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Oldupai (Olduvai) Gorge and Archaeological Museum

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Oldupai (Olduvai) Gorge and Museum, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Inside Oldupai Museum, Oldupai Gorge, Cradle of Mankind, northern Tanzania

Inside Oldupai Museum, Oldupai Gorge, Cradle of Mankind, northern Tanzania

© Anouk Zijlma
Lois and Mary Leakey brought Olduvai (now Oldupai) Gorge to world's attention with their early hominid discoveries during the 1930's. Oldupai Gorge, located in the Ngorongoro Conservation area in northern Tanzania, is 30 miles long and 295 feet deep. It's got nothing on the Grand Canyon, but this gorge holds a treasure chest of fossils spanning over 5 million years. Major fossil findings include Austrolopithecus Zinjanthropus (Boisei), Austrolopithecus Afarensis (like Lucy), and Homo Habilis (tool guy/handyman). The "Laetoli footprints" were perfectly preserved in a rock bed 30 miles from Oldupai. They distinctly show two upright bi-pedal hominids, out for a stroll more than 3.5 million years ago.

The "Cradle of Mankind" is not that impressive to look at, and the museum founded in 1970 by Mary Leakey is a modest affair. But it all comes to life with a little narration from the soft spoken local guides who are trained archaeologists. You can clearly see how the rock strata has formed over the past 5 million years and why this site is so special. For an extra fee, you can clamber down and take a closer look. Two camps on the rim of the gorge are still in use by researchers from American and Spanish universities. Paleoanthropologists still spend several months a year excavating with the help of local Maasai.

Inside the Museum
Several slightly dark rooms, some designed by the Getty Museum, contain fossil casts of early hominids, tools, artifacts and fossils of various animals that roamed this area millions of years ago. A fascinating display board of old photos show the Leakeys at work, at camp and at play. The "Laetoli Room" has the cast of the famous footprints. I studied Anthropology, so I was nerding out at this point.

Getting There
Oldupai lies en route between the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater. Most visitors are on safari and have a driver/guide with them. There's only one road and a basic sign pointing to the Oldupai site, about 5 km's off the main road.

Costs and Time
Entry fee is $3 and can be paid at the museum (may be up to $10 from summer 2012). You want to spend at least an hour and a half here, longer if you plan to walk in the gorge, which you can only do with a guide.

Facilities and Shops
Basic bathrooms are available and lots of trinkets sold by local Maasai. There are no fossils or early tools for sale if you are looking to buy some but there are some interesting books. For snacks and drinks you'll have to continue on to the gates of the Serengeti National Park, about an hour or two away, depending on the state of the road and how fast you drive.

Olduvai or Oldupai?
Olduvai was incorrectly pronounced and spelled by early paleoanthropologists working in the area. In 2005, the Tanzanian authorities officially renamed the Gorge Oldupai. Oldupai is the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant Sansevieria ehrenbergii, which grows in the Gorge.

More Information
Leakey Family Web Site
Tanzania Safari Planner

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