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Day 16 (July 11, 2011): The Olorgesailie Site Museum

July 11, 2011

Wish you could come visit Olorgesailie in person? Well, you can! The Olorgesailie Site Museum, operated by the National Museums of Kenya, is open to visitors year round. This open-air museum contains several bandas (thatched huts) as well as a camping space for visitors to stay at very reasonable rates. Tours of the sites originally dug under the direction of Dr. Louis Leakey and Dr. Glynn Isaac can also be arranged through the Museum guides. (visit the the Museum website for more info)

Rick points to the brow ridge of an early human skull, displayed in a glass at the Olorgesailie Site Museum
Rick points to KNM-OG 45500, the brow ridge of an early human skull, found by the Smithsonian team at Olorgesailie.
This morning I took the Chinese colleagues and Katie over to the Site Museum where we discussed the archeological sites on display. The Olorgesailie Site Museum was the brain-child of Louis Leakey a few years after he and Mary Leakey, in 1942, had located areas where many stone handaxes had eroded out of the sediments. Louis ended up employing Italian prisoners from World War II to build the famous Catwalk Site and other parts of the outdoor museum, and to this day some of the locals refer to the Site Museum as ‘Italian’. At the encouragement of Mary Leakey, I decided to use some of my research funds over a 3-year period to update the museum, which re-opened to the public to great fanfare – speeches, a ribbon cutting, and Maasai performances – in 1994. It is one of the most visited site museums in sub-Saharan Africa.

Visitors first walk into a building that has a view of the Rift Valley in the distance and a series of displays inside regarding handaxes, geology, fauna, and hominin remains. The Chinese geologists had many interesting questions, expecially about the handaxes. They seemed to like the idea when I referred to early human toolmakers as ‘the first geologists’ – they did indeed know a lot about rocks!

Rick leads a tour for Chinese visitors around the wooded catwalk overlooking hundreds of handaxes
The Catwalk Site is littered with handaxes from approximately 900ka
Outside on the walking tour, we came to the Catwalk Site, an eroded surface on which handaxes have accumulated from a sandy layer you can still see at the site. Due to the many decades over which handaxes have weathered out from the layer, this site preserves one of the largest accumulations of handaxes in the world!

Guo Zhengtang holding a red fieldbook stands on the observation tower above the Catwalk Site.
Guo Zhengtang, one of our Chinese visitors, stands on the observation tower above the Catwalk Site, named for the raised wooden structure surrounding a phenomenal accumulation of handaxes.
We continued on to a site called DE/89 where the Leakeys and Isaac uncovered over 70 individuals from a very large, extinct baboon species, Theropithecus oswaldi, associated with a fairly massive aggregation of handaxes and other stone tools. Our own excavations in this area suggest that DE/89 may have been the location of a dry season water hole, an area attractive to both baboons and humans. But why do we not find any human remains in the site? We think the primary living areas of the early humans were in the highlands, an especially safe place compared to the water’s edge at night. The baboons, on the other hand, were not so fortunate, as their bones bear evidence of gnawing by large cats and hyenas, the most likely nighttime predators of the monkeys and other unwary creatures drawn to the watering holes.

Alison Brooks, Guo Zhentang, He Huaiyu, and Pan Yongxin sitting high up on rocks overlooking an valley with green shrubs and trees
Alison and our Chinese visitors enjoy the view after exploring another area of Middle Stone Age excavations.
We ended our Site Museum visit with a walk into Member 1, the oldest layer of the Olorgesailie Formation. This is where Louis Leakey discovered the humerus of an extinct elephant, Elephas recki (now renamed Paleoloxodon recki). The elephant was much larger than the living species of African or Asian elephants.

After lunch Alison took our visitors for a walk to an area where several different Middle Stone Age sites have been dug over the past decade by our Smithsonian team. From the photo, you can see that everyone had a good time seeing the landscape and discussing the research.