Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai Gorge remains one of the most recog­nized archaeological sites in the world. It has pro­vided, and continues to provide, vital information to researchers seeking answers about the origins of humanity and its evolution through time.

Wilhelm Kattwinkel, a German entomologist, stumbled across Olduvai Gorge in 1911 in northern Tanzania. The location is a canyon approximately 40 kilometers long with walls standing nearly 100 meters high that showcase nearly 2 million years of history. Extensive investigations at Olduvai Gorge began shortly afterward, yielding an array of lithic tools and fossilized animal remains amongst which were the remains of early hominids, including those of Australopithecine (boisei) and Homo habilis specimens. The variety of nonhominid remains dis­covered at Olduvai Gorge, found both separate from and amongst those of hominids, includes giraffe, antelope, and elephant. Collectively, the remains and associated tools continue to provide researchers with crucial data regarding the activities of early hominids and the overall development of humanity through time. For the latter issue, Olduvai Gorge helped put Africa in the forefront of human origins research, leading to other significant finds within the region. This includes Mary D. Leakey’s 1979 discovery of Australopithecus afarensis foot­prints in Laetoli, Tanzania, which provided evi­dence of bipeDalíism approximately 3.6 million years before the present (BP).

A host of researchers investigated Olduvai Gorge’s assemblages after Kattwinkel’s discovery in 1911. However, it is the Leakey family of researchers in particular who are most noted for their excavation of and reporting on Olduvai Gorge. The Leakeys, particularly Louis, Mary, and Richard, are a multigenerational family of scholars who continue to spearhead human origin investi­gations as they did throughout the 20th century. Although their fieldwork has been curtailed in recent years, the Leakey family’s collective impact on our understanding of the development of the human species through time is still strong. As for their collection and analysis of fossil and lithic material recovered from Olduvai Gorge, it was the parents, Louis and Mary, who initiated their activ­ities throughout the early and middle portions of the 20th century. With the help of their children, the Leakeys uncovered evidence of early hominids evolving within Africa, including Australopithecines and Homo habilis, and of changes in lithic tech­nology over time. Ultimately, the Leakey family’s impact on the study of human origins and time itself is unparalleled. Through their examination of Olduvai Gorge and its various sites, the Leakeys helped determine multiple stages of hominid evolu­tion and expand our contemplation of human evolution to accept the long duration of time through which humanity changed from early hom­inids to humankind’s present form.

The finding of Olduvai Gorge was in and of itself an important discovery for archaeologists, paleontologists, and other researchers interested in the evolution of species and the changes of technologies developed by hominids. Specifically, however, there are a few discoveries in particular that set Olduvai Gorge apart from other archaeo­logical sites pertaining to prehistoric populations. The first such find was uncovered in 1959.

After years of excavating in Olduvai Gorge, Mary Leakey uncovered the remains of an early hominid, which was later designated as Zinjan- thropus boisei. These thick-boned and almost complete skeletal remains, discovered in 1959, were later dated to 1.8 millions years BP and ulti­mately classified as Australopithecus boisei. As stated earlier, this discovery not only provided a broader understanding of the development of the human species from earlier primate forms, it also provided an impetus for investigating Africa for evidence of human origins and evolution. That fact alone is grounds for securing Olduvai Gorge’s place among the most important archaeological sites throughout the world, although it also pro­vided other landmark discoveries.

Decades of excavation, analysis, and interpreta­tion on the part of the Leakey family helped direct the attention of researchers toward Africa in the quest to unravel the mysteries of human evolution. The Leakeys’ reputation, which was enhanced by the uncovering of Zinjanthropus boisei, was further cemented by the early 1970s discovery of human remains that were eventually classified Homo habi- lis. It was the first set of Homo habilis remains to be discovered and further hinted at Africa’s being the location where humanity developed.

A final Olduvai Gorge discovery that requires mentioning is the Oldowan Tradition. With all the early hominid remains and ancient tools recovered from the gorge, it ultimately became possible for researchers to determine stages of technological development on the part of hominids along with the stages of biological development that human­ity endured. The Oldowan Tradition, a term coined by the Leakey family, included lithic tool forms resembling rocks with flakes removed to create a cutting or puncturing edge; this tool kit included cores and flakes, both possibly used as tools and weaponry. While rudimentary in design, the Oldowan Tradition showed a propensity toward technology on the part of early hominids unmatched by other organisms. As for Olduvai Gorge’s temporal significance as related to this technology, the gorge provided researchers with an idea of when the technology surfaced and for how long it survived.

Additional evidence of early hominids has been discovered elsewhere, including Laetoli (Tanzania), Ethiopia, and South Africa. Yet Olduvai Gorge, which continues to yield data regarding human evolution, retains lasting significance. By helping to guide researchers toward Africa in their efforts to ascertain how modern human beings evolved from earlier hominids, the discoveries at Olduvai Gorge were crucial in helping to provide a foun­dation for the study of humanity’s development through time.

Neil Patrick O’Donnell

See also Anthropology; Archaeology; Fossils and

Artifacts; Geology; Paleontology

Further Readings

Fagan, B. M., & DeCourse, C. R. (2005). In the beginning: An introduction to archaeology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Leaky, L. S. B. (1951). Olduvai Gorge: A report on the evolution of the hand-axe culture in beds I-IV.

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, P. (2006). Olduvai Gorge. In H. James Birx (Ed.), Encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 1451-1452). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Price, D. T., & Feinman, G. M. (1993). Images of the past. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

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