, and experts classify them into several groups, grouping them by shape and purpose. In fact, all of them at the initial stage were used only for cutting up animal carcasses. The most famous example of a pebble tool is the chopper, the predecessor of the chopper. This is a small boulder, one edge of which was sharpened with a few splinters, while the rest remained smooth so that it could be held with the heel. Also, important tools were the small debris obtained in the making of implements. They can be considered proto-knives or the first knife-like tools.
In general, the Oldowan culture disappeared about 1 million years ago. It was replaced by the Abbeville and Acheulean cultures, in which the tools became more refined. Hand-held choppers appeared for finer work with carcasses (cutting tendons, separating meat from the skin, crushing bones, etc.) as well as for digging up plants and cutting branches. However, those same choppers have been around for a long time. For example, it is known that they were used in the 19th century by the natives of the island of Tasmania.
What the Stone Tools Have to “Tell”
Figuring out the types of the first tools of the first people is not as interesting as trying to understand what they mean. Why did anthropologists get so excited when they found artificially produced stone fragments in the Olduvai Gorge? Why did geologists spend years of research in Olduvai, scrutinizing everything under our feet dozens of meters deep? For example, American geologist Richard Hay devoted 12 years to field research in the Olduvai Gorge alone. The efforts of scientists were aimed at finding answers to the main questions people have about themselves.
Bone fragments from ancient extinct primates: teeth, jaw fragments, and fragmentary skulls, answer the question of how humans were separated from all other animals. Unnaturally chipped rocks answer the question of why this occurred.
What, in essence, is behind these findings in East Africa?
We know today that human ancestors were forced down from the trees to the ground because of global changes in the flora of their habitats. These areas were becoming more arid, savannahs were appearing where the dense forests used to grow, and they were expanding. The transition from tree-climbing with four limbs to walking on the ground on feet freed up the hands. The upper limbs began to be used not only for grasping but also for more complex actions in interacting with the environment. It led to a transformation of both the hands themselves and the brain, the task area of which underwent major expansion.
Alongside this, the jaws and teeth changed: the jaw shortened, the canines and premolars decreased. In fact, in order to distinguish hominids from all the primates, only two criteria are used: bipedalism and reduction of the maxillary apparatus. The additional criterion is the increased volume of the brain, but this is a characteristic variable in the ancestors of humans.
The evolution of these body parts took several million years; for example, it took about 3 million years to master bipedal gait with confidence. Even more time passed between the release of the hands and the beginning of making tools from stone. During this period, hands were used, in addition to pre-existing tasks, only for carrying children and transporting food over long distances through savannah areas.
Life in the savanna forced human ancestors to transform in order to adapt and survive. Open spaces are more dangerous because of large and fast predators. Moreover, the competitors of human ancestors appeared: The ancient geladas are the now extinct species of the genus Theropithecus, in particular the large-sized Theropithecus brumpti and Theropithecus oswaldi. The latter reached an average height of 130 centimetres (ca. 4 feet). Considering that australopithecines were not taller than 120-140 centimetres (3 to 4.5 feet) (the famous Lucy, for example, was only 1 metre (3 feet) tall) and that only habilis and ergasters could surpass the 1.5 (5 ft.) metre mark, ancient geladas were indeed a threat to the first humans and their ancestors as rivals. Those were large ancient baboons that inhabited the area exactly between 3 mln and 2.5 mln years ago; they never survived till nowadays, leave alone the fact of simultaneous existence of several other species of primates who competed with our ancestors during that period.
As we know, all evolutionary branches of the primate species that left the forest turned out to be dead ends, except for the one that leads to modern humans. But why? Apparently, one of the decisive factors was the change in diet from herbivority to omnivority. This is indicated by a chain of sequences spectacularly demonstrating the evolutionary advantage of adaptability. As forests became smaller and the amount of plant food decreased, the ancestors of humans switched to partial predation. It was during this period that stones were needed to be able to carve up found animal carcasses.
The further sequence of events was as follows. One line of development describes the evolution of the primitive industry - there was an increase in the sophistication of tools and hunting devices, which allowed scavengers to become hunter-gatherers and no longer depend on chance but directly influence the quantity of meat food.
The other line of development shows physiological adaptation: the reduction in the diet of plant food contributed to a lighter body (the stomach became smaller, the center of gravity moved higher), but the increase of meat in the diet led to an increase and strengthening of the whole body, bipedal gait became the norm, the skeleton adapted to cover large distances by the first humans, which made it possible to take over new territories choosing the best of those.
It was Homo erectus, i.e., “upright man”, who first managed to leave Africa and settle in Eurasia. The erectus is the direct descendant of the ergaster (Homo ergaster, i.e., “working man”), which, in turn, is directly descended from the habilis (Homo habilis, man of skill). In other words, the artisans were able to figure out how to improve found objects, the workmen developed a way to optimize these objects (the ergaster is attributed to the authorship of the later Acheulean culture, in which the fang-shaped chopper appeared), and the erectus, having inherited unprecedented technology, spread it to all areas where they reached.
To recapitulate, let us emphasize once again that the qualitative evolutionary transition from australopithecine apes to the first Homo occurred precisely against the background of mastering the simplest stone processing technology. The connection between these events is clear. This is why the findings from Olduvai made in the early 1960s made such a strong impression on scientists.
It was Louis Leakey who advanced the hypothesis that humans originated in Africa. And this bold assumption has been fully confirmed: today the theory of the African origin of man is the dominant one in the scientific community. This is confirmed by numerous findings all over the planet, as well as by genetic examination. Only the most odious fans of esoteric, racist and nationalist movements dare to argue with the scientific theory, but who is nowadays interested in the opinion of such poorly educated representatives of Homo sapiens.
By the way, the indefatigable Luis Leakey did not stop at archaeological research, but went further. As soon as he realized that the key to understanding the differences between the first humans and ape-like creatures lies in their behavior, he set up a unique project for long-term observations of modern human-like apes: chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. This is how the "Leakey Angels" came to be: three intrepid naturalist girls who went out into the wild in the name of science.
Birute Galdikas went to Borneo to study orangutans, Diane Fossey headed to Rwanda to observe the mountain gorillas, and Jane Goodall remained in Tanzania where she studied the chimpanzees Gombe Stream national park for more than 45 years. By the way, other scientists are continuing her work now. However, anyone can enter the park and observe chimpanzees, as well as the museum located in Ngorongoro.
The Olduvai Gorge Museum
Much of what was found in the Olduvai Gorge can be seen in the museum which is located within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area on the edge of Olduvai itself. It was opened in the 1970s by Mary Leakey. In 2018, the museum was completely rebuilt and expanded with new exhibits, adding artefacts from other excavation sites in Africa. The exhibit is enhanced with beautiful modern displays showing scenes from the lives of the first people.
The museum complex itself deserves attention, it is built like the traditional Maasai boma: a circular village with semi-circular dwellings. It is a reference to the architecture of the tribal people inhabiting the land nearby. You can learn more about the unusual traditions and modern but, in many aspects, primaeval life of Africa's most famous tribe in our feature article on Masaai.
Inside the museum, you can also see the Nutcracker, the skull of Paranthropus boisei, discovered by Mary Leakey in 1959, and fragments of the skeletons of Homo habilis and Homo erectus found in Olduvai. Also on display here are the copies of the world's most famous skeletons: that of Australopithecus Lucy, which 3.2 million years ago conveniently fell into a lake, preserving its skeleton; and that of the Turkana Boy, a representative of the “working man” who lived 1.53 million years ago and whose remains were found by Richard Leakey in 1984.
A separate hall is allocated to display the fossilised footprints discovered by Mary Leakey in the nearby Laetoli. These are footprints remarkably similar to those of modern humans, only they are 3.6 to 3.8 million years old. They are the oldest signs of bipedalism to have been found. It looks like a family walked across the volcanic ash and mud: a male followed by a female holding a baby by the hand. At some point, judging by the nature of the prints, the mother lifted the child by the hand, and the child jumped on one leg, leaving two footprints of one leg in a row. Stanislav Drobyshevsky, a Russian anthropologist, believes that this is the first game of human ancestors that we have been able to record.
The museum also displays skulls and other bones of ancient animals. Now it is hard to imagine that once there were several species of elephants, giraffes, hippos, and even humans in Africa. Most species have not survived to this day. All the more is it interesting to look at their bones, to study information about them and try to imagine what the ancient world looked like when the gorge was inhabited by such a variety of animals. For example, in the museum, you can see the tusks of an ancient boar which reached the size of a modern elephant.
And of course, the museum displays many stone tools of the Oldowan culture: choppers, spheroids, scrapers and other types of the first stone tools, the use of which helped the ancient apes to separate into a special genus and gain a huge advantage over other animals in a short time.
The history of the Olduvai findings leaves a strong impression once you get a sense of the scale of the historical changes that took place here with our ancestors.
Are there any new finds to expect?
Is that possible that the history of archaeological sensations from Olduvai came to an end in the 20th century? Why has nothing significant been found any more in such a successfully preserved geological area? Have the excavations been discontinued?
In fact, this place, as well as many other evidence of past cultures buried under the ground, is expecting to be discovered. Tanzania, among other countries in Africa, is slower to develop than the rest of the world, and the country’s own scientific capabilities do not yet allow to deploy research commensurate with the scale of interest on the part of paleoanthropologists. Research is still going on but neither the intensity nor the quality of it are up to international standards. Frankly speaking, all findings here nowadays are due to chance.
Nevertheless, even nowadays, exciting news sometimes comes from Olduvai. For example, in 2009, skull fragments were found that could potentially belong to the oldest Homo sapiens ever discovered. A scientific description of the skull fragments appeared in 2018, and it confirms that the fossil human belonged to our species. Apart from that, the dating varies within too great a range.
The fact is that there is an unproclaimed chase for the oldest sapiens, the first representative of our species among various countries in Africa. The Olduvai Gorge which delivered the first representative of the human species to the world may well once again loudly declare itself, giving out a new archaeological sensation. The excavations continue; we must be patient.
Where You Need to Go to See All of That
We realise that mere reading about the origins of the human race is not enough to fully grasp the enormity of the phenomena that Olduvai has preserved for us. Perhaps the images and films that we recommend, as well as the interactive sites where you can interact with the objects, will help you visualize it a little better.
Photographic Restorations and Virtual Museums
The virtual laboratory of Louise Leakey, granddaughter of the legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey may help satisfy your curiosity. This project created by the third-generation paleontologist allows the visitors to view and rotate the digital 3D copies of fossils found in Olduvai. The collection is being continuously expanded.
The website of John Gurche, a paleo artist, is a place to view marvellous photographs of ancient hominids including the Paranthropus boisei, a Homo habilis and a Homo erectus. The reconstruction artist works for the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, USA. John Gurche creates sculptures of dinosaurs and realistic portraits of human ancestors such as this.
The Kennis brothers’ website offers a gallery of hyperrealistic images of ancient primates - for example, the famous australopithecus Lucy.
The Jeongok Prehistory Museum in Republic of Korea exhibits the lifesize models of the ancient human ancestors as well as their cousins. The magnificent reconstructions were created by Elizabeth Dynes and Kim Seong-moon. Thanks to educational project by Google you don't have to go to Korea; you can take a quick trip to this virtual hall, examine the exhibits in detail and read about each character from the past. For example, the second specimen here is Lucy, the fourth is a Paranthropus boisei, the fifth is Homo habilis from Olduvai, and the seventh is Homo ergaster from Kenya.
The lectures from YouTube are very educational but lack action sometimes. In this section, we will not deal with the literary works of fiction that sprang from their authors’ imaginations but tip you to a couple of nice documentaries instead.
A Species Odyssey
This is a three-part film released in 2003 in which the viewer is taken through millions of years from early hominids to Homo sapiens. It rates pretty high on IMDb: the score is 7.2, which is well-deserved. Scientists, including the discoverers of the famous Lucy, were involved in writing the script. Although, according to anthropologists, it is still not without bloopers.
The action begins in East Africa at a time when the ancestors of man were mastering bipedalism. The Olduvai region and the vast savannahs surrounding it can be seen in the first two episodes. The viewers follow the lives of Australopithecus and Orrorin, Habilis and Ergaster, as well as extinct animals and other inhabitants of ancient Africa. One can see the tragic death of Lucy, the habilis' mastery of primary stone-working techniques, the more advanced ergasters, and the actively traveling erectus settling the neighbouring continent.
If one does not pick on the minutiae, watches the film with the original soundtrack and discounts the 20 years of computer graphics obsolescence, then, on the whole, A Species Odyssey can be considered a useful material that delves into the topic of human evolution.
Walking with Cavemen
In the same year, 2003, BBC released a four-part popular-science film as a spin-off of the project about dinosaurs. Its main characters were hominids, from the Afar australopithecines to the first sapiens. On IMDb, this mini-series is rated even higher than its predecessor, the score is 7.6, and the scientists gave an even better review of the film. In addition, the narration is approached originally: the narrator, the famous scientist Robert Winston, appears in the frame and even interacts with the characters, thus fully justifying the title.
Those whom we described in this article appear in the first three episodes. Among the advantages of the film, one may rate the minimum of computer graphics and the reliance on made-up actors (this is also a drawback as the proportions and appearance of ancient hominids are thus distorted), as well as a more scrupulous scientific approach than the one of the previous mini-series. Although overly bold assertions, bloopers and some liberties are also present in this work. However, it is fundamentally impossible to make a perfectly accurate film about what happened millions of years ago.
Probably the best option would be to go to Ngorongoro crater to become an eyewitness of the legendary Olduvai Gorge and to visit the museum holding exhibits from the Gorge in person. This can be done by combining a visit to Olduvai with a safari tour featuring the visits to Ngorongoro and Serengeti. The road to the museum is exactly in the fork of the road between those two locations. Just voice your wish to do so to your tour manager before your itinerary is complete.
Thus you will have a chance to compare the images of the ancient animal with the contemporary residents of this area and to visit a place where the history of humankind began.