Olduvai Gorge, The
KeywordsStone Tool Early Human Precision Grip Power Grip Human Fossil
Olduvai Gorge is a world famous paleoanthropological site in Tanzania that has yielded a series of important fossil remains of early humans.
Olduvai Gorge, located on the Serengeti Plain in northern Tanzania, has been carved over the last 200,000 years by water erosion. The sediments within the gorge range in age from late Pliocene to late Pleistocene in age. While it became known to scientists in the early twentieth century, the work by Louis Leakey began in 1931 and eventually yielded a series of fossil remains and stone tools. These discoveries have made Olduvai Gorge one of the most famous sites for human fossil remains in the world.
Importance of the Site
A variety of important human fossil specimens have been recovered from Olduvai Gorge. The first, discovered in 1959, is OH (Olduvai Hominid) 5. OH 5 is the type specimen of Paranthropus (Australopithecus) boisei, a robust hominid with huge jaws, very large molars, and expansive chewing muscles as evidenced by broad attachment areas for those muscles on the skull. Though this specimen dates to the appropriate time period, Leakey did not consider OH 5 to represent the toolmakers at Olduvai Gorge. This role was later filled by a series of discoveries that Leakey and his colleagues Phillip Tobias and John Napier placed into the species Homo habilis. These fossils, which included the type specimen OH 7, plus OH 8, OH 13, and OH 24, have more lightly built faces with smaller teeth. OH 7 also included several hand bones, which were interpreted as enabling both a power grip and a precision grip necessary to manufacture stone tools. The species Homo erectus has also been found at Olduvai Gorge and is most famously represented by the specimen OH 9.
The “Zinj” site (FLK Zinj) at Olduvai Gorge, which produced the OH 5 specimen, also held a huge cache of animal bones. Many of these bones show signs of having been cut by stone tools, leading some to interpret the site as evidence of hunting by early humans. Some interpretations of the “Zinj” site suggested that it may have represented a home base for early humans, who were bringing meat back to provision a family or group who were camping at this site (see Bunn and Kroll 1986; Rose and Marshall 1996). Other work on these fossils is more strongly supportive of humans primarily scavenging carcasses at Olduvai (e.g., Blumenschine et al. 2012; Pante et al. 2012), but these interpretations remain somewhat controversial.
The oldest stone tool complex, known as the Oldowan, was defined based on artifacts discovered at Olduvai Gorge. The Oldowan is characterized by very simply made stone tools, manufactured by “hard hammer” (stone on stone) flaking. Choppers are the most common artifact type and are basically a stone that has had flakes chipped from it to create a crudely sharpened edge. Flakes were also sometimes utilized by early hominids, but most commonly, the choppers were the primary focus. Oldowan tools are highly variable in their manufacture and lack the planning and skill evident in later stone tool technologies.
Olduvai Gorge is one of the most famous, and important, fossil sites in the world, and its importance to the study of human evolution cannot be overstated. It has provided key fossil evidence and crucial insights into aspects of early human behavior.
- Pante, M. C., Blumenschine, R. J., Capaldo, S. D., & Scott, R. S. (2012). Validation of bone surface modification models for inferring fossil hominin and carnivore feeding interactions, with reapplication to FLK 22, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Journal of Human Evolution, 63, 395–407.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar