History of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania - Wild Voyager Blog
History of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania

History of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania

Olduvai Gorge is the world’s most important paleoanthropological sites in the world. Also known as Oldupai Gorge, it is situated in Tanzania and nestled in between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Park. This site has proven to be valuable in furthering the understanding and study of human evolution.

The Olduvai Gorge
The Olduvai Gorge

While visiting Tanzania, a trip to Olduvai Gorge makes up for a fascinating experience. It rewards visitors with the history of mankind’s ancestors, offers an insightful museum, and boasts the most scenic vistas of the country.

Structure of the Olduvai Gorge

The Olduvai Gorge, formed thousands of years ago due to aggressive geological activity and streams, is a steep-sided ravine. It consists of two branches, having a combined length of roughly 30 miles or 48 km, and is 295 feet or 90 meters deep. Although it is massive in height, it is not large enough to be classified as a canyon.

A river cuts through several layers of Olduvai Gorge to form four distinct beds. The oldest bed is estimated to be about 2 million years old. In each of the beds, paleoanthropologists have found several important revolutionary discoveries.

Significance of the Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai Gorge borrows its name from the Maasai word ‘oldupai’ which means ‘the place or area of the wild sisal’.  It is because the East African wild sisal that grows generously through the gorge area.

This gorge holds the earliest evidence of the existence of human ancestors. The first early human species to occupy Olduvai Gorge, as suggested by paleoanthropologists, are Homo habilis residing approximately 1.9 million years ago. Our known species, the Homo sapiens, have estimated to emerge roughly 30,000 years ago and seemed to reside on the gorge at least 17,000 years ago.

Olduvai stone chopping tool
Olduvai stone chopping tool

Paleoanthropologists have discovered stone tools and hundreds of fossilized bones at the site that date back to millions of years ago. This led them to conclude that humans have indeed evolved in Africa. The deposits on the sides of the gorge cover a timeline of approximately 2.1 million to 15,000 years ago. These deposits have uncovered the remains of more than 60 members of the human lineage or hominins.

Aside from these findings, the site significantly showcases the increased development and social complexities that took place in the earliest hominins or humans. Before the stone tools came into the picture, pieces of evidence of hunting and scavenging are also seen in the Olduvai Gorge. There is also evidence of development in social interaction and community activity that further indicated an increase in cognitive capacities in humans.

Discovery and research at Olduvai Gorge

In 1911, German physicist and archaeologist Wilhelm Kattwinkel paid a visit to the Olduvai Gorge when he visited East Africa to investigate sleeping sickness. At the site, he observed fossil bones of an extinct three-toed horse.

German geologist Hans Reck soon became inspired by Kattwinkel’s observation and led a team to Olduvai in 1913. He discovered hominin remains and used the method of radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the fossil. The hominin remains dated back to 17,000 BP (Before Present).

Various expeditions to Olduvai Gorge were planned but were canceled abruptly due to World War I. Louis and Mary Leakey, British paleoanthropologists, visited Reck in Berlin and viewed the fossils found in Olduvai. The Leakey’s became convinced that the gorge could be holding the evidence of stone tools. Louis Leakey also thought the remains were of closer age as that of the Kariandusi prehistoric site in Kenya.

A plaque marking the discovery of Australopithecus
A plaque marking the discovery of Australopithecus

In the 1930s, the Leakey’s discovered stone tools in the Olduvai Gorge and elsewhere. Their notable findings consisted of several extinct vertebrates. Among them included the first and few fossil ape skull called Pronconsul primate which was 25-million-year-old.

Paranthropus boisei fossil hominid
Paranthropus boisei fossil hominid

During the late 1950s, the Leakey’s found 400 pieces of a nearly completed skull. The remains claimed to have lived 1.75 million years ago, making it the oldest hominin discovered at that point.

In 1960, among the several developments that took place during this period, the Leakey’s discovered a well-preserved fossil foot that had arches. It gave credence to the theory of hominins walking on two feet. Mary Leakey and her son Jonathan Leakey uncovered another smaller human form of hominin which they referred to as homo habilis or the handy human because it seemed to be able to use tools.

The Leakey’s are credited for most of the excavations and discoveries in the Olduvai gorge.

Other discoveries

A 1.8-million-year-old skull was discovered in Olduvai by Peter Nzube who was part of Leakey’s team in 1968. Since it had to be reconstructed from its flat state, the skull was named ‘Twiggy’.

The well-known Twiggy skull
The well-known Twiggy skull

But one of the most significant findings at Olduvai Gorge occurred in 1986. During this time span, a team of American and Tanzanian archaeologists unearthed more than 300 bones and teeth that belonged to a female, dating back to 1.8 million years ago.

Olduvai Gorge museum and monument

Today, many of the excavation sites at the gorge are still operational. In 2019, the Olduvai Gorge Monument was erected at the turnoff to Olduvai Gorge. The monument is erected to commemorate this prominent site while also attracting visitors to the Olduvai Gorge and museum.

The Olduvai Gorge monument
The Olduvai Gorge monument

The monument has two large-scale models of fossil skulls, created by Tanzanian artist Festo Kijo. The fossil skulls depict the two contemporary species, Homo habilis and Paranthropus boisei, that were first discovered at Olduvai gorge.

Official guides can take visitors on a tour of Olduvai Gorge and explain the interesting history it encompasses. Located 5 km beyond the monument is the Olduvai Gorge Museum that provides educational exhibits of the gorge and further evidence.

Olduvai Gorge has a long history and has contributed immensely to the study of human evolution. A visit to the gorge is a must for anyone traveling to Northern Tanzania. 


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Wild Voyager Team

The blogging team at Wild Voyager. We are explorers at heart and we love to share our travel stories and destination knowledge with you, which often serve as an inspiration for the life changing journeys we curate. When you decide to embark on one such life changing journey, our travel experience designers at letstalk@wildvoyager.com will be happy to get you started.

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