Tanzania Hosts Major Odupai Conference

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[Business: Tourism]

Fifty years ago this July 17, evolutionary history was rewritten in Tanzania, the largest country in East Africa. 

British archeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, working on bone and fossil analysis in Oldupai Gorge in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (now a UNESCO Heritage Site) discovered a skull that would change all prior scientific hypothesis.

Their exciting discovery was a humanoid skull with huge teeth that they named Zinjanthropus or “Zinj.” The excellent condition of the skull allowed scientists to date the beginnings of mankind to about two million years ago, and to verify that human evolution began not in Asia, as previously thought, but in Africa. In keeping with the significance of this information, Oldupai Gorge is now known as “The Cradle of Mankind.” 

“Zinj", whose name was later changed to Australopithecus Boise, after Charles Boise who funded the Leakeys’ research, is not a direct human ancestor, but is the first specimen of this species ever found, and at the time of his discovery, the oldest hominid. Two decades later, footprints found at Laetoli, south of Oldupai, were interpreted as those of hominids even older: 3.5 to 4 million years old.

This year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism through the Department of Antiquities and the National Museum of Tanzania will mark this historic find with the International Conference on Zinjanthropus in Arusha, Tanzania from August 16-22, 2009.

The conference will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the discovery as well as explore new information on human origins, conservation and other allied studies. A special workshop on Louis and Mary Leakey has been organized by the East African Association for Paleoanthropology and Paleontology.

“The Leakeys’ work in Tanzania changed our knowledge of the evolution of mankind and of history,” said Dr. N. A.  Kayombo, Director General of the National Museums of Tanzania. “We are naturally proud that Tanzania was the site of this significant discovery. We hope that conference delegates will join tourists from around the world and visit Oldupai Gorge, the actual site of the discovery, as well as enjoy the natural wonders of the entire Ngorongoro Conservation Area including the large numbers of wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater, often referred to as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’”

In the same area, are the Empakaai Crater and the active volcano of Oldonyo Lengai mountain – all  part of the Serengeti Eco- System.  “It is most inspiring to see the entire area as Louis and Mary Leakey saw it,” concluded Dr. Kayombo.

Bernard Murunya, Acting Chief Conservator, Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, added: “Visitors to Oldupai should not miss the fascinating exhibits and lectures at our Oldupai Gorge Museum. Among these exhibits are hominid footprints  preserved in volcanic rock some 3.6 million years old, representing some of the earliest signs of the small- brained, upright-walking Australopithecus afarensis, ever to be found.”

The location of the Museum itself offers wonderful  views over the gorge. Walking tours of the area, which is  also a birders' paradise, can be arranged upon request.  Excavations at Oldupai Gorge are on-going and continue to produce splendid specimens of extinct hominids, animals and plants.

Since the Leakey discovery, examples of at least three species of hominids have been found at Oldupai, including Australopithecus Boise, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus. In addition, the two earliest stone tool traditions, Oldowan and Acheulian have been found along with fossil remains. Both the fossils and the tools have been crucial to understanding human evolution.

Much is now known about the Australopithecines, members of the Paranthropus genus. All species of Paranthropus were bipedal. They had a brain about 40 per cent the size of modern man, were muscular, and stood about four feet to four and a half feet tall.

They may have primarily lived in wooded areas, eating shrubs and plants.

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