Visiting Olduvai Gorge

Recognise Sambo, a 3rd year BA student majoring in Archaeology, Anthropology, and Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, recently visited Tanzania’s most famous site, Olduvai Gorge. Read about her experience there, and how the trip was made possible, in her own words:


I have visited Olduvai Gorge!

Doing some “field work”.

Olduvai/Oldupai Gorge is the world’s best-known archaeological site, where the evidence of the first humans (Homo habilis) was found. It is also known as the Cradle of Mankind in the Ngorongoro conservation area in northern Tanzania. This site has been made famous by the Leakey’s from the 1950’s onwards and today researchers all around the world continue to conduct their research there.

The purpose for my visit to the most famous Olduvai was for the Geology and Paleoanthropology field school  (from 18th May- 24th June 2016) hosted by Department of Geological Sciences of Indiana University in Bloomington USA and directed by Dr Jackson Njau and Professor Jim Brophy. Six weeks at Olduvai have been nothing but the best, most unforgettable period of my life and this is what makes it memorable: field course activities, hiking, social life, local cultures, and excursions to other famous places like Serengeti, Laetoli, and OlDoinyo Lengai (Lake Natron)

Geology and Paleoanthropology of Olduvai Gorge

At Olduvai every day was planned for specific activities. For instance, we would have geology and paleoanthropology lectures in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons and then go out into the field or the gorge. In understanding the geology of Olduvai Gorge we looked at the stratigraphy (origin, composition, and the distribution and succession of strata) and different depositional environments, sedimentary facies, and faulting that occurred and formed the Gorge millions of years ago.

The group that Recognise worked with in Olduvai Gorge.

For someone without any geological background I found identifying different depositional environments (e.g. lake or lacustrine, lake Margin, fluvial and alluvial) and types of faulting in the Gorge very fascinating because each day there was a strong emphasis on these features, either in the field to identify their characteristics or sometimes taught in class. However, this made me realize regardless of my passion and love for archaeology it is also crucial for me to know and understand the geological context of any given archaeological site.

With a special interest in human and animal remains and also human evolution, I really enjoyed studying the paleoanthropology of Olduvai Gorge that includes (the Stone Age Archaeology of Africa, Zooarchaeology, Vertebrate taphonomy, and Paleontology). Paleoanthropology lectures and class exercises were fun but not as much fun as going out on the field hunting for fossils and excavations. What was fun about this was being able to

Mingling with the Masaai locals.
Mingling with the Masaai locals.

apply the knowledge acquired from lectures to answer questions like what bone is this and to which species does it belong, simply by identifying bones scattered all over the gorge and in their primary context (in situ) when excavating. This practical experience at Olduvai was an amazing experience, and knowing that practical work overrides just reading, I was finally certain and convinced that I am in the right field of study.

Masaai local culture

Predominantly the local people at Olduvai both at the Leakey Camp and the surrounding areas are the Maasai, one tribe (very traditional) that is today known for their high jumping dance and livestock keeping, especially cattle and goats. Talking from experience, the Masaai are very peaceful and warm-hearted who are concerned about other people’s wellbeing. With a smile every day from morning till evening, they threw the Mambos and Jambos (greetings) at us, wanting to know if we are doing okay. They created no boundary for socializing and they were very patient with us when teaching us their Swahili (local language that unites every Tanzanian, and extending to Kenya). Most are illiterate, but their knowledge about geology and archaeology is as good as the knowledge of someone who has already obtained a Master’s degree. Living with them for six weeks really humbled me.

Social Life

Most of the students were from the US, two from South Africa, and one from Tanzania. As students, we worked together very well and learnt and shared new things from each other. We have also managed to survive for weeks at Olduvai, regardless of the living conditions, such as sleeping in tents, without any flush toilets or proper showers after an extremely hot, long day in the field and always covered in dust. Nonetheless, what kept us going everyday was our eagerness to know Olduvai in and out before going back home.

Hikings and leisure

We hiked almost all the smallest to the tallest hills of Olduvai Gorge and OlDoinyo Lengai. We also had all the time in the world to play after rough field days and exercises. We also visited places like Laetoli (a site with evidence of hominin footprints), Serengeti, and Lake Natron.

How did I get the funding to go to Olduvai?

Participating in the Olduvai Gorge field school was quite expensive. However, I was one of the most fortunate students in South Africa to be awarded the African Ambassador by Indiana University in the USA. The Scholarship was partial only covering tuition fee and Tanzania migration and study fees ($7500). However, as a student it was my responsibility to look for extra funding to cover the field cost and airfare, and well, I did just that. I went up and down, from one department to another like the Department of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental studies (GAES) and the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) looking for extra funding. Seeking these funds was draining and made me feel helpless at times. Fortunate enough, one of my Lecture Prof Sarah Wurz offered to take responsibility of the airfare and that really gave me hope. A few weeks later, while still trying so hard to get the money for the field cost, I realized that there were still people who really wanted me to go me to Olduvai Gorge, people like Dr Christine Steininger from the ESI who paid R40 000.00 and, Dr Dominic Stratford from (GAES) who paid the remaining R8500.00, which was enough to completely cover the field cost. With all the money available, I was ready to go to Olduvai to acquire all the experience I need for my field of study.

With all this being said, I would really like express my sincere gratitude to the above mentioned warm-hearted people (Dr Jackson Njau, Prof Jim Brophy, Prof Sarah Wurz, Dr Christine Steininger, and Dr Dominic Stratford) who did not only contribute money to get me to Olduvai, but people who also supported me to go all out and pursue my passion and dream.

Many Thanks!!!


3 Responses to “Visiting Olduvai Gorge”

  1. Phil Sweet

    Inspiring,hope to hear more on a brilliant career that is just beginning!

  2. Terry mwanache

    Hey recognise, i am glad you managed to get to Olduvai one of the most famous sites in Africa known for human origin. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours after your first degree.

  3. Tony Lebea

    I am very inspired from reading this article it clearly shows that nothing is impossible.
    Recognise i wish you all the best in this road keep ur head up. Me as ur neighbour i say Phusha Pressa Phanda

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