Olduvai Gorge is not in Kenya

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Olduvai Gorge is not in Kenya. Why do so many Kenyans seem to think it is?

In August last year, Rosemary Odinga told a 1000-strong crowd at the United Nations Headquarters that Olduvai Gorge is in Kenya. She said “The oldest fossil was found in Kenya at a place called Olduvai Gorge, and Kenya is the cradle of mankind.” The first part of this sentence is not true, but the second is, partially. Kenya is indeed the cradle of mankind, but it is not the only cradle of mankind.

Olduvai Gorge is firmly in Tanzania. It is in the eastern Serengeti Plain, on the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The deep ravine has two branches, one stretching 48 kms and the other 90 kms. It is a spectacular work of nature but that’s not the reason it is famous.

Where the fight over Kilimanjaro is now deeper than just about the mountain, the Olduvai one seems to be more misconception and ignorance than national competition. Andrew Masawe, a Tanzanian commentator, is quoted in this open letter to Rosemary saying “our concern should not be that someone stated in a speech that Olduvai Gorge is in Kenya, our concern need to be on the fact that the audience does not know Olduvai Gorge is in Tanzania.”


The name, Olduvai, is rooted in the Maasai word for a sisal plant that thrives in the area. Even today, the Maasai occupy both sides of the border, as they have for centuries. Their presence on the Kenyan side is perhaps more pronounced, which might explain one of the foundations of the misconception.

It doesn’t help that the gorge is in the Great Rift Valley. Or rather the East African Rift. While the Rift Valley is a geographical trench that was once thought to stretch from Lebanon to Mozambique, it was also the name of a province in Kenya for five decades. As such, saying that Olduvai Gorge is in the Rift Valley means somewhere specific on the Kenyan side.

But both location and etymology still tell little of why so many people seem to think the gorge is in Kenya. The real reason is not why Olduvai is famous, but who made it so.

Born in Kenya in 1903, Louis Leakey’s work and legacy are synonymous with Olduvai Gorge. While Louis and his second wife, Mary, were not the first to explore the fossils of Olduvai, they did the most extensive research on the site to date. They have such a deep connection to it that even most of the finds not by them are by someone connected to them.


Mary and Louis Leakey excavating at Olduvai Gorge. Image Source

By the early 1930s, Louis Leakey had a Phd and an insatiable ambition. He had been to Tanganyika once, in 1922, as part of a team hunting for dinosaur fossils. In 1928, he met and married Frida Avern. The two of them did some of the initial work on Olduvai; one of the most important gullies was named for Frida.

Frida was a scientific illustrator and an archaeologist. She and Louis had a budding romance, two kids and a successful partnership. When she couldn’t work on his book, Adam’s Ancestors, (she was pregnant with their second child) he hired the woman who would be his second wife, Mary Nicol. Mary and Louis had an affair from as early as 1933 but only got married in 1936 after Frida sued for a divorce. The scandal of the affair, and previous professional ones where Louis had claimed his finds were the oldest true ancestors of human beings, broke his budding career at Cambridge.

World War II gave him a new job, as both a scientist and an intelligence officer. Fluent in Kikuyu and Kiswahili, Louis’ skills proved useful both during the war and in the war that followed in Kenya in the early 1950s. Mary soldiered on with the scientific work.

One morning in 1959, Mary found the famous Zinjathropus fossils in Olduvai as her husband nursed a fever back at the camp. After she saw the upper teeth and skull, she marked the spot and drove back to camp yelling “I’ve found him!” Over the next weeks they found even more parts, over 400, enough to build a composite skull. As fate would have it, the site of the find was the one named for Frida.

Louis never actually found a skull in his entire career. His finds were often small and complementary, although the nature of his two marriages meant it seemed like he did a lot of the work. He was also a prolific writer and speaker, often controversially. The Zinjathropus skull wasn’t a unique find, a similar one had been found in South Africa in 1924, but it got far more press.

Mary was the meticulous excavator, leading a small team of assistants to a retinue of important finds often credited to her and her husband. His work was to find the money and the publicity, hers was to find the fossils. She also inspired her children into the life of a modern scientist.

In 1960, Mary and her son Jonathan found the famous Homo Habilis skull at Olduvai Gorge. 12 years later, in the year Louis died, his most famous son, Richard, found the remains of the Turkana Boy.

The prolific work of the Leakey dynasty was made possible by the loss of colonies Germany suffered in 1918. With Tanganyika now under British rule, British universities and museums trained their research on some of the work German scientists had begun but couldn’t finish. Louis Leakey was one of those who benefitted, expanding on the work of Professor Hans Reck in Olduvai. Louis was Kenyan by birth, and Mary by marriage, but their most famous work was in Tanzania.

Some of the finds of the Leakey family at Olduvai, the stone tools, might also contribute somewhat to the confusion. The tools are named for the gorge, Oldowan, but it is now a generic name used for that class of tools. Oldowan tools have been found in places outside of Tanzania, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Read How Kenya Got the Ten-Mile Coastal Strip and “lost” Kilimanjaro. [Link]

Featured Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Owaahh, 2016.

One story is good,

till Another is told.


Last modified: November 8, 2018