Gilbert: Footprints in the Serengeti

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(HOST)  On the fiftieth anniversary of an important archeological discovery, commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert considers that discovery – and recalls a few of his own memorable impressions of that part of the world.

(GILBERT) The flat, dry savanna of East Africa stretched away to the horizon in every direction, and there I stood on the side of a straight, gravel road, with my backpack on the ground beside me. Terrific, I thought. Not the most promising place to hitchhike. More to settle my nerves than quench my thirst, I got my water bottle out of my pack, took a swig, and put my hat on to keep the strong equator sun off my head. As it turned out, it was just a half-hour before a country bus came by, laden with luggage and Maasai locals, picked me up, and took me west to the Serengeti Plains.

I was in northern Tanzania, and had just visited Olduvoi Gorge, now pronounced Oldupai Gorge. There, fifty years ago today, Archeologist Mary Leakey set out in the morning to explore a part of the gorge where rains had caused significant erosion earlier in the year. Her husband, Louis Leakey, was in bed with the flu. First she saw, sticking out of the ground, a fossilized bone, part of the bone that’s just below the ear. She looked further, and gently brushing some dry earth away, saw two large teeth – definitely hominid.

She hurried back to camp to tell Louis, who rose from his sick bed to investigate. Eventually, 400 bone fragments were found, and over time, Mary was able to reconstruct the skull she’d unearthed. It was 1.7 million years old.

This was big news – the discovery demolished the notion that humankind’s origin was either East Asian or even European. It meant that hominids had been living in Africa far longer than anyone had imagined, it contributed to the notion that Africa was the cradle of humankind, and it spurred important research worldwide.

Since that exciting day, a half-century ago, older fossils have been found, but the discovery remains important. One of Mary Leakey’s later discoveries, about 25 miles from Oldupai, was a fossilized trail of footprints of three small-brained apes, two walking upright side by side, the third following in one of their footsteps. You see their path in the volcanic ash for nearly eighty feet, and you see where, three and a half million years ago, something caused the smallest of them to stop and turn around for a moment before continuing on its way.

By coincidence, our teenage daughter is now just a hundred miles east of Oldupai Gorge, back for a second summer, volunteering at a school for AIDS orphans. She’s also just 75 miles from the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, where I taught another summer thirty-seven years ago.

My footprints in the ochre African dust are long gone, but my memories and love for the region and its people are as well-preserved as any fossil could be. And it seems that the place has made just as lasting an impression on our daughter.

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