The Olduvai Gorge, with its volcanic rich plains and exposed gullies, has long been recognized as a paleoanthropologic gem by the National Geographic Society. Over 90 grants have been given by the Geographic to fund research at Olduvai—many to the Leakey family. Louis and Mary Leakey, patriarch and matriarch of the three-generation family of scientists, unearthed a fossil hominin skull of a Australopithecus boisei there in 1959. Dated at 1.8 million years old, it was, at that time, the oldest known human ancestor.
Located 45 miles (72 kilometers) northwest of the Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai—sometimes spelled Oldupai, the Maasai name for the wild sisal plant that grows there—contains sediments interspersed with layers of volcanic ash and lava that date back over two million years. Within these beds, a plethora of plant, animal, and human fossils has been excavated. But the preservation of dig sites at Olduvai Gorge has been threatened in recent years. Existing facilities are in a state of decay, and a lack of security has left many of the gorge's treasures vulnerable to damage.
The gorge—part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA)—was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1974. Status as a World Heritage site brings with it international recognition and fosters partnerships between the World Heritage Center, NGOs, and local governments. At the most basic level, UNESCO's World Heritage mission is to encourage and support conservation. And according to Charles Musiba, a Tanzanian-born professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, "That's just it. UNESCO provides a framework for conservation. It takes key players, from multiple levels, to establish lasting conservation plans." Musiba feels that cohesive cooperation is what has been lacking in the NCA.
Musiba is a paleoanthropologist who established a summer field school at Olduvai, a collaborative effort between multiple academic institutions including Bugando University College of Health Sciences, Kyoto University, and the University of Colorado at Denver. A major mission of the school is to include local Maasai elementary and secondary schoolteachers and students in research at the gorge. Teachers then prepare lesson plans on the cultural, ecological, and paleoanthropological significance of Olduvai. Making local youth conscious of their surroundings will prepare them to become involved in future development at the gorge. "Empowerment of the local people is key," says Musiba.
The field school coordinators are working with Tanzania's Department of Antiquities and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority to establish a long-term plan for the preservation of Olduvai as an educational site. Musiba envisions an education center staffed by local Maasai cultural guides and indigenous scientists. Walking and donkey tours of the site could be offered, minimizing the impact of vehicles to preserve the integrity of the land. The collaboration among different levels—international, national, and local—spells hope for the future of Olduvai Gorge.
—Sean P. O'Connor