Tanzania’s archaeological sites at Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli make the Ngorongoro Conservation Area one of the world’s most significant places for the study of human evolution. Visit this cradle of mankind and the nearby Shifting Sands for a journey into the very origins of our species.It’s one of Tanzania’s best safari experiences.
My partner and I left our lodge at Ngorongoro Crater early one morning and were driven northwest towards the Serengeti through a beautiful, elemental landscape. We were thrilled to be heading for the internationally-renowned archaeological sites of Laetoli and Olduvai Gorge. Both places continue to contribute significantly to our understanding of humankind’s physical, behavioural and technological evolution.
We reached Olduvai and climbed out. Before us was a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley. Olduvai Gorge is about 48km long and located in the eastern Serengeti Plain. At the top stood a small museum. We stepped inside and found fascinating exhibits, including fossils and artefacts belonging to our human ancestors, as well as skeletons of many extinct animals that shared their world.
Then we were joined by a guide, who led us around the site. We stood looking down into the gorge. ‘Some 30,000 years ago, a splitting of the earth’s surface by violent geological activity and millennia of erosion by seasonally flowing streams incised this 90m-deep canyon,’ said Moses. ‘Natural forces exposed a remarkably rich geological chronicle of human ancestry. Over the last half century, it’s become increasingly apparent that Africa is the “Cradle of Humankind”. From Africa, our ancestors spread out to populate the rest of the earth. Remains of the earliest humans were found right here in Oldupai Gorge.’
‘But Moses, on my map it says Olduvai,’ I interrupted.
‘That’s the old name. Olduvai is a misspelling of Oldupai, a Maasai word for the wild sisal plant that grows here.’
As we walked through the site, Moses talked about how Oldupai has proven invaluable in furthering our understanding of human evolution. He spoke about the pioneering work of the British-Tanzanian paleoanthropologist team of Mary and Louis Leakey. This intrepid couple established and developed the excavation and research programmes at Olduvai Gorge. The Leaky excavations yielded four different kinds of hominid, showing a gradual increase in brain size and in the complexity of their stone tools.
‘Homo habilis was probably the first early human species and occupied Oldupai about 1,9 million years ago,’ explained Moses. ‘Homo habilis was followed by a contemporary australopithecine, Paranthropus boisei, 1,8 million years ago. Then came Homo erectus, 1,2 million years ago. And finally, of course, there was us: Homo sapiens. We occupied the site a mere 17,000 years ago.