We All Have Ancestors In Tanzania: Olduvai Gorge

Written by Thomson Safaris

In the most immediate sense, most Americans don’t have a Tanzanian heritage. After all, it’s a relatively-small (the population of Tanzania is still under 50 million) country half a world away from the United States; it’s not every day you meet Tanzanians outside their home country.

But in a more fundamental way, all of us have Tanzanian roots, roots that anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered buried deep in the rock and sands of Olduvai Gorge.

Tanzania's Olduvai/Oldupai GorgeTake a look at the family homestead…

Not long after Louis Leakey started his work in the gorge, in the 1930s, he lost almost all his credibility in the scientific community. A scandalous affair with Mary, and his eventual divorce from his first wife, Frida, had left Louis a persona non grata at Cambridge, his erstwhile intellectual home, and grants for his research evaporated. He and Mary headed to Olduvai together, but without any important discoveries to their (tarnished) names, the couple returned to England in disgrace. Public opinion had turned so strongly against the man that the scientist was even forced to publically recant his belief in the existence of very ancient evolutionary predecessors to man.

The Leakeys were relentless, though, returning to Olduvai many times over the years, and working there essentially full-time starting in 1951.

That indefatigability paid off.

In 1959, with Louis sick in bed, Mary discovered the skull of a hominid she later took to calling “dear boy,” “the nutcracker man,” or “Zinj.”

A replica of the Leakey’s fossil discoveryA replica of the Leakey’s ground-breaking fossil discovery
“Paranthropus boisei skull” by Durova – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paranthropus_boisei_skull.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Paranthropus_boisei_skull.jpg

The news got Louis out of bed pretty darn fast; Zinj wasn’t just a fossil skeleton in a field where the Leakeys had previously found mainly tools and stone implements, he extended the timeline of human history in the region by a couple million years.

Less than two years later, Mary unearthed a Homo habilis fossil in the same region, a more direct ancestor of modern humans, and a resounding proof that earliest man called East Africa home. The couple’s incredibly discoveries in Olduvai gave it the name “The Cradle of Mankind.”

So if you’re visiting Tanzania, drop in on your relatives (even if you don’t share much of a family likeness).