Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Olduvai Gorge: In the Footsteps of the Ancients

Jenny Carless is filling in for Supriya this week. Jenny is a nonfiction writer, amateur wildlife photographer, and novelist-in-training who last blogged with us in April.

There’s a place in Kenya I’d like to visit sometime. Not for the wildlife, and not for the warm and welcoming Kenyans who live there today—but for the people who lived there a very long time ago. 

I don’t expect to find lots of fossils and artifacts. I simply want to be in the place where our ancient ancestors (or related species) once walked, the very place from which humans may have evolved.

The “Cradle of Mankind”

Olduvai Gorge (the Maasai call it Oldupai, for a local plant) is located in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and has been called the “cradle of mankind.” (However, just as Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach fight over the name “Surf City USA,” it seems that a couple of places use this moniker.)

Whatever you call it, this spot has been the site of some of the most significant archaeological and anthropological finds ever. Over the eons, this part of East Africa was home to Homo habilis (about 1.9 million years ago), Paranthropus boisei (about 1.8 million years ago), and Homo erectus (about 1.2 million years ago). Homo sapiens showed up about 17,000 years ago.

Discoveries at Olduvai Gorge profoundly changed our views about the time scales of human evolution and provided evidence that humans originally evolved in Africa.

The Leakey Family Legacy

In most people’s minds, this archaeological site—and others in East Africa—is synonymous with the famous Leakey family (Louis; his wife, Mary; his son, Richard; Richard’s daughter, Louise). Louis and Mary Leakey are responsible for most of the excavations in Olduvai Gorge. However, Wilhelm Kattwinkel, a German entomologist, actually discovered the site, in 1911.

Not only did the Leakeys find early stone tools that provide evidence that humans evolved in Africa, they also discovered that the tools were transported many miles, suggesting the species’ ability to think and to plan. Many believe that Homo habilis, nicknamed “Handy Man,” was the earliest tool maker.

Homo habilis
It’s apparently still a point of some controversy as to whether these earliest residents hunted or scavenged or survived by a combination of the two. Most believe that they ate berries, tubers and roots. Some of the tools found allowed them to remove meat from dead animals, and others, to get marrow from bones. Archaeologists have found the bones of animals—like ancient wildebeests—near Handy Man’s bones and tools, but we don’t know if Homo habilis killed the animals or just ate the meat opportunistically.  

Handy Man

Mary and Louis Leakey discovered and described the species Homo habilis. The fossils they found in the early 1960s held the record as the earliest known species of the genus Homo until about two years ago. But now, that title is being challenged: A biological anthropologist has proposed that a partial skull found in South Africa belonged to an even earlier species.

Handy Man would be small (about 4 feet 3 inches) compared to most humans today—and had much longer arms, proportionately, than we do. It had about half our cranial capacity.

Paranthropus boisei
Nutcracker Man

Another early species Mary Leakey discovered (Paranthropus boisei), this one in 1959, is called “Nutcracker Man.” (It had big, flat cheek teeth.) The cranium she found is 1.75 million years old.

Richard Leakey later determined that Nutcracker Man was the first species to use stone tools. It had a skull designed for heavy chewing, which also shared some traits with modern gorillas.

In the Footsteps of the Ancients

I’m in awe of what archaeologists and paleontologists do—how they look at small bones, bone fragments and artifacts and paint a vibrant picture of life so long ago. I wonder if, by walking in the footsteps of the ancients, I can somehow see and feel for myself some of the mystery flowing down through the ages. I hope so!

Have you ever been to the site of ancient civilizations or species? If so, how did it feel?

The images of the Homo habilis and Paranthroupus boisei were photographed at Westfӓlisches Museum fϋr Archӓologie, Herne, from scientific reconstructions.


  1. And it's beautiful too. Definitely high on my list of places to visit too.