Situated on the precipice overlooking one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, the Oldupai Gorge Site Museum and Visitor Center is a gateway to two million years of human evolution in East Africa. Often the first stop safari tours make after leaving the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands on the way to the Serengeti, the Oldupai Gorge Museum offers visitors firsthand experience on the archaeological discoveries made here over the last century, but also of that from the neighboring Laetoli Fossil Footprint site. As one of the largest onsite museums in Africa located in the vicinity of ongoing archaeological excavations, the museum offers panoramic views of the nearly 50 km gorge that has exposed some of the best-known evidence for early human tool use, ecology, and behavior. Unfortunately, the museum is difficult to access and many Tanzanians themselves have not had the opportunity to visit one of their greatest cultural heritage sites.
Oldupai Gorge, the UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Tanzania, has one of the most continuous paleoanthropological records in the world, exceptional archaeological site preservation due to a low-energy sedimentary environment, and a timeframe of human evolution that spans the transition from the Oldowan to the Later Stone Age. Oldupai is named after the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant (Sansevieria ehrenbergii), which grows in proliferation throughout all sections of the gorge.
Located in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Oldupai is positioned between the volcanic Crater Highlands to the south and east, metamorphic mountains to the north, and the celebrated Serengeti Plain in the west. Although best known for its paleontological and archaeological record, the gorge also contains well-defined geological strata known as Beds I-IV (2.038 ± 0.005 - 0.6 Ma), Masek (600,000 - 400,000), Ndutu (400,000 - 32,000), and Naisiusiu (17,550 ± 1,000 - 10,400 ± 600 BP). This well-defined sedimentology helps situate two million years of evolutionary and technological history. Today, the primary branch of the Main Gorge begins at Lakes Masek and Ndutu to the west, while the southern Side Gorge starts on the slopes of Lemagrut volcano. These streams have exposed Pleistocene-to-Holocene aged beds through erosional down-cutting over the last ~400,000 years.
The textbook view of Oldupai Gorge looking north toward the geologic feature known as The Castle is taken from the museum’s recently renovated amphitheater. Here, guides will often give lectures to safari tours on Oldupai’s significance in our understanding of human origins. The amphitheater is one of the most peaceful venues for relaxing after the long drive through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area; the research group I am a part of, The Stone Tools, Diet, and Sociality Project, departs from the city of Arusha, stops over in the town of Karatu for any last minute supplies, and enters the conservation area through the main park gate on the southern extent of Ngorongoro Crater. From here, the drive traverses along the western rim of Ngorongoro Crater through dense Afromontane forest before slowly descending on the northwestern slope through Acacia-Commiphora deciduous bushland and thicket. The descent towards Oldupai is taxing, as the condition of the roads can change significantly from year to year depending on the severity of rains during the wet season. Although this last segment of the journey is only 40 km (25 mi), it can take up to two hours or more to reach the Site Museum due to uneven road surfaces. Nevertheless, after to 200+ km (125 mi) drive that started in Arusha, the amphitheater overlooking Oldupai Gorge is a welcomed rest stop in which to relax with the stunning views and tranquil atmosphere offered by the Site Museum.
Just off the amphitheater is the main rotunda that houses the collections exhibit. Within, guests can find a number of Pleistocene animal fossils, stone tools from the Early, Middle, and Late Stone Ages (with a major focus on Oldowan and Acheulean tools), replicas of some famous Homo and Australopithecus remains, such as Turkana Boy (KNM-WT 1500), and murals depicting the environments the existed around the paleo-lake and acted as a backdrop for human activity. Although a lot of the archaeological material that has been discovered at Oldupai has been relocated to the Arusha National Natural History Museum, the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam, and even the Nairobi National Museum, the Site Museum offers a glimpse into the thousands upon thousands of artifacts and fossils that have been discovered in the gorge over the last century. It also introduces the visitor to Louis and Mary Leakey, the paleoanthropologists who identified the Oldowan industry (named for Oldupai in fact), and introduced the world to Paranthropus (Zinjanthropus) boisei, the Nutcracker Man. The discovery of P. boisei in 1959 was a defining moment in the history of paleontology, as it was the specimen that convinced people that eastern Africa, not Asia, was the place to look for the earliest evidence of human ancestry. Mary Leakey also conducted extensive research at Laetoli, located about 30 km (20 mi) southwest of Oldupai. Here, a 27 m (88 ft) long fossil footprint trail, captures the path in which three early humans (Australopithecus afarensis) and multiple other East African animals walked through wet volcanic ash 3.6-million-years ago. A replica of the trail is in the Oldupai Museum.
With its design mimicking a Maasai boma, you never feel disconnected from the surrounding Acacia-Commiphora biome while visiting the Oldupai Gorge Site Museum. The partly open, partly closed architecture allows you to experience this part of Tanzania famous for its wildlife. Beyond the weavers, bulbuls, and barbets flying overhead, and the red and blue agama lizards scurrying underfoot, giraffe are yearly residents of Oldupai while gazelle and eland frequent the plains surrounding the museum. The animal populations vary considerably depending on the time of year, as large herds of wildebeest and zebra often follow the seasonal rains. However, both of these species can be found in small numbers during the dry season, while leopards, lions, and cheetahs, visit on occasion but mostly avoid humans. Unfortunately, elephants and rhinoceros are no longer found in or around the gorge, preferring to stay in the Crater Highlands or the Serengeti.
From the museum, visitors are often taken on tours to some of the famous archaeological locals within the gorge, like Frida Leakey Korongo (FLK) where P. boisei was discovered. (Korongo is the Swahili word for gully.) However, it is rare that these tours are taken to on-going excavations even though some research groups are more than willing to discuss their findings with visitors. Nevertheless, new archaeological data is constantly being uncovered and will hopefully add to the collections already housed at the Museum.
One major drawback of Oldupai’s museum is its location and inaccessibility to many Tanzanians. Because Oldupai is located in a national park, most Tanzanians are unable to visit due to prohibitive travel costs and entrance fees, unless they are part of a school fieldtrip. Additionally, the remoteness prevents people from attempting a journey to the site. Although there are people living in the area, mainly Maasai, they have largely been ignored by the archaeological community. The Stone Tools, Diet, and Sociality project is working closely with the Maasai by actively including them in on-going fieldwork to establish links that curtail a history of miscommunication between researchers and local people. This collaboration aims to be mutually beneficial; for example, the project investigates the influence of climate change on human evolution, while exploring ways to lessen the impact of contemporary droughts that effect the Maasai today.
As one of the largest onsite museums in Africa located in the vicinity of ongoing archaeological excavations, the Oldupai Gorge Site Museum and Visitor Center is a museum like no other. Situated within an environment that calls to mind the Great Wildebeest Migration and classic East African landscapes, the museum is a doorway into two million years of human evolution. Unfortunately, access to the museum is limited, especially for Tanzanians, the majority of which cannot afford travel costs and park entrance fees. However, many of the archaeological discoveries uncovered at the Oldupai Gorge have been relocated to the cities of Arusha and Dar es Salaam, so people who are unable to travel to the Site Museum itself still have an opportunity to learn about human evolution studies and archaeology research being conducted in Tanzania.
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Robert Patalano is a postdoctoral research at the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. He received his PhD in Archaeology from the University of Calgary in 2019 and has been working at Oldupai Gorge since 2014. His main research area is environmental change and human evolution. More information can be found at https://www.shh.mpg.de/person/101971/2375.