After a visit to Olorgesailie prehistoric site, Samantha du Toit wonders how to break the centuries down to young children who still think waiting for two ‘sleeps’ for a beloved Auntie to visit seems an age.
Time is a tricky concept to grasp at any age. As an adult, imagining hundreds of years is hard enough. For the children, I have noticed that even hours and days can be hard to grasp. To our four-year-old, waiting for two ‘sleeps’ for a beloved Auntie to visit seems an age; to our eight-year-old, Christmas seems too far away to even bear thinking about and yet ‘ten more minutes’ in the pool is always too short. Questions such as ‘how many days is one hundred hours?’ and ‘did Grandpa exist one hundred years ago?’ seem to be a common line of enquiry at the breakfast table. I suppose this is to be expected given our recent visit to the Olorgesailie pre-historic site. Having driven past so many times over the past few years, we decided we should take some time to visit the site once again and link up with researchers from the Smithsonian Institute, whose work we have been following as a family for many years.
Time now takes on a new dimension. How to explain to the children that this stone tool, or this ancient Oryx-like jaw bone that they can see in the excavation trench, is around between 350,000 and 500,000 years old? How many of Grandpa’s lifetimes is that? Can we as adults even imagine what these very savannahs might have looked like at that time, when our human ancestors and large mammals roamed across the very landscape we are walking on at this moment? What would an elephant look like that is one and a half times the size of the ones we see near camp? How did people use these basic stone tools to help them with daily chores?
But then, to learn about the famous fossil excavation sites of Laetoli and Olduvai, which lie just over the border in Tanzania, threw our time scales out the window even further. In Laetoli in particular, is the fascinating discovery of the first evidence of ancient hominids walking on two feet. There were three of them, walking Northwards together across a muddy ash plain which sealed their steps for, wait for it children, 3.6 million years. There are other footprints there too, of over twenty different animals, ranging from Guinea-fowl to elephant, pigs to rhinoceros. Scientists say the landscape of the Rift Valley today does not look so different from that time, when ancient beasts and the dawn of humanity crossed paths, right in this same place we as a family now call home.
As I watch the sun sink behind the Rift Valley wall that evening, I can’t help but be struck by the idea that the landscape around me is not only really and truly the cradle of mankind as they say, but a story of coexistence between man and beast over time. And time in this case I will simply categorise as past and present. Our Maasai neighbours today coexist with wildlife, many of which look similar to species found in the fossil records. What the future holds is what of course I do not know, but I can only hope that the coexistence that has been evident for the last 3.6 million years ago will not disappear in the next generation.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy