Oldupai Gorge

By McHenry, L, Njau, J, Pante, M and de la Torre, I 2012 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Oldupai means “the place of the wild sisal” in Maasai. The Maasai use sisal fibers for created baskets, bags and other woven crafts.  Referred to as the Cradle of Mankind, Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world.  Homo habilis, probably the first early human species, occupied Oldupai Gorge approximately 1.9 million years ago. Our species Homo sapiens, which is estimated to have emerged roughly 300,000 years ago, is dated to have occupied the site 17,000 years ago.


Relatively continuous rift-valley fault movements and volcanic action left Oldupai deeply incised. Water flow through the gorge further eroded the rock, exposing a delineated sequence of strata from which evolutionary events could be traced. Seven major formations, have been distinguished. From the oldest to the youngest they are:


  • Bed I (about 1.7 million to 2.1 million years old)
  • Bed II (1.15 million to 1.7 million years old)
  • Bed III (800,000 to 1.15 million years old)
  • Bed IV (600,000 to 800,000 years old)
  • the Masek Beds (400,000 to 600,000 years old)
  • the Ndutu Beds (32,000 to 400,000 years old)
  • the Naisiusiu Beds (15,000 to 22,000 years old)

Bed I is at most 197 feet (60 metres) thick. It consists largely of lava flows, volcanic ash deposits, and rock sediments. It was in Bed I that English-born archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered a skull fragment belonging to an early hominin. Officially labeled OH 5 (Olduvai Hominid 5) but dubbed “Nutcracker Man” because of its huge molars (indicative of a vegetarian diet), the skull was dated to about 1.75 million years ago. The discovery indicated that hominins evolved in Africa.


Living sites in Beds II, III, and IV generally are found in former river or stream channels. Homo habilis remains were found in the lower one-third of Bed II and a cranium of Homo ergaster  was collected near the top of Bed II. Hominin remains found in Beds III and IV are assigned to Homo erectus and other species of Homo.


The Naisiusiu Beds contain one archaeological site consisting of a microlithic tool assemblage and a Homo sapiens skeleton, both of which have an age of about 17,000 years.

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