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The Olduvai Gorge or Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world it has proven invaluable in furthering understanding of early human evolution. A steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley that stretches across East Africa, it is about 48 km (30 mi) long, and is located in the eastern Serengeti Plains within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the Arusha Region, about 45 kilometres (28 miles) from Laetoli, another important archaeological site of early human occupation. The British/Kenyan paleoanthropologist-archeologist team of Mary and Louis Leakey established and developed the excavation and research programs at Olduvai Gorge which achieved great advances of human knowledge and world-renowned status.
The gorge takes its name from the Maasai word oldupai which means "the place of the wild sisal" as the East African wild sisal (Sansevieria ehrenbergii) grows abundantly throughout the gorge area. Twenty-five kilometers downstream of Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek, the gorge cuts into Pleistocene lake bed sediments up to a depth of 90 m. A side gorge, originating from Lemagrut Mountain, joins the main gorge 8 km from the mouth. This side gorge follows the shoreline of a prehistoric lake, rich in fossils and early hominin sites. Periodic flows of volcanic ash from Olmoti and Kerimasi helped to ensure preservation of the fossils in the gorge. 
The site is significant in showing the increasing developmental and social complexities in the earliest humans, or hominins, largely revealed in the production and use of stone tools. Prior to tools, evidence of scavenging and hunting can be noted—highlighted by the presence of gnaw marks that predate cut marks—and of the ratio of meat versus plant material in the early hominin diet. The collecting of tools and animal remains in a centralised area is evidence of developing social interaction and communal activity. All these factors indicate an increase in cognitive capacities at the beginning of the period of hominids transitioning to hominin—that is, to human—form and behaviour.
Homo habilis, probably the first early human species, occupied Olduvai Gorge approximately 1.9 million years ago (mya) then came a contemporary australopithecine, Paranthropus boisei, 1.8 mya, followed by Homo erectus, 1.2 mya. Our species Homo sapiens, which is estimated to have emerged roughly 300,000 years ago, is dated to have occupied the site 17,000 years ago.
These Olduvai stone chopping tools on display in the Olduvai.
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Chipped Stone Scrapers
- Scrapers: A scraper is a chipped stone artifact that has been purposefully shaped with one or more longitudinal sharp edges. Scrapers come in any number of shapes and sizes, and may be carefully shaped and prepared, or simply a pebble with a sharp edge. Scrapers are working tools, made to help clean animals hides, butcher animal flesh, process plant material or any number of other functions.
- Burins: A burin is a scraper with a steeply notched cutting edge.
- Denticulates: Denticulates are scrapers with teeth, that is to say, small notched edges that protrude out.
- Turtle-Backed Scrapers: A turtle backed scraper is a scraper that in cross-section looks like a turtle. One side is humped like a turtle's shell, while the other is flat. Often associated with animal hide working.
- Spokeshave: A spokeshave is a scraper with a concave scraping edge
2-Million-Year-Old Stone Tools Unearthed in Tanzania
An international team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists has discovered a large collection of 2-million-year-old stone tools, fossilized bones and plant materials at the site of Ewass Oldupa in the western portion of the ancient basin of Olduvai Gorge (now Oldupai) in northern Tanzania. The discovery reveals that the earliest Olduvai hominins used diverse, rapidly changing environments that ranged from fern meadows to woodland mosaics, naturally burned landscapes, to lakeside woodland/palm groves as well as steppes.
The site of Ewass Oldupa in Oldupai Gorge, Tanzania. Image credit: Michael Petraglia.
The newly-discovered stone tools belong to the Oldowan, the oldest-known stone tool industry.
Dating as far back as 2.6 million years ago, the Oldowan tools were likely manufactured by Homo habilis, and are a major milestone in human evolutionary history.
“Our research sheds further light on our distant origins and evolutionary history,” said co-author Professor Tristan Carter, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University.
“The exposed canyon wall reveals 2 million years of geological history and ancient sediments have preserved the stone artifacts remarkably, as well as human and faunal remains.”
The concentration of stone tools and animal fossils (wild cattle, pigs, hippos, panthers, lions, hyena, primates, reptiles, and birds) at the Ewass Oldupa site are evidence that both human and animal life centered around water sources.
“Our research reveals that the geological, sedimentary and plant landscapes around Ewass Oldupa changed a lot, and quickly,” the researchers said.
“Yet humans kept coming back here to use local resources for over 200,000 years.”
“They used a great diversity of habitats: fern meadows, woodland mosaics, naturally burned landscapes, lakeside palm groves, steppes.”
“These habitats were regularly blanketed by ash or reworked by mass flows associated with volcanic eruptions.”
“The occupation of varied and unstable environments, including after volcanic activity, is one of the earliest examples of adaptation to major ecological transformations,” said co-author Dr. Pastory Bushozi, a researcher at Dar es Salaam University.
The stone tools from Ngorongoro Formation, Oldupai Gorge, Tanzania: (a) quartzite multipolar-multifacial core (b-c) quartzite flakes (d) ignimbrite chopping-tool (e) ignimbrite chopper (f) quartzite unipolar longitudinal core (g) quartzite multipolar-multifacial core (h) quartzite spheroid (i) quartzite flakes (j-l) quartzite flakes. Image credit: Mercader et al., doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-20176-2.
The scientists also compared the chemical composition of the Ewass Oldupa tools and determined the majority of rocks used to make them had been obtained 12 km (7.5 miles) away from the site.
“This indicates planned behavior at an early stage in human evolution,” said co-author Julien Favreau, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University.
“The artifacts are truly spectacular in terms of their age, but what they really show is that through time, human ancestors were occupying vastly different environments with only one tool kit. It really speaks to their behavioral flexibility and ecological adaptability.”
“Geological, sedimentary and plant landscapes were changing dramatically and quickly at the time,” said lead author Dr. Julio Mercader, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary.
Thanks to past and ongoing radiometric work, the team was able to date the artifacts to a period known as the Early Pleistocene, 2 million years ago.
What’s not clear is which hominin species made the tools.
“We did not recover hominin fossils, but the remains of Homo habilis have been found in the younger sediments from another site just 350 m (1,148 feet) away,” the authors said.
“It’s likely that either Homo habilis or a member of the genus Paranthropus — remains of which have also been found at Olduvai Gorge previously — was the tool maker. More research will be needed to be sure.”
The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.
J. Mercader et al. 2021. Earliest Olduvai hominins exploited unstable environments
2 million years ago. Nat Commun 12, 3 doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-20176-2
A Global History, Told Through '100 Objects'
Sometimes it's the little things that tell the best story. Across the ages, everyday items like plates, pots and even pipes have stood the test of time — and they are just as integral to our history as any monument or cathedral.
A new book takes a selection of these everyday objects and weaves their stories together to tell the ultimate story — a history of the world. In A History of the World in 100 Objects, author Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, culled 100 artifacts from his museum's collection to help him with the task.
"The whole project is an absurd one, obviously," MacGregor tells NPR's Scott Simon. "To try to tell a history of the world anyway, let alone in 100 objects."
From Antiquity And Beyond
To tackle such a daunting challenge, MacGregor first established some ground rules. He decided to start at the very beginning — with the museum's oldest object — and select artifacts through the present day. Within the 2-million-year interim, MacGregor and his team made sure to regularly select objects from different continents.
"We'd keep trying to go around the world so that we would keep spinning the globe at different moments and see what people are up to," he says.
"There were rules to this ridiculous enterprise," he jokes.
The British Museum's oldest object is the Olduvai chopping tool, and MacGregor made sure this unassuming bit of stone was at the top of his list.
"If you saw this [stone] lying on the road or on a beach, you would certainly walk past it," he says. "But when you look at it more closely, you can see that that sharp edge has been very carefully chipped."
Neil MacGregor has been the director of the British Museum since 2002. Viking Press hide caption
Neil MacGregor has been the director of the British Museum since 2002.
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Created in Tanzania about 1.8 million years ago, the tool is one of the oldest objects any human has ever made. The Olduvai stone helped humans to strip the meat off dead animals and break their bones for marrow, giving them the protein needed to help their brains grow.
"[It's] really where the whole story of us making things begins," MacGregor explains. "That's why we're all here today."
In Pursuit Of Pleasure
In addition to fundamental tools like the chopping stone, MacGregor sought to include objects used for pleasure. One such object is from America's own backyard: a North American otter pipe from Ohio.
"One of the great pleasures for a lot of humanity has been smoking. It's not something one should say very loudly in public, but for most of history it appears to have been true," he says.
The otter pipe was found among a collection of little stone pipes that were interred 2,000 years ago in burial mounds in Ohio.
This particular pipe, which is about the same size as a kazoo, was carved in the shape of an otter. MacGregor guesses that the pipe's otter design was intended to add something extra to the user's smoking experience.
"As you smoke it, you're eye to eye with this little animal that appears just to have bobbed up from below the water, he says."Tobacco was probably mildly hallucinogenic, so presumably you and the otter really got going into some kind of relationship as you had your smoke."
Part of this object's appeal is the mystery of its design, says MacGregor. "We've just got to imagine why you would want to make a pipe in the shape of an otter and what actually smoking it would be like."
Another object in the collection, the Akan drum, also hails from America, but the story of its origins is not as simple as it seems. Found in Virginia in the early 1700s, the Akan drum was part of the founding collection of the British Museum. When the collector Hans Sloane died in 1753, he bequeathed his personal collection of artifacts to King George II, effectively creating the British Museum.
The Olduvai stone chopping tool — used in Tanzania nearly 2 million years ago — is one of the earliest objects that humans ever consciously made. Trustees of the British Museum hide caption
The Olduvai stone chopping tool — used in Tanzania nearly 2 million years ago — is one of the earliest objects that humans ever consciously made.
Trustees of the British Museum
Throughout his life, Sloane collected all sorts of objects from civilizations all around the world, but he was particularly fascinated by how cultures made music.
Looking to represent Native American music in his collection, Sloane brought the Akan drum from Virginia to London in 1730. When the British Museum opened in 1759, the Akan drum was put on display with the label "North American Indian drum."
But it turned out Sloane had been mistaken.
"About 150 years later it dawned on somebody that it didn't actually look North American at all — the carving looked African," MacGregor says.
Upon scientific examination, it was discovered that the drum's wood was actually from West Africa. MacGregor believes that the drum was most likely brought to America on a slave ship.
"This must be one of the drums that was used to make the slaves dance as they were being transported to stop them getting depressed or ill," he says.
Continuing on through history, MacGregor finishes his narrative with items that are much more recognizable to a contemporary audience the last two objects are a credit card and a solar-powered lamp and charger. From an ancient chopping tool to these inventions, MacGregor's collection charts how far we've come and makes us wonder what objects will come next.
The Old Man of Olduvai Gorge
More than anyone, Louis Leakey established Paleoanthropology as a highprofile endeavor. By the time he died 30 years ago this month, his name had become synonymous with the search for human origins. A passionate naturalist and an astute chronicler, Leakey was also a showman who tirelessly publicized his discoveries to admiring audiences around the world. “He loved to be recognized, and to stimulate people by talking about what he’d done and who he was,” his son Richard, 57, himself an expert fossil hunter, has said.
Louis pursued a breathtaking range of interests. He studied fossil bones, stone artifacts and cave paintings. He published monographs on the social customs of the Kikuyu people of Kenya and the string figures, comparable to cat’s cradles, made by people in Angola. Believing that the behavior of monkeys and apes held clues to the nature of our evolutionary ancestors, he established a research station in Kenya near Nairobi for the study of primates, and he encouraged such now-famous researchers as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas to live in the wild with, respectively, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Long before wildlife conservation became popular, Leakey helped establish national parks in Kenya. He was an expert stone knapper, or toolmaker, and would delight in making sharp implements with which he would swiftly skin an animal whenever he had an audience. His knowledge of animal behavior was encyclopedic, and he was a keen ornithologist, which he had once thought would be his career.
“Everything Louis did, he did with enthusiasm,” remembers Andrew Hill, professor of anthropology at Yale. “He’d even be enthusiastic about the breakfast he prepared or the dinner he cooked. It could get a little wearing, especially at breakfast if you weren’t a morning person.” Perhaps not surprisingly, some colleagues found Leakey’s eclecticism off-putting. “It annoyed a lot of people, who felt that with such a broad range of interests, he couldn’t possibly be taking seriously their chosen field of study,” says Alan Walker, professor of anthropology and biology at PennState. To critics, Leakey seemed more dilettante than Renaissance man.
Although Louis grabbed the headlines, it was his second wife, Mary, an archaeologist, who made many of the actual finds associated with the Leakey name. Until later in their relationship, when their marital ties all but snapped for both personal and professional reasons, she let her husband bask in the limelight while she conducted her beloved fieldwork.
Louis Leakey was an easy target for critics, partly because he flouted social convention but mainly because several of his most dramatic claims turned out to be wrong. In his excitement, he sometimes announced a bold new theory before marshaling all the available evidence—an approach that is anathema to careful science. He was a maverick by any standard—“anything but typically English,” as he said of himself—and scorned bookish academics who were “only prepared to devote a few months to [field] research and then return to more lucrative and comfortable work in the universities.” Yet, paradoxically, he also longed to be accepted by academia and to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific organization. That honor eluded him, however. For one thing, some of his colleagues regarded Leakey’s flamboyant, sometimes fanciful writings as not sufficiently scientific. But his personal life was also an impediment. When he was 30 years old, he had scandalized Cambridge colleagues by leaving his wife, Frida—she was at the time pregnant with his second child—to be with Mary Nicol, whom he later married. Even more damaging to his fellowship chances, in Leakey’s own view, was the time he privately criticized an article by Sir Solly (later Lord) Zuckerman, a powerful member of the society and chief scientific adviser to the British government. According to Leakey family biographer Virginia Morell, Leakey believed that it was Zuckerman who repeatedly blocked his election to the Royal Society.
In keeping with the archetype of the preoccupied scientist, he was notoriously indifferent to his appearance on the rare occasion he wore a necktie, Hill recalls, “it was usually skewed and stained with food or something.” But his charisma was impeccable. “He could charm the birds out of the trees,” Mary Smith, an editor at the National Geographic Society, which supported Leakey’s work, told biographer Morell. Rosemary Ritter, an archaeologist who worked with him in California, has said Leakey “had a way of making even the littlest, most unimportant person feel important. That’s why people were so willing to work for him.”
Leakey had a magnetic effect on many women. Irven DeVore, professor emeritus of anthropology at Harvard, recalled to Morell his first encounter with Leakey, in Nairobi in 1959: “He was dressed in one of those awful boiler suits, and he had a great shock of unruly white hair, a heavily creased face and about three teeth. . . . When my wife, Nancy, and I got back to our hotel, I said to her, ‘Objectively, he must be one of the ugliest men I’ve ever met.’ And she said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s the sexiest man I’ve ever laid my eyes on.’” Leakey understood his appeal to the opposite sex and philandered with characteristic enthusiasm. His amatory rambles eventually undermined his marriage to Mary.
Born in Kabete, in colonial Kenya, he was the son of Harry and Mary Bazett Leakey, who ran an Anglican mission northwest of Nairobi. Louis spent much of his youth among Kikuyu children, and his three siblings were often his only European peers. From the Kikuyu he gained a sense of intimacy with nature that instilled a lifelong passion for wildlife. Shipped off to public school in England at age 16, he later described himself as “shy and unsophisticated” and awkwardly out of touch with the English way of life.
Still, he attended CambridgeUniversity, his father’s alma mater, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and anthropology and, later, a doctorate for his research in East Africa. His plans to search for early human remains in Africa had met with skepticism. “There’s nothing of significance to be found there,” he recalled being told by a Cambridge professor. “If you really want to spend your life studying early man, do it in Asia.” Pithecanthropus, now called Homo erectus, or erect man, had been discovered in Java just before the turn of the century, and in the 1920s a similar kind of early human, called Peking man, had been found in China.
Leakey stubbornly followed his instincts. “I was born in East Africa,” he would later write, “and I’ve already found traces of early man there. Furthermore, I’m convinced that Africa, not Asia, is the cradle of mankind.”
Charles Darwin, in his 1871 book Descent of Man, had suggested that because our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, live in Africa, the earliest humans probably once lived there too. Leakey was just 13 when he decided to devote himself to the study of prehistory and find out if Darwin was right. As a young man, he thus challenged the conventional wisdom, which appealed to his contrarian nature. “I became excited with the idea that everyone was looking in the wrong place,” he later explained. In the fall of 1931, on his third expedition to East Africa but his first to Olduvai, he found primitive stone axes in ancient sediments, evidence that ancestors of humans had indeed lived in Africa. It was a significant discovery—“I was nearly mad with delight,” he recalled—but Leakey’s penchant for over-reaching soon got the better of him.
In addition to staking his career on the notion that Africa was the cradle of humankind, he also believed, given the fossil evidence, that the earliest bipedal human ancestors, or hominids, must have existed hundreds of thousands of years earlier than most other scientists were willing to say. Indeed, the reason for that first trip to Olduvai Gorge was to test the idea that a modern-looking skeleton, discovered by German scientist Hans Reck in 1913, was, as Reck claimed, about half a million years old—the age of the deposits in which it had been found.
A 1935 expedition to Olduvai turned up elephant fossils and cemented the relationship between Leakey (center) and archaeology student Mary Nicol (right). They wed in 1936. (Leakey Family Collection)
Leakey, initially skeptical of Reck’s assertions, visited the site with Reck and soon agreed with him. They coauthored a letter to the British journal Nature reporting the new evidence for Reck’s original theory—which also appeared to confirm Leakey’s hunch that our first true ancestor lived farther back in prehistory. “[Reck] must be one of the few people who succeeded in swaying Louis once his mind was made up,” observes Leakey’s biographer Sonia Cole. But a few years later, other researchers, using improved geological methods, concluded that the skeleton wasn’t ancient at all, but had simply been buried in far-older sediments.
In 1932, Leakey was also making extravagant claims of antiquity for fossils from two sites in western Kenya, Kanam and Kanjera. The Kanam jawbone, Leakey boldly announced, was “not only the oldest human fragment from Africa, but the most ancient fragment of true Homo yet to be discovered anywhere in the world.” Ultimately, it was found that the Kanjera and Kanam specimens were relatively recent. Leakey’s reputation already had taken a beating when a British geologist visited Kanjera and reported that Leakey did not know exactly where he had found his famous fossil—an astonishing lapse for an anthropologist.
Leakey shrugged off his critics. He and Mary pressed on, and in 1948 they received their first real taste of public adulation with the discovery of a little skull of an 18-million-year-old ape called Proconsul. It was the first fossil ape skull ever found, and Mary flew with it to England so that Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Leakey’s friend and an anthropologist at Oxford, could examine the specimen. The plane was met by reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen. Later, with the skull on display at the airport, Mary told Leakey, “Two plainclothes detectives assigned to guard it never let it out of their sight.”
Then, in 1959, came the now-famous discovery, in Olduvai, of a 1.75-millionyear-old skull that Leakey named Zinjanthropus boisei, and which he asserted was the “connecting link between the South African near-men . . . and true man as we know him.” The skull was similar to those of the robust ape-man creatures that had been found in South Africa, but differed from them in having heavier bones and bigger teeth. Nearly three decades of work had at last been rewarded, it seemed, and the huge publicity surrounding the find propelled the Leakeys—particularly Louis, though Mary had actually discovered the skull—to still greater fame.
Louis embarked on a speaking tour in the United States and Europe, and established a long and close relationship with the National Geographic Society, which publicized the Leakeys often in its magazine and provided them with financial support. In November 1960, 19-year-old Jonathan, the eldest of the couple’s three sons, made a discovery that was even more important than Zinjanthropus. Working near the Zinj site, he found a jawbone that was even more humanlike. It came to be known as pre-Zinj, because it was unearthed from deeper sediments and presumed to be older than Zinjanthropus. (Leakey later reclassified Zinjanthropus as an australopithecine it is now generally known as Paranthropus boisei.)
In time, and as the Leakey team uncovered more fossil material, Louis became convinced that pre-Zinj was the ancient species of Homo he’d been seeking for so long. It had a bigger brain and was less ruggedly built than the socalled ape-men. He called it Homo habilis, or handy man, a reference to the stone tools at the site that Leakey was convinced the creature had made, and he believed it to be the ancestor of modern humans, Homo sapiens.
In 1964, Leakey and two coauthors submitted their findings on Homo habilis to the journal Nature. The response was fast and largely furious. Anthropologists dispatched condemnatory letters to the London Times and scientific journals. Their message: pre-Zinj was nothing more than an australopithecine, not a separate species of Homo. Part of the criticism was that in naming the new species, Leakey brashly changed the definition of Homo so that pre-Zinj would qualify. For example, at the time, a species of ancient human could be called Homo only if its brain were at least 700 cubic centimeters in volume. By this standard, pre-Zinj was something of a pinhead, with a brain of just 675 cubic centimeters (the average human brain has a volume of 1,300 cc).
Other discoveries that Leakey made in the 1960s also generated controversy. On an island in Lake Victoria, he found fossil evidence of two new primate species that he said pushed back the origins of human beings by millions of years. His claims were immediately met with harsh criticism. He called the primates Kenyapithecus. One species was 20 million years old. He named it africanus and claimed that it was the oldest hominid ever found. Experts disputed the claim then, arguing that it was a fossil ape, which remains the prevailing view. The other species, Kenyapithecus wickeri, was some 14 million years old. Its pedigree is checkered. Leakey first said it was more ape than human, but later modified that view. Scientists now believe that it is the most advanced fossil ape of its period in East Africa.
Leakey astounded his colleagues again when, at a scientific meeting in 1967, he argued that a lump of lava found at the Lake Victoria fossil site had been used by Kenyapithecus wickeri as a tool. The announcement, made with Leakey’s usual flourish, fell flat. Not one scientist in the audience asked a question, probably, as paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons later observed, because they considered the idea “outlandish.” Mary Leakey, too, was unconvinced. “I can’t believe he really thought it was a 14-million-year-old stone tool,” she told biographer Morell after Leakey’s death. The incident, Morell writes in her 1995 book Ancestral Passions, “added to a growing suspicion that [Leakey’s] scientific judgment was slipping.”
It’s in the nature of paleoanthropology to undergo constant revision, as was made clear this past summer, when a new contender in the quest for the earliest hominid was announced. A six- to seven-million-year-old skull, found in Chad by paleoanthropologists from France, is older and yet appears more modern in several key respects than specimens from more recent times. Those features, plus its discovery far from Kenya or Ethiopia (the other leading candidates for the place where human beings split from the common ancestor we share with apes) are prompting experts to reconceptualize the human family lineage.
By the late 1960s, Leakey was little involved in fieldwork, partly because of ill health but also because he was devoting so much time to raising money for the many research endeavors he oversaw. He was, however, directing a dig at Calico Hills, east of Los Angeles. Hundreds of stone flakes had been recovered from the site, and the excavators believed them to be human artifacts. That was an extraordinary claim because the site was as much as 100,000 years old, and most anthropologists believe that humans came to the Americas no earlier than 30,000 years ago, and probably much more recently.
Leakey’s support of the Calico claim dismayed not only his friends and colleagues, but also Mary, and it would become a factor in their estrangement. In a poignant section of her autobiography, she characterized his position as “catastrophic to his professional career and . . . largely responsible for the parting of our ways.”
Yet despite his occasionally misplaced enthusiasms, Leakey remains a seminal figure. “Although Louis was not highly regarded for his science,”says PennState’s Alan Walker, “he made a major contribution in opening up East Africa for paleoanthropological exploration, making the science possible.” Others remember his pioneering spirit. “He had an energizing effect on the field and on the people doing the research,” says David Pilbeam, professorof anthropology at Harvard. “He could be sloppy and brilliant, prescient and foolish. But, given the time [in which] he was working, overall his instincts were right.”
So right, in fact, that Leakey’s view would prevail and most anthropologists would eventually accept Homo habilis as a legitimate member of the human family, though not necessarily as the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. Inspired by his father’s work on human origins, third son Richard Leakey has achieved fame for his own fossil discoveries. In late September 1972, Richard flew down to Nairobi from his research site at Lake Rudolf (now Turkana) to show his father his team’s latest find, a large-brained skull thought at the time to be 2.6 million years old. The specimen was named 1470.
“It’s marvelous,” exclaimed Louis. “But they won’t believe you.” Remembering his own experience with the skeptics, Louis was looking forward to the fight over whether 1470 was a species of Homo, which Richard argued it was. As Richard recalled the encounter, the skull “represented to [Louis] the final proof of the ideas he had held throughout his career about the great antiquity of quite advanced hominid forms.”
But on October 1, a few days after holding the fossil in his hands, Louis Leakey died of a heart attack on a visit to London. Thirty years later, the debate that he anticipated continues.
Why is oldupai gorge important?
The discovery of P. boisei in 1959 by Mary Leakey was a defining moment in the history of paleoanthropology, as it was OH 5 that convinced people East Africa was a sensible place to investigate the earliest evidence of human ancestry. Although other hominin ancestors had been found elsewhere prior to the discovery of P. boisei (e.g. Au. africanus, H. erectus, and H. neanderthalensis), it was Louis Leakey’s charismatic personality, his skill in promoting himself and his discoveries, and his ability to acquire funding over four decades that set the stage for the paleoanthropological ‘gold rush’ that would define East Africa’s cradle of humanity.
From the time when Mary Leakey found OH 5 at FLK, over 80 hominins have been discovered the most recent being OH 86, a manual proximal phalanx from the 1.84 million year old Philip Tobias Korongo (PTK) site. The hominin fossil record at Olduvai includes specimens of P. boisei, H. habilis, H. erectus, and H. sapiens but it is possible that H. rudolfensis and H. heidelbergensis lived in or around Olduvai, as their fossil material is present in other nearby paleoanthropological sites. Although older assemblages have been subsequently discovered, Olduvai is also the locality for which the Oldowan stone tool industry tradition was first defined. The Oldowan industry consists mostly of small flakes, flaked cobbles, and percussive tools and is associated with the genus Homo throughout East and South Africa. Some of the earliest evidence of the Acheulean is also found at Olduvai, including extremely sophisticated, highly symmetrical and bifacially flaked large cutting tools dated to 1.7 million years old. The Acheulean assemblage is in agreement with those traits traditionally ascribed to the Early Acheulean, particularly with the earliest examples documented in East Africa for a similar chronological range (at Kokiselei 4, West Turkana, Kenya and Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia).
As a clearly defined and self-contained archaeological landscape representing the fossil and stone tool record of the broader East African region, Olduvai Gorge presents an exceptional opportunity to examine the effective human response to such things as fluctuating climates, habitat choice, and diet. Current paleoanthropological research focused on Olduvai is befitting given that the region boasts archaeological remains with extraordinary temporal and spatial evidence for human behaviour. Only at Olduvai Gorge do we see human evolutionary transitions alongside changes in stone tool technologies over a period of 2 million years.
Olduvai Gorge: The home of early stone tool technology
Olduvai Gorge is one of the most important fossil sites in the world, and forms part of a World Heritage Site. Just like the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, it has revealed a great deal about our past and should be protected for future generations.
Stretching across East Africa is the Great Rift Valley, an ancient geographical fracture caused by the separation of two tectonic plates. The valley runs through Ethiopia and Kenya, then stretching into Tanzania and its Serengeti Plains, and that’s where you will find the famous archaeological site called Olduvai Gorge.
As is the case throughout the Great Rift Valley, Olduvai is broken up by volcanoes, some of which are still active. In fact, Olduvai lies only 45km from the famous Laetoli footprints, which were made possible by volcanic activity (read more about how it happened here).
In terms of the study of human evolution, however, Olduvai has its own fascinating and important stories to tell. The site has produced evidence of many of our hominid ancestors and how they may have lived.
The first Homo habilis fossils were discovered at Olduvai in the early 1960s. They included two parietal (skull) bones and the lower jaw of a child. Mary and Louis Leakey found the fragments, and called in the help of Professor Phillip Tobias and primatologist John Napier to describe them.
Homo habilis means “the handy man”, and that’s because, along with the hominid remains, Olduvai has produced hundreds of stone tools, many of which are attributed to “the handy man”. Indeed, Olduwan technology – which refers to the earliest known stone tool technology – borrows its name from the site. Homo habilis lived around 2-million years ago, and may also have occupied what is now the Cradle of Humankind.
Olduvai has also produced evidence of the robust hominids, Paranthropus boisei, which were similar to the Paranthropus robustus species found in the Cradle of Humankind. Paranthropus boisei has been called “Nutcracker Man” due to the thick enamel of its teeth, which could easily crush nuts and roots.
The site forms part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The area is unusual in that, like Maropeng, it has strict laws protecting the environment, but which also allow for human habitation. The area is part of the Serengeti ecosystem, which every year sees the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world.
Of course, there are also many other important World Heritage Sites that mark the story of hominids, including the Peking Man site in China and the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. Each site tells its own story – if you’re willing to pay attention.
Stone tool industry
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Stone tool industry, any of several assemblages of artifacts displaying humanity’s earliest technology, beginning more than 2 million years ago. These stone tools have survived in great quantities and now serve as the major means to determine the activities of hominids. Archaeologists have classified distinct stone tool industries on the basis of style and use.
The earliest stone industry was found by paleoanthropologists L.S.B. Leakey and Mary Douglas Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge in what is now Tanzania in the 1930s. Called the Oldowan industry, it dates from about 1.8 to 1.2 million years ago, in the Pleistocene Epoch, and consisted of what the Leakeys called choppers, shaped by hitting one stone against another until a sharpened edge was achieved. This could be used for cutting or sawing, while the unflaked end could be used for smashing or crushing. The variety and numbers of choppers found at the site led the Leakeys to identify the people who lived there as Homo habilis, implying “able man.” Remains of the Oldowan industry were also found in North Africa and Europe.
Many early sites unearthed by paleoanthropologists show a more-advanced tool industry, beginning with the Acheulean, which is dated from as early as 1.4 million years ago at Olduvai Gorge. The technique for making tools in the Acheulean industry was a development of the earlier technique, namely striking one stone against another, but the choice of stone was refined. Where flint, which was the ideal toolmaking material, was not available, quartz, quartzite, and other rocks were used.
As the Acheulean industry progressed, so did the skill with which tools were made. A bifacial cutting implement emerged, called a hand axe, that had longer, straighter, sharper edges than the earlier chopper. The earliest hand axes were made with a hard hammer. More-advanced techniques, however, began about 1 million years ago rather than simply smashing the rock against a boulder, a soft hammer (usually antler) began to be used. In all, 18 different types of implements have been discovered for the Acheulean industry—including chisels, awls, anvils, scrapers, hammer-stones, and round balls. The evidence indicates that the industry was sufficiently developed to enable early humans to adapt to local conditions and seasonality, as in the temperate forest, temperate grasslands, or subtropics.
The Acheulean industry was followed by the Mousterian, a flake tool rather than core tool industry associated with Neanderthal peoples and others living north of the Sahara and eastward to Asia. In addition to the Mousterian industry, two other distinct industries were found in Africa south of the Sahara—the Fauresmith and the Sangoan. In these the flake tool was improved to become a blade, which is at least two times as long as it is wide.
In the Late Paleolithic Period, tools became even more sophisticated. As many as 80 different types of implements have been unearthed for what are called the Perigordian and Aurignacian industries in Europe. It is believed that these tools were used for hunting and butchering, clothes making, and a great variety of other tasks that moved early humankind closer to modern life. In all, hundreds of highly complex tools have been found, some of which are the prototypes for modern tools.
By 40,000 years ago humans created tools with bone and antler handles that gave them much more leverage. Still later, Cro-Magnons created bone tools with engravings that were probably used only for artistic or ritualistic purposes. The Solutrean Period produced laurel leaf and willow leaf knives that are today valued as works of art.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Maren Goldberg, Assistant Editor.