The Cradle of Mankind: Olduvai Gorge - History Key

The Cradle of Mankind: Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai Gorge is considered the oldest paleoanthropological site in the world. The country is Tanzania and the location is a steep-sided ravine of Great Rift Valley that goes across East Africa, and about 48 kilometer long. A more exact location can be related to the eastern Serengeti Plains, in the Arusha Region.

What does paleoanthropological means?

The paleoanthropology term comes from Greek, meaning old or ancient (palaiós) and man or human (ánthrōpos). This is a discipline related to the study of the formation and development of the humans and the reconstruction of evolutionary route in the Hominid family. And when it comes to human evolution, Olduvai Gorge becomes the most important name in the game.

View on monolith at Olduvai Gorge
View on monolith at Olduvai Gorge © D. Gordon E. Robertson/Image Source: Wikipedia

The Discovery

The most important research programs from the Olduvai area were developed by the British/Kenyan paleoanthropologist-archeologist team Mary and Louis Leakey. Before them, a German neurologist named Wilhelm Kattwinkel visited Olduvai Gorge in 1911. Back then he had the chance to study some strange fossil bones, which were found in the area, seeming to be related to an extinct three-toed horse.

Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey and her husband Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey
Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey and her husband Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey © Smithsonian Institution / Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Hans Reck
Hans Reck © Image Source: Wikipedia

Kattwinkel’s discovery has animated the interest of some researchers, among them the German geologist Hans Reck, who in 1913, led a research team to Olduvai. During the expedition, he managed to recover hominid remains, but the beginning of the First World War has postponed the operation.

Only after WW1, in 1929, the task of studying the Olduvai area, was taken over by Louis Leakey, who became convinced that the spot was holding priceless information related to the human origins. In 1959, at the Frida Leakey Korongo excavation site, Mary Leakey managed to uncover the remains of the robust australopithecine Zinjanthropus boisei, who was baptized by her as the “Nutcracker Man”; the age of the remains were fixed at 1.75 million years.

Louis Leakey examining skulls from Olduvai Gorge
Louis Leakey examining skulls from Olduvai Gorge © Bureau of Land Management/Image Source: Wikipedia

Together with the hominid remains, more than 2,000 stone tools have been found, most of them are being cataloged as “Oldowan tools”. As a family tradition, in 1960, the Leakey’s son, Jonathan, made a huge discovering, by uncovering a jaw fragment that proved to be the first fossil specimen of Homo Habilis.

“Homo habilis occupied Olduvai from 1.9 mya. The australopithecine Paranthropus boisei was found to occupy the site from approximately 1.8 until 1.2 mya. Remains of Homo erectus have been dated at the site from 1.2 mya until 700,000 years ago. Homo sapiens came to occupy the gorge some 17,000 years ago.” (Quote from

Further studies, conducted by geologist Richard L. Hay between 1961 and 2002, revealed that the site once contained a large lake, having the shores covered by volcanic ash. The researches conducted by the Leakey family, altered and changed the already classic ideas related to the time scale of human evolution. Their work, together with the hominid fossils dated 1.75 million years, convinced most paleoanthropologists that humans did indeed evolved in Africa.

(Article written with references from:,

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