Digging up the past

Are you interested in million-year-old bones and artifacts? Are you fascinated with our origins and how we came to be?

East Africa has a rich history of archaeological sites, maybe even THE site, nicknamed the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ that have led to ground breaking discoveries about our past and our evolution. Here are our top four sites in East Africa to spark your imagination on archaeology and a piece of our history.

Koobi Fora refers primarily to a region around Koobi Fora Ridge, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people. The ridge itself is an outcrop of mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments that preserve numerous fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominin species. In 1968 Richard Leakey established the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sandspit projecting into the lake near the ridge, which he called the Koobi Fora Spit. In 1973 the government of Kenya reserved the region as Sibiloi National Park, establishing a headquarters for the National Museums of Kenya on the Koobi Fora Spit. Exploration and excavation continue under the auspices of the Koobi Fora Research Project (KFRP), which collaborates with a number of interested universities and individuals across the world. Some notable areas are as follows;

~ The first archaeological site was found in Area 105. It is nicknamed the KBS site, after Kay Behrensmeyer, the researcher who first found stone tools there. This site is also the place where the first tuff was found, (prehistoric volcanic layer of ash known as the KBS Tuff).

~ Area 131, known as the location of Skull 1470, which was discovered by Bernard Ngeneo in 1972, reconstructed by Meave Leakey, and later reconstructed and named Homo habilis by Richard Leakey as possibly the first of the genus Homo. Then Homo rudolfensis was found by Richard Leakey below the 1.89 million year old KBS tuff; thus, it is older than that date, but is conventionally dated to it.

Koobi Fora is perhaps best known for its specimens of the genus Homo, but those of the genus Australopithecus also have been found. Another area on the Western shore of Lake Turkana excavated in 1984, discovered ‘Turkana Boy’, a nearly complete 1.5m year old hominid with skeletal proportions similar to our own.

The Koobi Fora Fossil Museum Center is a research and educational facility that showcases the rich history of human evolution and the diverse fossil collections that have been discovered in the region. Visitors can view fossils of early hominids, ancient animals, and prehistoric plant species, as well as learn about the history of human civilization in Africa. Additionally, the centre offers guided tours, lectures, and workshops for visitors interested in learning more about palaeontology and anthropology. A visit to the centre is highly recommend for an enriching and educational experience. It’s a great opportunity to explore the fascinating world of human evolution and to gain a greater appreciation for the complex and diverse history of our planet.

Another fascinating area is Ileret, in Marsabit County, also located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, north of Sibiloi National Park and near the Ethiopian border. Numerous hominid fossils have been found near Ileret, including Homo erectus footprints dating back to about 1.5 million years ago, making them the second oldest hominin footprints ever found after those at Laetoli, Tanzania. The discovery of the footprints near the Ileret site was a significant archaeological find, as it provides more insight into their movements and behaviour. It also helps us better understand the evolution of humans and our ancestors. Besides the Homo erectus footprints, numerous other fossils have been found near the Ileret site, which date back to over 2 million years ago.

Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria, is widely known for its extraordinarily rich and important fossil beds of extinct Miocene mammals, dated to 18 million years, in addition to evidence of stone tools and artefact from early hominids. The island had been only cursorily explored until the Leakey expedition of 1947-1948 began systematic searches and excavations, which have continued sporadically since then. The end of 1948 saw the collection of about 15,000 fossils from the Miocene, including 64 primates called by Louis Leakey ‘Miocene apes’.

All the species of Proconsul were among the 64 and all were given the name africanus, although many were reclassified into nyanzae, major and heseloni later. Mary Leakey discovered the first complete skull of Proconsul, then considered a “stem hominoid”, in 1948. Many thousands of fossils are now known from five major sites, with abundant hominids including an almost complete skeleton of a second species of Proconsul, as well other species, all of which show arboreal rather than terrestrial adaptations. The first true monkeys do not appear until around 15 million years ago, so it is widely supposed that the diverse Early Miocene African catarrhines like those found on Rusinga filled that adaptive niche. It has been theorized that Proconsul, is a stem catarrhine and therefore ancestral to both Cercopithecids (Old World monkeys) and hominids (great apes and humans), rather than a stem hominoid.

The Olduvai Gorge or Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania between Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, is one of the most important paleoanthropological localities in the world; the many sites exposed in the gorge have proven invaluable in furthering understanding of early human evolution. A steep-sided ravine that stretches across East Africa, it is about 48 km (30 mi) long, and is located in the eastern Serengeti Plains within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The geologist Reck, released The Geology of Olduvai Gorge in 1976, which included a detailed synopsis of five main levels to the gorge, which have since been reclassified into seven. The site is registered as one of the National Historic Sites of Tanzania and the gorge is nicknamed the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ because it is believed to be the site of found remains of the first human beings to walk on Earth.

The palaeontologists Reck & Donald McInnes accompanied Louis Leakey in his 1931 expedition, where Louis found a number of hand axes close to camp soon after their arrival. Mary Leakey first visited the area in 1935, joining Louis and Percy Edward Kent. The Leakeys continued to visit the site over the next several years, and even brought their son, Jonathan, into their work. They uncovered tools, pieces of animal bones, and human remains. In 1960, Jonathan made a significant discovery when he unearthed a jawbone for Homo habilis, the early human species that occupied the gorge approximately 1.9 million years ago. They established excavation and research programs at Olduvai Gorge that achieved great advances in human knowledge and are world-renowned, which include Homo habilis, probably the first early human species, a contemporary australopithecine, Paranthropus boisei, 1.8 mya, followed by Homo erectus, 1.2 mya. Homo sapiens, which is estimated to have emerged roughly 300,000 years ago, is thought to have occupied sites in the gorge 17,000 years ago. This site features the famously preserved footprints of mother and child side by side indicating the initial bipedal mobility of our early ancestors.

As one of the largest onsite museums in Africa, The Olduvai Gorge Museum was first dedicated in the late 1970s by Mary Leakey, and was replaced by a new building in 2018, the same year the Olduvai Gorge Monument was erected. Created by artist Fest Kijo, the monument features two large concrete skulls, depicting the first two species found at the gorge. Exhibits at the museum have featured artifacts and research from the surrounding area since its inception and daily lectures are offered by the Antiquities guides.

If you would like to delve into man kinds history and the fascinating road to how we came to be, discovering our roots in time – contact us at Bespoke Safaris to plan a tailor-made trip to any of these locations.