Human History at Oldupai Gorge

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Around 30,000 years ago, intense geological activity combined with millennia of erosion exposed the area now known as Oldupai Gorge (once erroneously called “Olduvai Gorge”). Fast forward to July 1959, and paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey finally grasped the significance of what was exposed there when she stumbled upon an odd-looking skull lying in the dirt.

Fossils dating back to the dawn of mankind trace our history to Oldupai Gorge in the heart of Africa. The findings of Mary Leakey and her husband Louis show some of mankind’s earliest documented ancestors, who existed over a million years before the discovery of stone tools. This discovery has led to decades of intense study, which has helped shed light on the development of humans as we evolved over millions of years.

Many anthropologists and archaeologists theorize that all of Homo sapiens originated from Africa, the Mother Continent, some millions of years ago thanks to the findings at sites like Oldupai.

Oldupai Gorge and Ngorongoro Crater as the “Cradle of Mankind”

Oldupai Gorge is found in Ngorongoro Crater, a caldera that formed when a massive volcano collapsed upon itself.

To the southwest, about halfway to Lake Eyasi, lies Laetoli. Here, Mary Leakey discovered and excavated some of the earliest evidence of upright-walking hominids found on the planet. 3.7 million years ago, early Australopithecus afarensis hominids, of a similar species to “Lucy,” stepped in a mixture of volcanic ash and mud. This mixture hardened, preserving footprints later buried under millions of years of sediment and then uncovered.

From this evidence, the Leakeys and others were able to essentially reconstruct the development of mankind in the area over millions of years. Australopithecus remains lead to Zinjanthropus, the type of proto-human that Mary Leaker first discovered in Oldupai. There is also evidence of Homo habilis, who made some of the earliest stone tools found in Oldupai’s 1.8 million to 1.6 million year old deposits. From there, our brain sizes increased as we evolved into the more adept Homo sapiens, spreading knowledge of stone tools and early farming techniques as we became increasingly nomadic.

See Some of the Earliest Signs of Humanity at the Oldupai Museum

At the Oldupai Museum in the Ngorongoro Crater, you can find many fascinating exhibits documenting historic archeological finds. A set of the Laetoli footprints can be found based on an imprint mold taken just a few miles south. Evidence of animal remains, the early ones gnawed upon and the later ones bearing clear stone tool cut marks, can also be found.

The museum also documents Information on early human civilization as well as the later colonization of the Crater by the Masai people. Nearby, you can find a cultural Boma that can immerse you in the life of the Masai people. Handmade souvenirs bearing traditional art and patterns are available. There is also a lecture space, public toilets and refreshments. Guided tours are available into the crater or into the Oldupai Gorge itself.

You can see all of these sights on a trip to the Ngorongoro Crater — and discover the beginnings of humankind as we know it — when you book a Tanzania safari tour package today.

Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

What to know about Ngorongoro Crater area

The Ngorongoro Crater is actually the world’s largest volcanic, intact, inactive and unfilled caldera and was formed approximately three million years ago when a large volcano exploded and collapsed. The crater is 610 meters deep, the diameter is around 30 miles and overall the floor covers 100 square miles, so this was definitely a huge volcano by its time of activity!

This volcano was around 5800 meters high before it exploded and you can still feel this when you are at the crater floor today as it is at 1800 meters elevation. Overall an impressive witness of the evolution of our earth and especially the African continent that is also one of the main reasons this crater was voted as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa in Arusha in February 2013.

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The crater is only part of the greater Ngorongoro Conservation Area and this is a protected area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 – so lot of history! Wildlife in the crater is covering black rhino, buffalo, hippo, wildebeest, zebra, eland, Thompson gazelle, waterbuck and some cheetah, wild dog and leopard and of course lion. Lake Magadi, you can see a part of it in the picture above, is a large lake in the southwest of the crater, where  you can find thousands of flamingos.

But wait, there is more history. Michael Grzimek, the second son of Bernhard Grzimek who was driving conservation work also in this part of Africa, was killed in 1959 when the plane he piloted collided with a vulture and crashed. He was buried the same day at the top of the Ngorongoro Crater where later the government of Tanzania built the stone pyramid for his grave and also Berhard Grzimek was buried there after he died in 1987.

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Definitely the most beautiful place to stay in this area is the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge that is designed in the Masai mud-and-stick manyatta style and is one of the most spectacular lodges I have ever seen. It was an out of this world experience to visit this lodge!

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Needless to say also the rooms are luxurious and make the stay a real dream!

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The nice and friendly personal of the lodge contributes to feeling great when resting from the efforts of game drives or any other activities.

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The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to Masai where you can still find them living in their original villages. The Masai are cattle herders and need to keep moving as the grass needs to be able to regrow.

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Sure enough their nomadic lifestyle is starting to change as many wildlife preserves were opened in Tanzania and Kenya recently, not longer allowing the Masai to graze their cattle on these preserves.

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We were lucky to visit one of their original villages. One can watch here traditional dances of men and women.

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They even allow you to enter their cabins that are really small and mainly built around an open fireplace where they cook and also can warm up during the cold nights.

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They offer quite impressive collections of handmade decoration and jewellery for sale, hard to resist not to buy some nice presents.

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Finally we were only visitors in this slowly disappearing world of traditional Masai life and needed to leave these friendly people after countless stunning impressions.

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Learn more about safari tours including Ngorongoro Crater on our African Safari Tours page with a variety of sample tours.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

Peter’s African Safari Travel Diary

Today was already our 4th day in a row on travel adventure and safari through the beautiful Tanzania. How fast time runs is hard to tell and as we had so many impressions throughout our travel time was flying even faster. After a delicious breakfast at the Arusha Coffee Lodge we were leaving around 10:00am with our new guide Semle.

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Our first destination was the Maramboi Tented Camp at lake Manyara for site inspection. But the road is the destination, as we could get already gorgeous impressions during our drive through the Masai land.

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Arriving at Maramboi we immediately went out for photographing and filming the beautiful and picturesque surroundings of the camp where one could see zebras, antelopes and wildebeest strolling between the pool and lake Manyara – you have to see this in reality in order to fully understand this beauty.

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After a delicious lunch we went out to the planes ourselves to get even a closer view of all the animals, a paradise for photographers and filmmakers.

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We were walking literally in the mid of all these animals, totally in harmony at least as was our impression – not so sure if all the animals felt exactly the same.

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Needless to say we were all more than satisfied with all the photo opportunities we got presented in such a short time. After a selfi we went back on our vehicle again to head to Tarangire National Park that is just opposite to the Maramboi Camp.

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Wildlife is also stunning here and we were able to see warthogs, the usual suspects as wildebeest and antelopes, but also ostriches. The ostrich is one of the large flightless birds native to Africa and males can reach a heigth of 2.8m and achieve maximum running speeds of up to 70km/h.

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The absolute highlight were elephants, especially two males crossing the horizon that allowed for great photographs and videos.

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Now it was time to drive up to the Ngorongoro highlands as we anted to get to the viewing point for Lake Manyara in time before sunset. Semle worked hard behind his steering wheel to bring the truck to breath taking speeds, but finally we made it in time for a wonderful sunset view over Lake Manyara.

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We could even see the animals grazing down in the juicy green banks of the lake, especially flamingos showing in a beautiful pink even far away.

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Now the sun started to disappear behind the Ngorongora crater rim and we headed to our final destination of today, the beautiful Manor Ngorongoro in the Ngorongoro Highlands. This is a rebuilt coffee planation pretty high up in the mountains and the climate was so totally different from where we came today, cool, humid and simply what you are looking for after such a day.

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Yes this place is really as gorgeous as the pictures show and as a great end of our photography day we had the chance to shoot a stunning rising moon.

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Our dinner was nothing short of being spectacular, for sure this was also because of the colonial style surrounding of this place that made us feel transferred back some 100 years in time – the best that could happen as the end of that day.

Find out more about the safari destination and accommdoations.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa