On our second morning of safari, we stopped for a couple of hours at Olduvai Gorge as we headed northwest for the Serengeti. Olduvai Gorge is a ravine roughly 30 miles long and 300 feet deep within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Its actual name is Oldupai Gorge, the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant that grows in abundance around the area. Commonly referred to as the ‘Cradle of Mankind,’ it was the site of numerous important paleoanthropological discoveries that improved our understanding of human origins, hominin evolution, and the early use of stone tools. In 1959, Mary & Louis Leakey discovered the fossilized cranium of “Nutcracker Man” (Zinjanthropus (Paranthropus boisei)), and, soon after, their son Jonathan uncovered the first fossil evidence of Homo habilis. The discovery of multiple hominin species within the same strata provided evidence that our origins are not a straight evolutionary line, but rather that multiple, intelligent, bipedal ancestors existed within the same period.
We arrived at Olduvai and walked to the edge of the gorge – it was incredibly vast, with only small plateaus, scrubby trees, and wild sisal plants breaking up the expanse of dirt and rock. At the edge of gorge stood a small, timeworn museum, established by Mary Leakey in the 1970s. Although one of the world’s most significant sites of human history, our initial impression was that it was, disappointingly, somewhat anticlimactic. It seemed as if most visitors stopped only briefly to peer into the gorge below, and to peruse the modest museum. Knowing our interest in the archeological treasure, Francis arranged one of the guides to take us down into the gorge for a walking tour (though not well-known, it seems a small, private tour within the gorge can be arranged for an additional fee).
Going down into Olduvai was nothing short of thrilling. As we wandered through the dust and rocks, the guide allowed us to sift through the dirt in an area that was not being excavated. We would reach into the ground and pull up, quite literally, handfuls of fossils. He pointed out fragments of various bones, as well as a giraffe’s tooth that we had unearthed. Nearby a simple plaque commemorating the location of the Leakey’s Zinj discovery had been erected. Some larger fossils decorated the monument, and after selecting our finest specimens, we placed our finds alongside the others. We felt very fortunate to be able to venture down into the gorge, and to have a more personal encounter with such a meaningful site. After experiencing the Cradle of Mankind, we headed another 20 miles northwest to continue our journey through Serengeti National Park.