Olduvai early man turns 60

Sunday June 30 2019

Laetoli diorama

Laetoli diorama at Olduvai Museum Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Olduvai is a prominent prehistorical site that has been extensively excavated for research on early man’s life. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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For millenia, the human race has been obsessed with finding its origin and the secrets of creation.

This July 17 will be exactly 60 years since paleoanthropologists and archaeologists Louis Leakey and his wife Mary Leakey discovered a human skull of what came to be known as Early Man at the Olduvai Gorge in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, 250 kilometres west of Arusha in northern Tanzania.

To mark the occasion, scientists, prehistory researchers and curious tourists will from July 17 gather in Tanzania’s northern city of Arusha, then at Olduvai Gorge to celebrate the discovery of Zinjanthropus.

On my second visit to Olduvai Gorge Museum recently, I visited the excavation site where the skull was discovered.

Olduvai Gorge is the Biblical Garden of Eden for paleoanthropologists. Together with the Laetoli area, Olduvai is a prominent prehistorical site that has been extensively excavated for research on early man’s life.

The Leakey couple moved from Kenya to Olduvai with their family to carry out excavations.


And on July 17 1959, Dr Mary Leakey discovered a well preserved hominid cranium at Olduvai Gorge that was later carbon dated to approximately 1.75 million years ago. They called it Zinjanthropus or the Eastern Man.

Extensive digging at the Olduvai Gorge revealed what was then the earliest known living site of the primitive man.

Two decades later, in 1974, Dr Mary Leakey also discovered hominid footprints at Laetoli, south of Olduvai, dated 3.5 to four million years old.

Seminars and discussions

The director general of the Tanzania National Museum, Prof Audax Mabula, said that to mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of Early Man, they will host scientific seminars and discussions, site visits and cultural performances.

“We are now looking to award the Leakey family for their role in the discovery of the first hominid skull in Tanzania, which, we all believe to be that of the early man on the planet,” Prof Mabula told The EastAfrican.

According to Prof Mabula, the museum will open walking trails in Olduvai and Laetoli area, so tourists can walk the same paths that our early ancestors walked.

“Walking from the excavation site to the Olduvai Gorge Museum, a visitor will relive the experience of early men who roamed the area hunting and gathering food,” explained Prof Mabula.

The Tanzanian government is refurbishing Dr Mary Leakey’s Camp into a full museum to be named “Mary Leakey Living Museum.”

A plaque marking the discovery of the skull of

A plaque marking the discovery of the skull of Early Man at Olduvai. PHOTO | COURTESY

This new and independent museum will feature Dr Leakey’s living room, her table, an oven, a windmill that she used for generating electricity, an old Land Rover and other personal items.

The Leakey family has been working with the museum on the activities to mark the anniversary and they are expected to attend the event.

Olduvai Gorge is a Unesco World Heritage Site attracting 60,000 international visitors annually, most of them researchers and students.