Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti are famous for their unique wildlife. Hardly anyone expects that of all things there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site between these two safari highlights. But the Olduvai Gorge is something special, as today’s blog shows.
If you are on the way from the Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti National Park, you will eventually pass the junction to the Olduvai Gorge and discover a monument right here. At first glance, one would like to believe that these could be two oversized baboon skulls placed on a pedestal. Perhaps a memorial for a pair of monkeys that may have once stood at this crossroads and hoped for leftovers to be thrown at them by travelers – but in vain. Starved and powerless, they surrendered to their fate and died here entwined arm in arm.
No, save your tears because it wasn’t like that. They may be primates, but they are large-scale models of the fossil skulls of two ancestors of Homo sapiens. May I introduce: Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis. I have no idea which parents come up with names like that. And please don’t ask me who’s who. I only know that they are said to have lived in this area about 1.7 to 1.9 million years ago. The junction at this point leads straight to their old place of residence and current cemetery. What makes Olduvai Gorge so famous has to do with its remains: it is an archaeologically significant site.
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Place of wild sisal and cradle of humankind
However, the name Olduvai does not initially indicate an archaeological excavation site. Okay, this is also an important reference. But one of the Masai discovered wild sisal here. In their language, it is called “Ol Tupai”. – Or does it just sound like it? The reason why you can still read about Olduvai instead of Oldupai or Oltupai Gorge is probably due to a telephone game phenomenon: You say something, someone passes it on, and the third person understands something different. Let’s be happy that it didn’t become “Oweiowei”.
Perhaps the Masai would have preferred it if this place had remained interesting only for its sisal. Instead, the Oldupai Gorge is now one of the hotspots of archaeological and paleontological pilgrimage routes. The reason for this: Fossil finds of human and animal remains that are millions of years old. Olduvai is considered the cradle of humankind.
The first fossils in the gorge were discovered in 1911 by the German doctor Wilhelm Kattwinkel, who came to this country when it was still a German colony and was referred to as German East Africa. His assignment was to study sleeping sickness. I don’t know what insights he hoped to gain in the Olduvai Gorge. But in fact, there was an archaeological treasure slumbering here, including the bones of a three-toed primeval horse, which he perhaps thought was Sleeping Beauty.
The steep gorge, some 48 km long and 90 m deep, was formed as a drainage channel for the eastern Serengeti and the surrounding slopes of the East African Rift Valley. The rainwater that ran off washed away vast amounts of the earth’s surface, formed the impressive landscape you see today and, over hundreds of thousands of years, also uncovered the fossilized remains of old tools and long-extinct creatures.
After so much erosion, we have an answer to the question: What makes the Olduvai Gorge so famous? Well, it allows a virtual journey into the past, where the first developments in social interaction and community activity can be observed, which in turn indicate an increase in cognitive abilities in the transition from human-like to human-typical forms and behaviors.
Is the Oldupai Gorge worth a visit for tourists?
For those who are interested in the cultural and historical features of the Oldupai Gorge, I recommend the on-site museum, about 5 km from the monument on the main road. Located on the edge of the gorge, it offers some nice perspectives and has an educational exhibition about the gorge and its long history. It presents human and animal fossils as well as a range of tools from the era.
The location not far from the main safari route allows for a quick detour if you plan accordingly. Interesting views, the museum, and a moment in one of the cradles of humankind are the reward. And if you want to experience more, drive north from the gorge to the shifting dune. It is about 9 m high and 100 m long. The conspicuously dark sand is mainly composed of highly magnetic volcanic ash. This holds the crescent-like formation well together even in the wind. With a movement of 17 m per year, it shouldn’t have gotten very far when you reach it.
Tanzania offers so many highlights. The Olduvai Gorge is particularly special for archeology enthusiasts. We are happy to answer any questions and to help you to plan your trip to Tanzania, whether on a group or a private safari. Here on-site, we are always well-informed about the current situation. So get in touch with us! Your dream, our expertise – your very own Tanzania experience