Where did life begin? Traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley – Early Man
Posted On November 26, 2018
My passion for understanding the past through early man caves, paleontology, archeology, encounters with ancient tribes with connections to the past and life origins and what matters most… these strike directly at the heart of what I find meaningful in travel. Indiana Jones wasn’t just looking for gold statues… he was looking for answers.
If you’re trying to connect with the past, there really isn’t any place where you’ll find more diverse tribes in such a small area than in Ethiopia. Seriously. If you have found something more diverse and connected with the past, I’d really like to know. While the exact number is unknown, there are around 80 tribes and 86 living languages with an incredibly diverse ethnic groups living in Ethiopia. Most of the urban population belongs to the Amhara or Oromo tribes. Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. Ethiopia today is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet has some of the best preserved untouched primitive tribal living in the world. What makes Ethiopia unique is the longevity of Ethiopia without much outside influence. Italy was trying to build an empire in Ethiopia had such a small impact, you’ll struggle to find anything Italian unless you visit Gondar where there are a few buildings that look Italian. Italians made an attempt to have Ethiopia as their share of Africa. They invaded in 1893 but were shamefully defeated by the Ethiopians to become the first European losers in a colonial war. This led to the Italy-Ethiopia war conducted in 1930’s. Ultimately Ethiopia was colonized by Italy from 1936 to 1941. Only 5 years, so you can understand how little impact would come from that. Things will change.
So, going back to it. Ethiopia has a lot of primitive tribes that continue to live the way they have for thousands of years… I was anxious to visit early man, and what an incredible experience I had making so many new friends and gaining insights about ancient life.
While it may seem like Ethiopia has always been the cradle of civilization it was not until 1963 that ancient hominids were discovered in Ethiopia where stone tools that were over a million years old at Kella. Since then many important finds have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of paleontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardi found by Tim White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult fossils ever uncovered. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago. You can see Lucy and Ardi bones in the museum in Addis Ababa in the capital.
There have been many other notable fossil findings in the country. Near Gona stone tools were uncovered in 1992 that were 2.52 million years old, these are the oldest such tools ever discovered anywhere in the world.In 2010 fossilized animal bones, that were 3.4 million years old were found with stone-tool-inflicted marks on them in the Lower Awash Valley by an international team, which is the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world.In 2004 fossils found near the Omo river at Kibbish at 195,000 years old, the oldest date in East Africa for modern Homo sapiens. Imagine walking around in a valley where the bones you might stumble across could be an ancient ancestor.
You really don’t have to spend much time with the tribes to find their simple, but ancient traditions to be enlightening. You really don’t have to go to distant islands where you risk getting shot by arrows. You can come to the Omo Valley, and get a guide and scout who are provided for your safety and convenience to communicate with the chief and his warriors, who are really quite friendly.
Last summer I traveled to Mexico to see the Olmec heads. I was NOT expecting to see one in Addis Ababa outside the museum in Ethiopia.
The National Museum of Ethiopia is worthwhile. Even in just the last few years it has gotten a lot better. It was the Lucy bones that drew me the first time, but taking my 9 year old boy to put some context in paleontology was very worthwhile.
My friend Abeye who I met on a trip to Lalibella, Ethiopia 8 years earlier with his school friends. It was him and his friends who were our guides when we were trying to locate an orphanage. I had the biggest epiphany… everything you think you know about Africa is wrong. Everything you think you know about Ethiopia is also wrong. Giving money to the orphanages in Lalibela would have been a mistake. They were the only spoiled kids in the city. Who would have guessed? Instead I found a blind kid and his friend who helped us locate school supplies which we were able to distribute to as many kids as we could find. It was a life changing event. Bringing books and school supplies to a few schools along our route on our trips was a lot of fun for the whole family. Mission accomplished. My 9 year old and his cousin will never forget how they felt as they had many first contact type experiences with the kids at the markets. If you’ve never had the opportunity to be a minority, I highly recommend it. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone, and let a villager touch your freckles or softly pinch your skin and stare right through your blue eyes. You sort of feel like an alien. Imagine if everyone had the opportunity to feel like an alien. How much prejudice and bigotry would melt away to empathy?
No matter how much you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will still struggle to understand how someone could put such a large plate in their lip, but if you don’t try to connect with them and imagine life in a straw hut and attempt to connect with their present and your past… to see what life might have been like 3,000 or 30,000 years ago.
The Mursi tribe are a nomadic people known for their lip plates, they live in grass huts between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, one of the most isolated regions of the country. They are animists. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or plates in their lower lips.
I had a great time with my new friend. We were taking selfies and could keep a straight face. After traveling 3 days to get deep into the Omo Valley I was so excited to spend time with one of the most primitive tribes in Ethiopia. Clothing optional, this tribe could construct their grass hut village in less than 24 hours. They are a nomadic tribe.
As we drove by these zebra stripped kids I was struck. I was really on the edge of the planet. Our guide said, “don’t take their picture they’ll throw rocks!” It was too late. I caught this beautiful photo first. I hope it represents them well. For the most part prior to us arriving at a village there were terms on photos and we’d work it out with the chief. It’s true… sometimes they wanted money for each picture, but it was my preference to trade. If we could bring things the tribe needed, I felt a lot better…. school supplies, solar lantern, or simple toys.
This pole may look like a bunch of poles lashed together, but actually this is a clock. The tribe adds a new pole to this central point in the village every generation (18 years.) Konso, this ancient UNESCO heritage village is over 400 years old.
Tiya, a UNESCO site of large stones from an ancient burrial ground. No one recognizes the swords. They don’t match any on record in Ethiopia. I love it. The site is still being understood. You can be an archeologist and figure it out! The guides on site have some good ideas, but you can tell much of what they are saying is guestimates.
You can compare these swords from the museum… Doesn’t look anything like it. The 1600s was a pretty exciting time in Ethiopia with the royal courts, castles, and conquests. You wouldn’t believe the history. Gondar Ethiopia where the castles are is a must for a longer trip to Ethiopia.
Humans aren’t the only ancient thing in Ethiopia. Very old crocodiles and hippos in the lake. You can take a guide, captain and scout by boat and go trekking for animals in Lake Chamo Nechi Sar
Ancient stone churches are both in the North and in the South. Lalibella in the North has some of the best monolithic buildings in the world.
The only southerly rock hewn church Adadi Mariam… It’s like visiting a cave church carved out of rock, not unlike the cave churches in Cappadocia, but those churches don’t have a holy of holies and these are all fashioned after Solomon’s temple and often have a ark of the covenant replica based on the real one… just ask them. The religion runs very deep in Ethiopia, and there’s no doubt they are from lost tribes of ancient Israel… the DNA studies and the heritage back up the stories. The stories are fantastic and rich as the countries culture.
Breathtaking natural beauty outside the windows of the ancient village near Konso. This valley is coined New York for what look a vast city scape in dirt… like sky scrapers.
This Mursi Warrior may look tough, and they are, but they are also very sweet.
If you don’t stick to tourist food, you can try some amazing tibs. Tare tare may be a french term, but at this shop, they chop off cuts of fresh beef, seasoning optional. Strips of raw meat – Tere Sega. I LOVE Ethiopian food. It took some convincing my driver that I had an iron stomach, then I could get to the really good places where the locals eat. Tibs, Shiro, Kifto, Gomen, Doro Wat, Shiro Feces, served with a layer of Injira.
Incredible markets. Tribes would come to trade or sell their vegetables or clothes. Markets aren’t every day, but on market day it’s a treat to meet those that come from far away. I did find it annoying that some local government officials thought we needed a permit to go to the market. They were persistent.
Traditional ancient Konso tribal Hut. These are really the nice huts. There are much more primitive and temporary huts.
The hardest working women in the world. I believe. These women spend all day looking for sticks to turn to charcoal to sell or to use as firewood to feed their families.
The wise tribal elders of Konso
Those wooden seats double as a pillow and are one of the few items you might find in a hut.
The inside of a hut. This women was near the center of the village so she has some additional amenities.
The animals live in the stone walled in village for protection. The further outer rings of the village the newer but more risky.
The inside of the grass hut. Embers still warm.
In a spirit of transparency. I’m fine sharing what I got
Day 1 – Rock Hewn church, Tiya UNESCO site
Day 2 Trekking for Zebras, visiting crocks and hippos
Day 3 Jinka!!! Konso tribes the 400 year old UNESCO village including New York
Day 4 Mursi tribe and Mago National Park. This is the lip plate tribe. Dimeka Market…
Day 5 Turmi cultural tribal city in the middle of Omo Valley
Day 6 Dorze village
I ended up going back to Paradise Lodge. We loved that place. The view was incredible. So we elected for 3 nights there in Arba Minch.
For $75 a day for $525 we had a Toyota Land Cruiser driver and vehicle for about 7 days. I felt pretty good about what I negotiated. Our driver knew the route, and while he didn’t like driving in the dark. We were able to push him to put in 12 hour days and saw an incredible amount of Southern Ethiopia on this trip.
It was so great to get back to Ethiopia one of my favorite countries not only in Africa, but in the world.
If you enjoyed this post… you might enjoy my previous post on Ethiopia on Lalibela and the Rock Hewn Churches where I first met Abeye and fell in love with ancient Ethiopia. My friend Abeye is now building his own ethiopian tours.