TUKUL 1: African Prehistory

tukul1 Open air museum Tukul 2 Tukul 3 Tukul 4 panel 1 panel 2 panel 3 panel 4 panel 5 panel 6 panel 7 panel 8 panel 9 Open air museum Tukul 2 Tukul 3 Tukul 4 panel 1 panel 2 panel 3 panel 4 panel 5 panel 6 panel 7 panel 8 panel 9 Open air museum Tukul 2 Tukul 3 Tukul 4 panel 1 panel 2 panel 3 panel 4 panel 5 panel 6 panel 7 panel 8 panel 9



The site

The Olduvai Gorge is an important geographical feature of northeastern Tanzania. It is a large gorge of tectonic origin cutting through ancient lake deposits, as much as a hundred meters deep in some stretches, and extends for about 50 km northeast of the Eyasi lake in the Serengeti plain. Here the erosive action of fluvial water has exposed sediments containing exceptionally interesting fossils, and more than seventy archaeological sites.

The Olduvai gorge deposits, discovered by H. Reck in 1913, were studied in detail by Louis and Mary Leakey, who conducted investigations from 1923 to 1975, showing the extraordinary importance of the Olduvai for the study of human evolution.

Olduvai Gorge from space


Olduvai Gorge

The base rock of the formation is a basalt flow. The main deposits covering it, called “Beds”, are numbered from I to IV.
The process of their formation began around 1.8 Myr and was concluded about 0,5 Myr.

They are mainly lake and river deposits, occasionally alternating with layers of volcanic origin, all affected by intense tectonic activity.

Bed I

The best investigated levels are those of Beds I and II, which contain a large number of hominid remains associated with abundant lithic industry and settlement floors. These vestiges gave rise to the designation “Oldowan culture”. Bed I, about 40 m deep, is composed of layers of lake and river deposits alternating with volcanic tuffs. The deposits contain four archaeological levels. Settlement floors of various types have been located. Some are long-duration camps, as borne out by their abundant and diverse lithic toolkit, numerous faunal remains, and spatial organization; others are temporary settlements connected to occasional activities, such as the butchering of elephant carcasses.

At site DK in Bed I a circular mound of stones was found, about 5 m in diameter and dated to 1.8 Myr. M. Leakey interpreted the circle as a shelter built by hominids, while other scholars believe it is a mere natural formation. Bed I yielded remains of Australopithecus boisei. L. Leakey credits the latter with the ability to fashion lithic artifacts such as choppers, chopping tools, polyhedrons, and rabots. Chips, usually not retouched, were also found here, and proto-hand axes make their first Homo habilis appearance in the higher part of the horizon.

Bed II

Bed II, about 20-30 m thick, began to form around 1.7 Myr. Lake levels are much scarcer, since the ancient lake was slowly drying up, and most of the area was occupied by an open savannah. It is in this Bed that one observes the passage from the Oldowan to the Acheulean industries, and from Homo habilis to Homo erectus, both contemporaries of Australopithecus boisei. Like those of Bed I, the industries of Bed II are attributable to the early Paleolithic, but the toolkit is much more diversified, chips are more abundant, and the proto-handaxes are increasingly close to true handaxes. Although no remains attributable to Homo erectus, regarded as the bearer of the bifacial culture, are recorded before the last levels of Bed II, handaxes already appear in the middle levels (site EF-HR, 1.3 Myr).

Homo habilis from Olduvai Gorge


Bed III is mainly composed of fluvial deposits formed from 1 million to 0,7 Myr. Compared to those of Bed II, the handaxes of Bed III are more elongated and more thoroughly retouched. Cleavers also make their first appearance.

Bed IV

The sediments of Bed IV, about 45 m thick, document a transition from a quite humid climate to a dryer one. Choppers continue to be produced, along with lanceolate or almond-shaped handaxes, cleavers with parallel edges, and bolas. During the last stage of Bed IV, cord-shaped handaxes become prevalent, and retouched chips increase, marking a gradual transition from Acheulean to Middle Paleolithic assemblages. Some of the Acheulean levels contain industries designated as Oldowan B and C.

These industries are interpreted by M. Leakey as directly descending from the Oldowan, unlike the Acheulean, which he regards as having been brought over from another area. Thus, Leakey believes in the coexistence of two different technological traditions used by different populations for hundreds of thousands of years. This intriguing theory, however, is not accepted by other scholars, who argue that these two different industries are mere variants of the same tradition.

Masek, Ndutu and Naisiusiu Beds

Bed IV, which contains Acheulean industries, is followed by the Masek Beds (ca. 500.000 B.P., marking the beginning of the last of the great Beds, number V). These are sediments of  aeolian origin which formed at the time of the transition from the final Acheulean to the Middle Stone Age. The erosion of the gorge, which resulted in its present morphology, seems to have begun during the same period. The Masek Beds are followed by the Ndutu Beds, of the Upper Pleistocene, and finally the most recent formations, the Naisiusiu Beds, which contain a microlithic industry dated around 17,000 years B.P.



M. D. Leakey 1971, Olduvai Gorge:  Excavations in beds I and II, 1960-1963, III, Cambridge.

M. D. Leakey, R. Hay 1972, The chronological position of the fossil hominids of Tanzania, Actes du I Congrès International de Paléontologie Humaine, Nice.

M. D. Leakey 1976, The early stone industry of Olduvai Gorge, in J. D. Clark, G. Isaac (eds), Les plus anciennes industries en Afrique, IX Congrès Union Internationale des Sciences Préhistoriques et Protohistoriques, colloque V, Nice, pp. 24-41.

R. Hay 1976, Geology of the Olduvai Gorge, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

P. Shipan 1990, Etudes récentes sur le comportement des Hominidés dans la grotte d’Olduvai, L’Anthropologie, 94, pp. 229-240.

C. Monahan 1996, New Zooarchaeological Data from Bed II Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania: Implications for Hominid Behavior in the Early Pleistocene, Journal of Human Evolution, 31, pp. 93-128.

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