Ethiopia Reprise: Trek to Afar, Part I

On March 2 through March 4, I went camping at the Bilen Lodge in the Afar region of the Awash area of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, although I traveled near the Awash National Park, I didn’t get to see the park itself. This trip is probably the closest I’ll ever get to the Herto village near where archaeologists found the human remains, unless I later get invited to join the archaeologists in their fieldwork as was a journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle. However, while there, I had the distinct impression that the Herto humans had walked through the area.

This blog entry covers the first day, March 2.

To save money, I decided to take the local bus to Awash Saba, then find other transport to Bilen Lodge.

Front of Local Bus From Addis Ababa to Awash Saba, Ethiopia Riders of Local Bus From Addis Ababa to Awash Saba, Ethiopia

While riding on the bus, I saw the driver approaching a herd of cows crossing the road at a speed that seemed to fast to me, then heard a thump, another thump, then thump-thump-thump as the bus ground to a halt after running over two cows, one left on the opposite lane, the other lodged under the front door of the bus.

Large Cow Lodged Under Front Door of Local Bus From Addis Ababa to Awash Saba, Ethiopia

Another rider on the bus told me the first thing that happened after we hit the cows was that the cowherder grabbed his gun and pointed it at the bus until the bus stopped. Then, the bus driver got out and started negotiating with the cowherder. Amazingly, it took less than five minutes for a traffic police officer to show up, even though we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Soon, the driver had apparently agreed to pay around US$350 for the two cows, presumably out of his own pocket. This must have represented a significant amount of cash for him as each bus fare was only US$2-3.

While waiting for a substitute bus to arrive, the riders all started chatting and we watched the herd of camels led by tribal Afar people as they passed by.

Herd of Camels Passing Broken Bus on Route Between Addis Ababa and Awash Saba, Ethiopia Herd of Camels Passing Broken Bus on Route Between Addis Ababa and Awash Saba, Ethiopia Herd of Camels Passing Broken Bus on Route Between Addis Ababa and Awash Saba, Ethiopia

When the replacement bus arrived, it already had some passengers on it, so we had to really squeeze to get everyone and their baggage onto the bus. Some locals tried to hop the bus to the next town. The tickethandler guy had to demonstrate that he was checking everyone’s tickets on the whole bus twice. Then, he could let the others know that they couldn’t board without a ticket. All of this was taking a long time. Finally, he got a bit more assertive and started gradually pushing the local guys off the bus. Each eventually left out the front door, but the final one got angry and slapped the tickethandler across the face, then left the bus. The tickethandler spit in contempt onto the ground. The slapper ran from the bus to his buddies and got an axe, then started running back toward the bus. Bus riders started yelling and the slapper’s friends held him back from actually wielding the axe on anyone. The driver started up the bus, and we left. I made a couple of friends during the wait for the second bus and we had some interesting discussions about public health and other topics while riding on the bus.

Second Bus Ride From Addis Ababa to Awash Saba, Ethiopia Friends on Second Bus Ride From Addis Ababa to Awash Saba, Ethiopia

At Awash Saba, I paid an outrageous sum of 400 birr (about US$45) to get a ride the rest of the way to Bilen Lodge. I got some pictures of the landscape on the dirt road into the lodge.

Landscape on Road Into Bilen Lodge, Awash Region, Ethiopia Landscape on Road Into Bilen Lodge, Awash Region, Ethiopia Landscape on Road Into Bilen Lodge, Awash Region, Ethiopia

Landscape on Road Into Bilen Lodge, Awash Region, Ethiopia Landscape on Road Into Bilen Lodge, Awash Region, Ethiopia Landscape on Road Into Bilen Lodge, Awash Region, Ethiopia

When I arrived at Bilen Lodge, Ato (aka Mr.) Makonen seemed concerned. He was worried that I wanted to stay in one of the tukuls. When I explained I wanted to camp, he was much relieved. Two Afar tribesmen associated with the Bilen Lodge helped me move my bags and I paid them a small tip. Then, I looked around for a campsite. I wanted a place that had shade in the morning and the afternoon, since the sun was quite bright and hot. After awhile, I found a place I liked and started moving my bags over to the campsite. One of the Afar guys saw me and helped move one of my two heavier bags.

I got everything set up at the campsite, then went into the lodge. There, I met three Canadians — Gordon, Lynda, and Richard. They immediately welcomed me into their group, buying me drinks and chatting up a storm. Gordon mentioned my Tilley hat right away and we made some jokes about that. Richard and I chatted quite a bit as he drank the afternoon away.

After awhile, everyone headed back to their tukuls to get ready for dinner. I just hung out in the lodge and met people. A group of young people working at various NGOs was traveling together as was a group of Germans and a group of French people. I met a German lesbian couple living in Addis Ababa, one a health administrator (who I ran into again later at the Hilton Hotel in Addis) and the other a school teacher. I ate the buffet-style dinner with the lesbian couple.

I was tired after dinner and went back to my tent to crash.

The next morning, I headed in to the lodge, hoping to meet up with some people to go on one of the excursions from the lodge. The excursions required a local Afar guide to keep on good terms with the local Afar villages. The young NGO types were good enough to let me join them on a trip to the local hot springs where we encountered Afar tribespeople herding camels through the pools for their morning bath and drink.

Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia

Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia

Will With Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia

The camels and people stayed mostly at one end of the hot spring pools. I found out the reason why – two crocodiles wandered around the other end of the pools!

Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Crocodile at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Bird at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia

Camel Herd at Hot Springs Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Goats Butts Up to Drink Near Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia Shower That Alemayo the Cook Lent Me, Bilen Lodge, Afar, Awash, Ethiopia

The last picture above is the shower that the lodge cook Alemayo lent me since I was camping and didn’t have a tukul with a shower of my own.

On the excursion, I chatted a bit with some of the NGO folks, but mostly got to know Rudy who works with the UNICEF Children’s Fund developing metrics and methods for auditing their funding programs.

The Afar tribespeople are proud and territorial. The Afar tribesmen carry sharp sheathed swords and often a gun. In previous times, they used to remove the scrotum of unwanted visitors, which amounted to a rather painful death. Nowadays, they negotiate a bit more.

One of the French guys staying at Bilen Lodge wandered uninvited to an Afar village. Some Afar tribesmen came to Bilen Lodge upset and trying to identify him. Apparently, he looked a bit like me, but fortunately they could tell he wasn’t I. When they found him, they told him that if he showed up again uninvited to the village, they would shoot him.

In the evening of March 3, some of the guys gathered around a dying campfire started for a group of Germans. The fire seemed like a crazy idea, since it was so hot out, but what the hey. One of these Germans had stolen a lightbulb from the porch on Gordon and Lynda’s tukul the night before, as observed by Richard. At first, Richard was just stunned, then he decided to try talking to the friend of the guy who took the lightbulb. The friend told him he was telling a fairy tale and went to bed. So, a feud of sorts started between the Canadians and the Germans. Eventually, Richard even stole some of the Germans’ lightbulbs. I didn’t get involved.

After the Germans had left the fire, Richard, Gordon, Rudy, a guy named Martin from Madrid, and I went over there started singing songs. They drank lots of beer. They poured some of the local araki liquor on the fire, which made large flames! Toward the end of the night, I sang “The Garten Mother’s Lullaby” and everyone went to bed.

Ethiopia Reprise: Melka Kunture

This is the map for the trip to Melka Kunture and surrounds.

Map of Trip From Addis Ababa to Melka Kunture

March 1 was my big day for visiting the human origins discovery site at Melka Kunture, south of Addis Ababa. Village Ethiopia sold me a little tour that featured Melka Kunture along with a visit to the stelae at Tiya and to the Adadi Mariam church.

The 4WD vehicle driver picked me up at 8:00am and we set off on the trip. I was struck again by the Ethiopian construction crews’ use of wooden scaffolding even for very tall buildings. A herd of goats brought traffic to a halt. The countryside was beautiful.

Wooden Scaffolding on Building Construction, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Goat Herd Blocks Road, Suburban Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Countryside on Way From Addis Ababa to Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

In fact, all varieties of animals block the road, including these donkeys. I’d describe the terrain as semi-desert because the trees and plants still look green and obviously get some regular water, although in some places the terrain is quite dry.

Donkeys Block Road, Route From Addis Ababa to Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Semi-Desert Between Addis Ababa and Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Desert Between Addis Ababa and Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

Farmers living in the tukuls in the countryside tuck their teff mounds nearby. Teff is the staple grain of most of Ethiopia and they use it to make the tasty injeera bread consumed all over the country.

Tukuls and Teff Mounds, Countryside Between Addis Ababa and Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

The Melka Kunture human discovery site had a fancy gate, and after checking our papers, the guard let us in. The exhibits at the site are in several tukuls. They describe all the well-known human discovery sites, but Herto is not highlighted, probably because Herto happened after the scientists had set up the Melka Kunture exhibits.

Melka Kunture Human Origins Discovery Site Front Gate, Ethiopia Gate to Melka Kunture Human Origins Discovery Site, Ethiopia

Because the Melka Kunture exhibits display replicas of fossil Homo sapiens skulls along with those of precursor and related species, the site provides an excellent illustration of the human evolutionary process. I focus mainly on the Homo sapiens remains in the photos I present here, including information on the Omo, Melka Kunture, and Herto discovery sites. The fossil skull replicas shown below are: Homo sapiens skull fragements, 300,000 – 200,000 years ago, from Garba III site at Melka Kunture, Ethiopia; Homo sapiens, 90,000 years ago, from Qafzeh, Israel; Homo neanderthalenthis, 45,000 years ago, from Amud, Israel; and Homo sapiens sapiens, 15,000 – 9,000 years ago, from Border Cave, South Africa.

Omo Discovery Site Poster, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Middle and Late Stone Age Poster, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Skull Fragments of 300K-200K Years Ago, Garba III, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia
Homo Sapiens Skull Replica, 90,000 Years Ago, From Qafzeh, Israel, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Homo Neanderthalensis Skull Replica, 45,000 Years Ago, From Amud, Israel, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Homo Sapiens Sapiens Skull Replica, 15,000 - 9,000 Years Ago, From Border Cave, South Africa, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

Hominids Poster, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia From Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens Poster, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

The exhibits display the tools found with each evolutionary ancestor or relative and the presentations on tool-making are the best I have seen, especially as far as illustrating the steps of the Levallois method. Human use of the Levallois toolmaking method represents a major step forward in human thought by being able to conceive of how a tool should appear within the materials at hand, then constructing the tool to the mind’s notion of how it should appear. I present here also the full array of Garba III tools since they represent early Homo sapiens tools.

Acheulean Tools Poster, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

Levallois Debitage Demonstration Part I, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Levallois Debitage Demonstration Part II, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Levallois Debitage Demonstration Part III, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia
Garba III Tool Poster, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Garba III Tools Part I, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Garba III Tools Part II, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

Garba III Tools Part III, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Garba III Tools Part IV, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Garba III Tools Part V, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

Garba III Tools Part VI, Melka Kinture, Ethiopia

After finishing with the tukul exhibits, the staff bring the visitor out to view a couple of the actual excavation sites. Archaeologists are not currently excavating these sites, but may return next season for further investigations.

Exhibit Tukuls, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Excavation Site, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia Excavation Site, Melka Kunture, Ethiopia

Ethiopia Reprise: Addis Ababa

After that Sunday (February 25) touring Addis Ababa with Paulos, I had an appointment scheduled with Dr. Berhane Asfaw at the Paleo Lab of the National Museum. Dr. Asfaw is one of my heroes because he was on the team that made the discoveries of three human remains at Herto in the Afar area of the Awash region of the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia. In fact, he discovered the skull of a child in hundreds of pieces which he painstakingly cleaned and puzzled back together — a remarkable accomplishment which brought us much light on our early origins as the species Homo sapiens. The interview went very well.

Dr. Berhane Asfaw, Ethiopian Archaeologist

After the interview, I visited the National Museum and saw many interesting exhibits, including an excellent replica of Lucy, who was not Homo sapiens, but still an interesting gal who is back there somewhere in the early story of human origins.

Replica of Fossil Bones of Lucy at National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Artist Rendition of Lucy at National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Relative Size of Lucy and Modern Human, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The theory of how human ancestors began walking on two feet (bipedalism) instead of four feet seemed simple, but further discoveries have complicated matters.

Origin of Bipedalism Theory, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

For my current research, I’m focusing mainly on Homo sapiens, the species of humans alive today. The earliest Homo sapiens on record so far appear around 200,000 to 160,000 years ago. One example is this skull (replica shown below) found in Lower Omo region of the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia. I tried to go to the excavation site but the location was too remote and the bridge I would have needed to cross to get there has collapsed.

Omo I Homo Sapiens Skull Replica at National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Omo I Homo Sapiens Skull Replica View 2 at National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
My favorite Homo sapiens remains are those discovered by Dr. Asfaw, Tim White of University of California at Berkeley, and others at Herto in the Afar area of the Awash region of the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia. They believe the remains are different enough from modern Homo sapiens sapiens to merit a separate sub-species which they dubbed Homo sapiens idaltu (replica shown below). Idaltu means “elder” in the language of the local Afar tribe in Herto village where the archaeologists discovered the remains.

Herto Idaltu Skull Replica View 1, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Herto Idaltu Skull Replica View 2, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Herto Idaltu Skull Replica View 3, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Artist Rendition of Homo Sapiens Idaltu at National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Photo of Herto Discovery Site, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Homo Sapiens Idaltu Groups and Tools, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Homo Sapiens Idaltu Ritual Handling of Deceased, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The National Museum in Addis also exhibits old Ethiopian Orthodox illustrated manuscripts and modern Ethiopian art like “African Heritage” by Afewerk Tekle (1967), a painting about the Derg period in Ethiopian history, and “Three Faces of Africa” by Daniel Tohafe (1980).

African Heritage by Afewerk Tekle, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Painting About Derg Era, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Three Faces of Africa by Daniel Togate (1980)

Other notable examples include “How Long?” by TBD and “Ethiopian Symphony No. 5″ by Girmay Hiwet (2001)
How Long, Painting in National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Ethiopian Symphony No 5 by Girmay Hiwet, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia