In the world of archaeology, one of the most exciting spots on the planet is the Cradle of Humankind. Less than an hour’s drive outside Johannesburg, South Africa, this 180-square-mile complex of limestone caves that is one of the most prolific sources of human fossils in the world. Archaeologists have found the remains of numerous hominins, early humans who are close relatives of modern humans, with some fossils dating back as far as 3.5 million years.
Tanzania’s eastern Serengeti is home to one of the world’s most important paleoanthropological sites. Fossils and ancient tools discovered here have given scientists tremendous insight into the evolution of humans and related species.
In 1931, Louis Leakey, a Kenyan pre-historian, led his first expedition to Oldupai (also spelled Olduvai). The party found an ancient hand-axe with a rounded cutting edge , confirming Leakey’s belief that Oldupai could hold important clues to humanity’s early history.
The finds in the next 28 years were largely limited to basic tools and the fossil remains of animals, many extinct while others were previously unknown.
That changed on July 17, 1959, when the archaeologist-anthropologist Mary Leakey (Louis’s wife) spotted an exposed primate skull at the same site where the first hand-axe had been found in 1931. The team named the skull Zinjanthropus — “Zinj” was the name the earliest Arab traders gave to the East African coastline. The species gained the popular name of “Nutcracker Man” because of its large back teeth. It is now known as Australopithecus boisei or Paranthropus boisei.
In 1960, the Leakeys’ son Jonathan discovered another important fossil, a jaw fragment of what would come to be known as Homo habilis. Since that discovery, additional skulls and near-complete skeletons have been found at Oldupai. This discovery is much more human-like. It had a relatively large brain and walked on two legs, reaching a full height of up to 4 feet 3 inches.
Today, there is a small museum located at the site and lecture tours are given to visitors. Digs for further finding are an ongoing process in conjunction with scientists from around the world and the University of Dar es Salaam.