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Deconstructing Olduvai

15.02.2008
The Olduvai Paleoanthropological and Paleoecological Project (TOPPP) in which the the Universidad Complutense de Madrid participated aims to expose the false presumptions made by previous studies which concluded that the first humans were scavengers. This is a well established model that has stood unchallenged until recently. The discussion is on.

The Olduvai Paleoanthropological and Paleoecological Project directed by Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Audax Mabulla from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Henry Bunn from the University of Wisconsin in the USA focuses on the excavation of the archaeological site I estimated to be two million years old and set at the famous Olduvai Gorge.

The contention with the Blumenschine team has led to discussions in magazines such as Nature nº 449 20th September 2007 and the Journal of Human Evolution nº 53, page. 427-433 October 2007, Domínguez-Rodrigo and his team have proved that what the other researchers interpreted as teeth marks made by carnivores on the fossils, are in reality biochemical marks with a very different origin, such as fungus and bacteria that were brought in to contact with the bones by the roots of plants that grew in the sediment in which they were buried.

Domínguez-Rodrigo and his team have been the first non American archaeologists to examine the fossil collection of Olduvai, and using recent taphonomic techniques they have reached conclusions that completely contradict the established hypothesis. This study, published in the aforementioned magazines and in a recent book (Deconstructing Olduvai, Springer, New York), invalidates the false scavenging hominid hypothesis. The new data also shows that most of the African archaeological sites of this period are in reality palimpsests in which hominids had in many cases very little to do with the formation of such registries. Therefore, the number of sites with a clear anthropic origin is small, and there are no indications of scavenging behavior in any of them.

These sites are among the best preserved archeological sites of that period and are essential for understanding the root of human behavior right at the origin of the Homo genus. They have been studied by a small number of researchers up to date. Mary Leakey discovered and excavated them for decades and all the fossils were studied by a selection of palaeontologists and archaeologists from England and America. It was the study of precisely these fossils that laid the foundations of the scavenging model that has been accepted until recently.

For the past twenty years the study of bed II of the Olduvai Gorge has been directed by R. Blumenschine from the University of Rutgers in USA and Fidelis Masao from the University of Dar es Salaam en Tanzania, and these researchers lead the group of archaeologists that concluded that the first members of our genus were passive scavengers of carrions left by felids, presuming that they lacked the intellectual and technological capacity for them to have been hunters. This interpretation is based on the many teeth marks found in one of the sites of Olduvai and attributed to carnivores consuming most of the flesh of those animals before the hominids got to them.

TOPPP was created with the intention of gathering more information directly from its original context, the Olduvai Gorge.

The team led by Domínguez-Rodrigo avoided conflict with Blumenschine´s team that had been working for over twenty years at bed II, by focusing their study on other beds from even older periods. They also presented a project for bed I, which has remained untouched for over fifty years since the pioneering excavations of M. Leakey. This project has started to re excavate FLK Zinj and FLK North, two of the most representative beds, where the rest of the hominids have been found. The new campaign of the year 2007, preceded by a previous campaign that found rests of hominids in another area of the gorge, has retrieved a large amount of archaeological and paleoecological information that will allow for the reconstruction of the environment of the first members of the Homo genus.

The TOPPP project is not free from difficulties and impediments outside the purely scientific area. The hominid fever that affects a many palaeontologists (as mentioned in the wonderful book by the reporter of the Science Magazine Ann Gibbons: The First Human; the Race to Discover our Earlier Ancestors, Anchor, New York, 2007) complicates the study of these matters during an ideal period for great discoveries about our past and our evolutive legacy. In spite of everything, TOPPP continues ahead with the support of all the Tanzanian institutions (that have supported their position in the conflict) and ensures astonishing results in the near future thanks to the discoveries made by this team over the past two years at the Olduvai Gorge.

Área de Cultura Científica | alfa
Further information:
http://www.ucm.es

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