Readers’ wildlife photos

I have a comfortable backlog of photos, but please keep them coming in—I can never have too many. Today we have an unusual contribution documenting ancient human activity in Africa. The photos come from Richard Bond, and his notes are indented:

I have wavered for a couple of years over whether these photographs would interest you, but in view of the recent stir about possible humans beings in North America 130K years ago, I thought that I might as well submit them. The photographs are of an excavation site at Olorgesailie in the eastern Rift Valley in Kenya that has yielded a huge number of stone tools. The site was occupied for possibly as long as a million years until about 200K years ago, almost certainly by Homo erectus.

Entrance to the site is through a tiny but excellent museum. This has examples of stone tools that one may actually handle: photos #1 & #1b. The hand axe in #1 is dated at 780K years old.

Photo #2 shows the first humanoid fossil found at the site. The source of the rock for most of the tools was Mount Olorgesailie, a now-extinct volcano shown in photo #3.

The shallow depression in the foreground used to be a lake. (Sorry about the haze; this appears to be a feature of the Rift Valley during the burst of very hot weather just before the end of the dry season.) The area used to be very volcanically active. Photo #4 was taken a little south of Olorgesailie while flying on an earlier visit to the Masai Mara, and, despite the haze, shows clearly several extinct volcanos.

Photo #5 shows an igneous dyke: note the erosion of the softer sedimentary rock that covered and preserved the site.The tools were first discovered spewing from erosion channels.

Photos #6 & #7 show some of these tools, laid out more or less to represent them as they were discovered.

Photo #8 shows a current excavation; the darker bands across the middle are ash from two of the many eruptions that allow accurate dating of the finds.

Photo #9 gives an idea of the depth of the erosion that exposed the tools, and photo #9b is one example of the many animal fossils found on the site.

One curious aspect is that obsidian tools (now in the Nairobi National Museum) have been found, despite the nearest source of obsidian being 50 km away. This might imply some sort of trading structure based around Olorgesailie.

I have visited many historical sites from the mundane to the spectacular, but this is my favourite. I actually became quite emotional in a couple of places, most unlike me. When I visited in 2013, I was shown round by the curator, a charming, softly spoken man who would dearly like more visitors. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get there. For a start, few Kenyans know about it, and it took a most helpful porter at the Panafric (my favourite Nairobi hotel) about half an hour to find a taxi driver who would take me. Although it is just off the direct Nairobi-Magadi road, the bus takes an alternative route that passes through more villages. (I would not risk the dreaded matatus even though they are better than they used to be.) Taxi (not cheap for one person!) or hire car are the only real options. I did not begrudge the expense, because the drive itself is fascinating, not least for the spectacular views of the Rift Valley. My driver had never known about the place previously, and from his comments on our return drive he was considering the possibilities for lucrative future business, so perhaps by now the Panafric might lay on much cheaper trips by minvan. Incidentally, like most Kenyan taxi drivers, mine was excellent company, very informative, and spoke fluent English.

13 Comments

  1. Nicholas K.
    Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    50 km is not a long distance for hunter/gatherers to range, so that does not surprise me about the obsidian at this site (which I have also visited). Foraging peoples typically have large home ranges. Still, exchange is not unlikely. The massive number of stone tools at certain levels is also due, in part, to deflation — sediments blown or washed away leaving heavier tools in a single layer. The number of hand axes there is astounding!

  2. darrelle
    Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Mr Bond (shaken or stirred?), I am happy that you decided to send these to Jerry. Absolutely fascinating. A million years of occupation by Homos!

    I wouldn’t mind at all if you talked more about your experiences at this site, particularly the couple of things that moved you. This site is now on my bucket list, though it is unlikely that I will ever actually be able to make it happen.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s difficult to analyse what moved me. I guess one thing was the impact of coming to terms with a “civilisation” that possibly lasted a million years. I think that the other was seeing our ancestors in the context of the wonderful Rift Valley scenery: that single photo of Mount Olorgesailie gives an inadequate impression of the place.

      • Mike
        Posted May 9, 2017 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        It looks a very fascinating place,thanks for the Photo,s and to get so close to the actual site and the artifacts must have been wonderful.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      I’ve added it to my bucket list now too! Thanks Richard (and Jerry). 🙂

  3. Mark R.
    Posted May 8, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Holding those ancient tools must have been a profound experience. I’m with darrelle- happy you decided to share your photos and commentary of this amazing site.

  4. Posted May 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating! I wonder whether later humans also inhabited the site and if not, why it was abandoned.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      It was possibly abandoned when the lake dried.

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted May 9, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      There is good evidence the site was inhabited at various times over the course of at least 1/2 million years. The site was a former shallow lake, which occasionally dried up completely (and did so for good some time ago). Homo erectus was a hunter and the shores of this small lake would have provided good hunting and shelter. At times, however, during glacial periods (up north, Africa generally became cooler and drier during glacial maximums) the area became essentially uninhabitable for humans. Today, the site is in the Rift Valley, very arid.

  5. Posted May 8, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting to see and your description of your visit. Thanks for that.
    I am curious though of photo #5 and the blurred bit in the lower half, center frame.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted May 9, 2017 at 3:08 am | Permalink

      Well spotted: I had not noticed that. There was a large and active colony nearby of (probably) grey-headed social weavers (Pseudonigrita arnaudi). My best guess would be that the blur was one of these.

  6. Posted May 8, 2017 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating! I know about this location, and I talk about it during my evolution class. i would love to visit.


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