Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ethiopia 2017 - Day 3. Bishoftu/Debrezeit

Sunday, a day of rest. I plan to spend it visiting the area around the town of Bishoftu (in Oromiya language), also know as Debrezeit (in Amharic language), which is about 50 km to Addis to the east. Being an independent traveler is as unusual in Ethiopia as it was in Mongolia, so Getachew assigned his assistant, Nikodemos, to be my guardian angel. Niko is a very personable young man, who studied communications and is now in charge of promoting the Bio-Farm concept, and managing the website. I need to stress to him that he will have to answer the e-mails that Getachew always let go unanswered.

We started at 8 am sharp, heading east through the city until we reached the new ring road, and from there connected into the modern superhighway that was to take us to our destination. In the distance we could see two condominium cities that were being built from scratch, and which are destined to house low-income families who will provide the workforce for the new industrial complex also being built. All this new construction is being financed by the Chinese, who have now turned to Africa as a source of cheap labor, just like the US turned to the Chinese in the 70’s. One more major piece of infrastructure that is nearly complete is the new fast railroad that will connect Addis with the port facilities in Djibouti. The old narrow gage line was built 100 years ago by the French and is already obsolete and abandoned.

The superhighway brought us down from the highlands unto the western shoulders of the East African Rift Valley (one of the geologic marvels of the world), where thick sedimentary sequences host significant groundwater and geothermal resources. Today’s quest, however, was for yet another type of geologic wonder: A cluster of 6 or 7 maars formed by phreatomagmatic eruptions. These types of eruptions take place when hot magma comes in contact with shallow groundwater to form powerful steam blasts that scoop out the shallow sediments to form neat circular depressions surrounded by a ring of loose tephra. In Mexico these depressions are known by the name of xalapascos when they are simply a dry depression, or axalapascos if at the center of them there is a lake (the initial a is derived from the word atl which means “water”), which is in fact nothing else but the exposed water table. The maars around Bishoftu include one dry and six with lakes. The enterprising Ethiopians have developed four of the latter with excellent resorts that welcome national and international tourists with open arms.

We got back from our nice geologic outing around 2 pm, at which point Niko turned down my invitation to lunch, under the pretext that he had things to do. I suspect he didn’t want to impose himself on me, but that didn’t mean he was giving up his role as guardian angel, because he called me at about 3 pm to see if I wanted to do something else in the afternoon. Unbeknownst to him I had already escaped my gilded cage, and his call caught me just as I was entering the National Museum. He offered to come join me, but I told him not to worry and promised to call him back as soon as I was back in the hotel. I wanted the net two hours all to myself, because I was about to enter one of the holiest shrines of mankind: The resting place of Ardi, Dinknesh (also known as Lucy), and Selam.

The basement of the National Museum is a must see for the student of human evolution, because the East African East Valley has the top claim as being the cradle of humanity. In addition, the amount of fossils recovered from the Afar region of Ethiopia has given us a very detailed image of the climatic changes that served as backdrop for human evolution. 6 Ma ago (mega annum, or million years ago), high precipitation led to formation of a luscious jungle, where large rivers inhabited by crocodiles and giant hypos meandered across dense stands of trees, which in turn served as home to boars the size of cows, tiny primitive horses, and the first proto-hominids Sahelanthropus tchadensis from which some of our early ancestors were going to evolve.

Between 5 and 4 Ma ago a new species had evolved, Ardipithecus, who was well adapted to an arboreal life, but who was also capable of walking in what by then was a landscape of grasslands dotted with trees. I paid my respect to the human remains of great-grandmama Ardi, who was probably 1.20 m tall and had delicate features but extremely long hands (like those of a certain grandson of mine). She shared her habitat with bovids, short-neck giraffides, a dinotheriums.

A new genus, Australopithecus, entered the evolutionary scene 3.5 Ma ago, when delicate Dinknesh (also known as Lucy) walked through what now had become a savannah with numerous lakes. Dinknesh (The Wonderful One in Amharic) was tiny, barely reaching one meter in height, fully bipedal, and had a definitely human face. Selam (Peace in Amharic), could well have been her baby, dead at the tender age of 3. Both Dinknesh and Selam speak to us through the ages from their sober glass cases at the museum.

The gracile Australopithecus afarenis (Dinknesh and Selam) shared their world with their cousins A. robustus and A.boiseai (big boys that would make a Sumo wrestler think twice), with antelopes, giraffes, elephants, and pigmy hypos, as well as carnivores such as saber-toothed cats.

And then, 2.4 Ma ago, a newcomer introduced a remarkable cultural adaptation. Homo habilis developed the ability of shaping stones into tools to better survive in the increasingly drier savannah. H. habilis persisted until 1.8 Ma ago, when a new species, Homo erectus, perfected the art of stone tool making to introduce what is normally called the Acheluan tradition of bifacial stone axes. The ones in display at the museum are big, easily the size of a paperback, and in the hands of a powerful hominid must have been a fearsome tool. H. erectus was, without doubt, one of the most successful members of the human family. H. erectus spread out of Africa into Europe and Asia, and as late as 0.5 Ma ago crossed the Malacca Strait to occupy the Indonesian island of Flores.

Back in mother Africa three other human species evolved: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (0.4 Ma ago), Homo sapiens idaltu (0.3 Ma ago), and Homo sapiens sapiens (0.3 Ma ago). The first and the third species eventually moved out of Africa into Europe and Asia, and as it is well know it was H. sapiens sapiens  who survived into the current era.

I feel in awe after walking the halls of this cathedral to human evolution.

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