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The Human Evolution World Tour

Hominid enthusiasts can see the highlights of human evolution at evotourism destinations around the world

A giant bust of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian. Image courtesy of Flickr user Scott SM

This week Smithsonian introduced the concept of “evotourism,” with 12 sites around the world where visitors can appreciate and learn about evolution. One stop on the tour relates to human evolution: South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, where the first Australopithecus fossils were discovered.

But there are many other locations where evotourists can marvel at the science and history of human evolution. Here are five additional hominid evotourism destinations.

1. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Its place in hominid history: Some 2,000 miles northeast of the Cradle of Humankind is Africa’s other self-proclaimed Cradle of Mankind, Olduvai Gorge, made famous by Louis and Mary Leakey. In 1959, the husband-and-wife team uncovered a 1.75-million-year-old skull belonging to a species of hominid they dubbed Zinjanthropus boisei, now called Paranthropus boisei. The finding shifted hominid hunters’ interest from South Africa to East Africa, where paleoanthropologists have since found some of the earliest hominids. In the early 1960s, the Leakeys discovered another hominid that once lived at the site, Homo habilis. Dating to about 2.5 million years ago, this species is the earliest known member of the genus Homo. Although it still retained some primitive features, it was the first hominid to have a brain larger than an ape’s. The species’ name means “Handy Man,” referring to the Leakeys’ belief that this hominid made the numerous stone tools found at Olduvai Gorge. These tools are significant in their own right. They are some of the oldest stone tools ever found, and today, archaeologists refer to these types of tools as Oldowan.

What to do there: After touring the Olduvai Gorge Museum, visitors can take guided walks of the hominid site. But the area offers more than just fossils and impressive vistas. The gorge is located within the protected Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Ngorongoro Crater, the area’s namesake, is a collapsed volcanic crater carpeted with the grasslands of the Serengeti. Tourists can  join walking or vehicle safaris, with the chance to glimpse some of the Serengeti’s most famous residents, including lions, baboons, zebras, wildebeest and flamingos.

For more information, visit the Tanzania Tourist Board and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area websites.

2. Sangiran, Indonesia

Its place in hominid history: In the 1890s, Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois discovered the first fossils of Homo erectus (at the time, the species was known as Pithecanthropus erectus), on the island of Java. In fact, it was among the earliest discoveries in the fledgling field of paleoanthropology. Based on the features of the fossils—a modern-looking thigh bone indicating upright walking and a primitive skull cap with thick brow ridges and a sloping forehead—Dubois believed this so-called Java Man was an intermediate form between apes and humans. Starting in the 1930s, German anthropologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald excavated at Sangiran, not far from where Dubois conducted his work. Von Koenigswald found additional fossils as well as stone tools. These sites in Java, dating to more than a million years ago, are some of the oldest hominid fossil locales outside of Africa.

What to do there: Located in Central Java, about 15 miles south of the city of Solo, Sangiran is a Unesco World Heritage site. The Sangiran Museum offers displays of Java Man fossil replicas as well as real fossils of animals that lived in the area 1.2 million to 500,000 years ago. Tourists can also visit the Sangiran archaeological site, where fossils are still being unearthed, and climb a three-story observation tower to get a more expansive view of the region.

For more information, visit Indonesia’s Official Tourism Website.

3. Zhoukoudian, China

Its place in hominid history: The first and oldest hominid fossils discovered in East Asia were found in the 1920s by paleontologists working at the caves of Zhoukoudian, or Dragon Bone Hill, about 30 miles southwest of Beijing. The fossils were assigned to the species Sinanthropus pekinensis, colloquially called Peking Man. Eventually, anthropologists realized the Sinanthropus fossils in China and the Pithecanthropus fossils in Java belonged to the same species, Homo erectus. The original fossils found in the 1920s through 1930s went missing during World War II, but researchers have since found dozens of other fossils and stone tools. The site  is also home to early evidence of the use of fire.

What to do there: With its close proximity to Beijing, Zhoukoudian is easier to get to than many of the other sites on this list, accessible by car or bus. Once there, visitors can see hominid fossils on display at the Zhoukoudian Anthropological Museum, along with the fossils of other animals that coexisted with Peking Man. Tourists can also visit the caves where excavations took place.

For more information, visit TravelChinaGuide.com and the Heritage Traveller websites.

4. Lake Mungo, Australia

Its place in hominid history: Located more than 300 miles north of Melbourne, the now-dry Lake Mungo is home to Australia’s oldest human remains. In 1968, geologist Jim Bowler and a group of archaeologists discovered the burnt bones of a woman; six years later, Bowler found the skeleton of an adult man. Known as Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, the fossils have been the center of much debate, with dates for the pair ranging from 28,000 to 62,000 years ago. Today, researchers in Australia think the Mungo people lived about 40,000 years ago—evidence that modern humans arrived in Australia at a very early date. More recently, in 2003, scientists unearthed 500 footprints left behind by humans, other mammals and birds 20,000 years ago.

What to do there: Mungo National Park offers visitors a variety of ways to explore the area’s dry lake beds, sand dunes and grasslands: short hikes, longer driving and bike paths, and tours led by aboriginal park rangers. The park’s visitor’s center has exhibits on the region’s natural history and cultural heritage, and the outdoor Meeting Place has a recreation of the park’s ancient footprints (the real footprints have been covered for their protection and preservation). Several other national parks are within a few hours’ drive of Mungo.

For more information, visit the Mungo National Park website.

5. Lascaux Caves, France

Its place in hominid history: The Vézère Valley in southwestern France is home to 147 archaeological sites and 25 caves adorned with ancient paintings. The most famous cave paintings are those of Lascaux, discovered by a group of teenagers in 1940. The cave paintings depict 100 animal figures, including bison and horses, as well as some human figures.

What to do there: Sadly, tourism has damaged the Lascaux caves paintings. The site opened to the public in 1948, but the arrival of people also brought bacteria, fungi and other microbes that have led to the deterioration of the cave art, and the caves are now closed to the public. However, visitors can tour a replica of the cave and its paintings nearby at Lascaux II. Perhaps an even less intrusive way to see the paintings is through an online virtual tour.

For more information, visit the Lascaux Cave website.

These are just a few accessible locations important to the study of hominid history. What stops would you add to the human evolution world tour? And which would you most like to visit?

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