UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

Dawn of humanity illuminated

21 August 2012

The first systematic, multidisciplinary results to come out of research conducted on the edge of the Serengeti at the rich palaeoanthropological site in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania since that produced by Louis and Mary Leakey’s team, have recently been published in a special issue of the prestigious Journal of Human Evolution

Professor Marion Bamford, deputy director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, and Professor Ron Clarke from the Institute of Human Evolution – both at the University of the Witwatersrand – contributed papers to the 191-page special edition. Bamford and Clarke’s contributions are part of 15 papers by 25 scientists to have come from research conducted by the Olduvai Landscape Paleoanthropology Project (OLAPP) since 1989 and the special edition is entitled Five Decades after Zinjanthropus and Homo habilis: Landscape Paleoanthropology of Plio-Pleistocene Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Robert Blumenschine“The significance of this special edition is the culmination of the work we have been doing at Olduvai the past two decades and is an impressive range of articles that deals with various aspects of our distant ancestor Homo habilis.” 

“No one site tells us more about the last two million years of human evolution than Olduvai and with contributing researchers from Wits University, this collaborative work dispels the suppose rift in palaeosciences between East Africa and South Africa,” says Professor Robert Blumenschine, guest-editor of the special edition and Chief Scientific Strategist of the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), based at Wits. 

Bamford and Clarke are also associated with and supported by PAST which provides funding to members of the OLAPP team, including to the local excavators and technicians supporting the research in Tanzania. 

“The publication celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Leakey-discoveries in 1959 and 1960 of the Zinjanthropus (now known as Paranthropus boisei) and Homo habilis type species. The Leakey’s work, spanning five decades until 1984, established Olduvai as the single most important record for hominid biological and technological evolution over the last two million years,” Blumenschine says. 

Bamford's paper entitled Fossil sedges, microplants, and roots from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and her collaborative paper with Rosa Albert entitled Vegetation during UMBI and deposition of Tuff IF at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (ca. 1.8 Ma) based on phytoliths and plant remains, provide the first systematic report of plant fossils from Olduvai. Together, these papers show the great potential plant fossils hold for high resolution palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of the habitats used by Homo habilis at Olduvai. 

Clarke, who has worked closely with the Leakeys in the 1960s, gives in his paper entitled A Homo habilis maxilla and other newly-discovered hominid fossils from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, a full description of the Olduvai Hominid (OH) 65 palate, the first complete upper dentition of Homo habilis. This specimen provides crucial evidence for redefining Homo habilis. 

Clarke also describes the specimen OH 7X, that is the previously missing right second molar of the OH 7 mandible discovered by the Leakeys 46 years earlier, and used by them to originally describe the species Homo habilis

ABOUT THE OLDUVAI LANDSCAPE PALEOANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT (OLAPP)

OLAPP researchers have in the past two decades departed from the tradition approaches in palaeoanthropology and have conducted multidisciplinary excavation over broader areas – distances spanning 20km – to provide more detailed environmental and ecological context to their research. 

OLAPP focused on the earlier, 2.0 - 1.8 million year old parts of the Olduvai sequence during which time Homo habilis existed. It was the first species of our genus and the first human ancestor to exhibit brains larger than apes, stone tool making and use, and consumption of meat and other foods from large animals. 

OLAPP’s objective has been to understand the ecological pressures that selected for these fundamentally human traits. 

A number of papers in the special issue describe the novel methods employed to achieve this goal, which featured excavation of a large number of trenches from single discrete time intervals over landscape scales (hundreds to thousands of meters). 

Detailed study of these sediments, fossil plants and animals recovered from the excavations allowed OLAPP scientists to place the stone tools and butchered animal bones also recovered in a very high resolution palaeoenvironmental context. 

Blumenschine, a Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, USA, was assisted in guest-editing the special issue by Fidelis Masao, from the University of Dar es Salaam, Ian Stanistreet, from the University of Liverpool, and Carl Swisher, also from Rutgers University. Blumenschine also contributed various papers to the special issue. 

To view the special issue, click here 

ABOUT THE PALAEONTOLOGICAL SCIENTIFIC TRUST (PAST)

PAST is Africa’s Origin Sciences champion. PAST is a South African NGO that since 1994 has been promoting and preserving southern Africa’s rich fossil heritage through seven successful programs that integrate education, research, and public outreach activities in the origin sciences (see www.past.org.za). No other institution in Africa - and indeed in the world - shares this mission, and PAST is universally recognized as the most important independent source of support for origin sciences research and education in southern Africa. 

PAST’s newest initiative, Scatterlings of Africa, of which Clarke and Bamford are founding members, is an ambitious effort to expand the organization’s mission across Africa while retaining its traditional core focus on southern Africa. Scatterlings is a powerfully transformative idea that instils pride in Africa as a treasure trove of human heritage, while fostering a more positive perception of the continent previously mired in biases based on superficial differences such as skin colour. It is an educational concept that inspires scientific curiosity among learners and fulfils humankind’s fundamental need to understand its roots and diversity.

ABOUT WITS’ RESEARCHERS

Homo habilis female - drawing by Ron Clarke - Caves of the Ape-Men, Clarke and Partridge (2010), Wits University PressProfessor Ron Clarke:

Also known as the “palaeo-surgeon”, Clarke has for the past 21 years been directing excavations at the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa, where he is currently finalizing the cleaning and reconstruction of a nearly complete Australopithecus skeleton and skull known as Little Foot. This work has received much support from PAST, and he is one of the founder members of Scatterlings and a member of the OLAPP team conducting research at Olduvai Gorge. 

From 1963 to 1969, he was employed as assistant to Dr Louis Leakey in Nairobi, with the responsibility for cleaning, reconstructing and casting fossils, including hominids, from Olduvai and other East African sites, as well as conducting archaeological excavations. He was for a time Warden of Prehistoric Sites of Kenya. He excavated and cast the 3.6 million year old Laetoli hominid footprint trail in Tanzania and has also been involved in research in Eritrea, Italy and China. 

On Clarke’s research at Olduvai: 

Clarke has published the first-ever full description of a complete Homo habilis upper dentition in maxilla in this special issue. The maxilla (Olduvai Hominid 65) was uncovered during excavations of an Oldowan stone tool site at Naisiusiu, in Bed I of Olduvai Gorge. It has been dated to 1.8 million years ago. 

Homo habilis male - drawing by Ron Clarke - Caves of the Ape-Men, Clarke and Partridge (2010), Wits University PressClarke, who cleaned, reconstructed and cast the fossil, demonstrates its strong morphological similarity to the Kenyan cranium of KNM-ER 1470, which in turn has parietal bones that match in size and shape the type specimen of Homo habilis, that is Olduvai Hominid 7. 

Clarke concludes that OH 65 and KNM-ER 1470 (which has no tooth crowns preserved) group with OH 7 as representatives of Homo habilis, whilst other Olduvai specimens previously classified as Homo habilis, such as OH 13 and OH 24, have more in common in morphology and brain size with Australopithecus africanus

He thus contends that, during Bed I times at Olduvai Gorge, there were three contemporary genera of hominid that is Homo habilis, Australopithecus, and Paranthropus boisei. Eight other tooth fossils found by OLAPP researchers in various parts of Olduvai Gorge are also illustrated and described for the first time and include the right second molar of the Homo habilis type specimen mandible found on the surface 46 years after the original excavation. 

Professor Marion Bamford:

A palaeobotanist, Bamford has done research ranging from the Permian Glossopteris flora, the Lower Cretaceous flora from the Kirkwood Formation in the Eastern Cape Province, and the Middle Cretaceous angiosperm flora from Orapa in Botswana. Her main emphasis now is on fossil woods from southern Africa, including their taxonomy, palaeoecology and dating. Fossil woods from the Karoo deposits (Permian and Triassic) are being studied in order to establish a biostratigraphic scheme. Cretaceous and Tertiary woods are studied for dating, palaeoecology and palaeobiogeography. 

Marion BamfordShe has also studied fossil woods from a Pliocene hominid cave deposit, Sterkfontein, for palaeoclimatic interpretations as well as other East African hominid sites. She gives classes to Geology and Botany students on palaeobotany, as part of the general Palaeontology courses. 

On Bamford’s research at Olduvai: 

The novel approach that OLAPP has to the reconstruction of the palaeoenvironment at selected time intervals (such is the “Zinj” land surface - the short period of time and locale that is directly associated with the fossil hominid Paranthropus (Zinjanthropus) boisei; or the Homo habilis land surface) is to determine the vegetation and local setting. 

The researchers use the geology (lake and river sediments, and volcanic tuffs) together with the plant macrofossils and microfossils (silicified wood, leaf impressions, sedge and grass culms; as well as phytoliths, the tiny silica bodies that form inside plant cells and preserve well after the plant has died and disintegrated) to reconstruct among others the rivers, marshes and wooded areas on a very fine scale of a few meters. 

From this they can predict what fresh water and food resources there would have been for animals and hominids in a particular spot; what groups of animals would have lived or died there; what safe refuges there were such as open areas with good visibility or trees for shade and to climb; and what dangers there were such as bushes for ambush or crocodiles lurking in the water. 

From this information the behavior of the hominids can be discussed such as rare or frequent visits; stone tool making; or butchery sites.