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Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

The Olduvai Gorge or Oldupai Gorge in Northern Tanzania is commonly referred to as "The Cradle of Mankind." It is a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley, which stretches along eastern Africa. Olduvai is in the eastern Serengeti Plains in northern Tanzania and is about 30 miles long. The gorge is named after the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant (Sansevieria ehrenbergii), commonly called Oldupaai. The name "Olduvai" was derived from early European miss-spelling of "Oldupaai" the Maasai name for the plants that grow in that area.The gorge is about 50 km long and in some places 90 metres deep. It drains the slopes of the nearby mountains plus the Serengeti Plain. Its chief claim to fame is the rich treasure-trove of human and animal fossils that it has yielded.

It has amazing landscape that resulted from the tectonic forces which created the Great Rift Valley million of years ago. Long ago the area was covered by ancient salt lake which vanished and leaving salt deposits exposed in its walls until today. The importance of this area lies on the uncovered archeological remains; fossils remains, including the bones of early hominids, stone tools, marks and a building site. Other sites within the area are Laetoli site, Lake Ndutu Sites, and Nasera Rock Shelter.

The Shifting Sands Phenomena at Olduvai Gorge

Apart from Olduvai Gorge, which reminds us of the origin of mankind, there are also the ruins of the ancient city, which are marked by stone terrace and the complex irrigation system at Engaruka within Conservation Area Shifting Sands: There is the volcanic ash dune of Shifting Sands situated near Olduvai Gorge. These crescent-shaped mounds are a remarkable

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

phenomenon. Technically they are known as barkan, and they result if there is sufficient dust on the ground and a unidirectional wind to blow it. The dust collects around a stone, and this collection accumulates more. The process continues, with the mound growing all the time, and then it begins to move. The crescents have their two sharp arms pointing the way the wind is going, and the whole shape is beautifully symmetrical.

History of archaeological work at Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
In 1911, a German entomologist, Professor Kattwinkel, was the first European to enter the gorge. He noticed many fossil bones, identified as an extinct three-toed horse. This inspired Professor Hans Reck to lead an expedition to Olduvai in 1913. he found a hominid skeleton, but further work was halted by World War I. some years later, Louis Leakey saw the Olduvai
fossils in Berlin and was convicted that Olduvai must hold valuable clues to human origins. In 1931, Leakey organised an expedition to the Gorge with Reck, and found stone tools within a few hours of arriving at the gorge.
In further excarvations, Leakey and his wife Mary found and described many stone tools and fossil animals, but found no significant hominid ("human-like") fossils until 1959, when Mary Leakey discovered the first skull of "Zinjanthropus".

Now renamed Australopithecus boisei, this creature had a massive skull with huge teeth that suggested a diet of coarse vegetable food, and lived 1.75 million years ago. In 1976 Mary Leakey discovered a fossil hominid and animal tracks at Laetoli, a site twice as ancient as anything at Olduvai. It is well worth visiting the site where "Zinj" was found, just five minutes' drive from the visitor centre. Ask the guides for the latest discoveries!

Archeological and Touristic Significance
Excavations in the early twentieth century by the famous archaeologist, Dr Louis Leakey, uncovered some of the earliest remains of fossil hominids at Olduvai. Seventeen years after the first discovery of human forms, Leakey’s wife, Mary, discovered the unmistakable fossilised footprints of a human ancestor who had walked along a riverbank three million years ago. Since then, excavators working in Olduvai have found skeletal remains of a number of ancient hominids – Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Australopithecus Boisei. Old campsites and what is believed to be a butchery site, as well as a loosely built circle of lava blocks was also found suggesting that crude shelters were also built here. Other findings include hunting weapons, basic tools and remains of dead animals once killed by humans.

The main Olduvai Beds are in a lake basin about 16 miles in diameter. The rocks under the basin date to 5.3 million years ago. There have been seven major Beds distinguished they are ranked from oldest to youngest; Bed I, Bed II, Bed III, Bed IV, the Masek Beds, the Ndutu Beds, and Baisiusiu Beds.

Human Ancestry Discoveries in Olduvai Gorge

3,500,000 years ago, our very remote ancient ancestors walked through a landscape very like that which we see today. The volcanoes were fewer but more active then, though Ngorongoro had not yet towered high above the others. On one particular day, the volcano Sadiman puffed out a lot of grey ashes, so that the local animals left crisp, clear tracks when they walked. Some of the creatures have changed little; hares were abundant, guinea-fowl scurried about, giraffes strode regally over the plain. Others are no longer with us, such as an elephant with downward-curving tusks in its lower jaw, and Hipparion, a three-toed horse.

Through this desolate grey landscape that would later be named Laetoli travelled through hominids. Shorter than ourselves (1.2 to 1.4 metres high), they may have looked more than apes than people, but they walked on two legs. A large, a medium-sized and a small individual walked together, the medium-sized one stepping in the tracks of its large companion. A day or two later, a fresh ash-fall buried the tracks, until they were excavated in 1978. We know from contemporary fossils that the footprints were made by Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominid.

It is tempting to wonder why these ape-like, small brained creatures (450cc; our own brains average 1400cc) walked upright - could they see further afield? Did they use their hands for carrying water, food, or babies? Or did they carry sticks, stones or thorn branches to fight off neighbouring hominids, or predators? If they carried such weapons, did they use them in self-defence or to stela kills from hunters?

1,890,000 years ago, the volcano Olmoti erupted, and thick lava flows covered the area now occupied by Olduvai Gorge. burying any earlier remains beneath black basalt. A lake soon formed there, and became the focus of activity for a wide variety of animals. Its alkaline waters provided ideal conditions for fossilizing dead animals and plants falling in it. The descendants of Laetoli's upright-walkers were at Olduvai. Two different kinds of hominids left remains in the deepest level of the gorge, Australopithecus boisei and homo habilis ("handy man").

1,500,000 years ago, earth movements and faulting caused "Lake Olduvai" to be drained. At this time australopithecus afarensis was still presented, while homo habilis had evolved to homo erectus ("upright man"), our direct ancestors. This human had a bigger brain (900cc) and made better stone hand-axes. Only 17,000 years ago homo sapiens lived in the gorge.

Further Information and Booking a Visit
Memorable trips and archeological tours to Olduvai Gorge are featured within various safari itineraries itineraries visiting featured in this site. We have a wide range of carefully designed wildlife safaris featuring visits to Olduvai Gorge. Your safari consultant will always be at your assistance should you need a tailor-made visit to this location. For more information regarding this attraction, please DO NOT hesitate to contact us.
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Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

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