Olduvai Gorge: The Cradle of Humankind

If you have a great interest in evolution and human origins, Olduvai Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a definite must. It's about a 90-minute drive from the Ngorongoro Crater and is accessible only via a badly maintained road. The gorge, about 48 km (30 miles) long, is part of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches along East Africa. It has played a key role in palaeoanthropologists' understanding of the history of humanity by providing clues dating from about 2.5 million years ago. There’s a small museum at the Gorge, but it doesn't really do justice to the magnitude of fossil discoveries made here.

Locals actually call Olduvai "Oldupai," which is the Maasai name for a sisal plant, Sansevieria ehrenbergii, which grows all over in the area. The view overlooking the gorge is spectacular, but be aware that visitors aren’t allowed to visit the gorge itself. If you're short on time, it may not be worth your while. It's all a rather makeshift affair, and the guides aren't all fluent in English, so you may struggle to understand explanations inevitably filled with the Latin names of fossils.

Archaeological rock stars like the Leakey family have made some of these important discoveries:

  • Paranthropus boisei dating back 2.5 million years. These hominids had massive jaws and large, thickly enameled molars suitable for crushing tough vegetation. Their bite was several times more powerful than that of modern humans.
  • The first specimens of Homo habilis, which lived about 2 million to 1.6 million years ago. This is the earliest known named species of the Homo genus. Scientists believe that Homo habilis was one of the first hominid species that could make and use stone tools, enhancing our ancestors' adaptability and chances of long-term survival.
  • The world's oldest stone tools date about 2 million years old, which are very primitive—basically just crude tools fashioned from pebbles.

—Tara Turkington

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