A new site extends the evidence of hominin behavior at Olduvai Gorge

1 minute read

Julio Mercader Florin is one of the authors of a study of a new excavation site at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and he has written an account for The Conversation about the research: “Finds in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge reveal how ancient humans adapted to change”.

I appreciate the detail given in Mercader Florin’s article about the structure of the excavation team and their strategies for community involvement:

The dataset was obtained during a recent survey of the unexplored western portion of the ancient basin. The locality is called Ewass Oldupa; in the Maa language spoken by local residents, this means “the way to the Gorge”. It’s an appropriate name: the site straddles the path that links the canyon’s rim with its bottom. Here, the exposed canyon wall reveals two million years of history.
The team worked closely with Maasai scholars and communities when excavating the site. The research group employed a large group of participants, male and female, selected by the local community. And in addition to community outreach in the national language, Swahili, we are delivering college education opportunities for two Maasai scholars interested in archaeology and heritage, along with several other Tanzanians.

The main conclusion of the study is that hominins were using a broad range of environments in the area represented by the Gorge deposits 2 million years ago. The paper spins this as representing hominin behavioral adaptability:

This is a clear sign that 2 million years ago humans were not constrained technologically and already had the capacity to expand geographic range, as they were ready to exploit a multitude of habitats within Africa – and, possibly, beyond.

This is worth longer consideration, but my quick reaction is that all hominins were effective at exploiting ecotones, the boundaries between different ecological zones. This is also true of chimpanzees today, which exploit savanna ecologies by finding C3 resources within them. I think chimpanzees would be a better comparison still if they were not ultimately limited at their edges by human activity.

At any rate, hominins were using C4 resources by 3.5 million years ago, which documents a broader range of habitat access away from woodland resources than today’s chimpanzees have. Hominins were weed primates.