Where did life begin? Traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley – Early Man


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.

Early Man Ethiopia

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.   

Early Man Lucy

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.  

early man skulllucy bones

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.

tribal encounters

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.

olmec headimage

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.

National Museum of 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.

 imageNational Church Ethiopia

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?

first contact

first contact ethiopia

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.

Mursi tribe

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. 

happy tribal encounters

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.

Zebra kids

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.

Ancient Konso pole

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.

Tiye UNESCO

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.

Ethiopian sword and shield

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.

Ethiopian crock Lake Chamo

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

Adadi Mariam

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.

Ancient New York

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.

Mursi Warrior

This Mursi Warrior may look tough, and they are, but they are also very sweet.

Raw Beef

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. 

Ethiopian Market

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.

Konso tribal hut

Traditional ancient Konso tribal Hut.  These are really the nice huts.  There are much more primitive and temporary huts.

Ethiopian hard working women

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.

Konso Tribal Elders

The wise tribal elders of Konso

Tribal market

Those wooden seats double as a pillow and are one of the few items you might find in a hut.

Ancient tribal hut

The inside of a hut.  This women was near the center of the village so she has some additional amenities.

huts

The animals live in the stone walled in village for protection.  The further outer rings of the village the newer but more risky.

inside Mursi hut

The inside of the grass hut.  Embers still warm.

 

In a spirit of transparency.  I’m fine sharing what I got

Omo valley cultural tour

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. 

King Dawit tours

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.

Tribal Adventures in Papua New Guinea


The tribal chief would explain to us that when he was a boy he was wandering through the forest and he and the other boys heard a sound.  Large bats up in the sky.  They were afraid.  This was first contact.  What an incredible story to hear how their entire tribe would be transformed with World War II.  War planes would later land and change their lands forever adding roads, infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and more.  Papua New Guinea has an ancient and very modern history.  They hold onto tradition and have a rich culture which provides an insight into the past I haven’t seen elsewhere to such depth.  I have lived with tribes in Mali, Swaziland, and Fiji and LOVE the opportunity to connect with these tribes on their terms.

Tribal feather headdresses of papua new guinea mt hagen sing sing

Yotube my footage: Massive Tribal Sing Sing in Papua New Guinea in Mt Hagen

All of the photos and videos you see linked here are mine captured during my trip. Enjoy, but if you want a copy of any of these let me know, I have higher res ones.  In addition, I created a number of fun short videos you can see in a single playlist  Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

Joel Oleson Youtube Channel - Papua New Guinea Playlist

It started with a friend of a friend on Facebook, named Felix.  I explained to him I wanted to have a true tribal experience and he replied quickly saying we could visit his tribe in the hills.

Felix - the SharePoint and Exchange guy on the island of Papua New Guinea

Felix from Port Moresby, PNG

He was an Exchange Administrator who had even done SharePoint in the capital.  He had a good job.  We had arranged to meet Felix at the airport and continue on.  He said he wasn’t able to get off work, but that his brother Saki would be there.  Saki has been out of work, and had ample time to take us around.  His english was very good and he was very well educated.  Come to find out, Felix and Saki’s dad is the tribal chief.  When we arrived at the village, the villagers surrounded our van and cheered.  It was an incredible feeling.

Sari tribe, Kali Clan, Puman Clan Papua New Guinea Highlands

Some of our new friends from the Sari Hill Tribe (Kali Clan and Puman Clan) … Saki is in the middle with the hat.  The boy with the gun is a gangster (just kidding, it’s a toy gun, but for real he was our body guard as was a half dozen other guys)

The tribes and clans in Papua New Guinea still operate on foundation of offerings of pigs and tribal war rules.  We stayed with a tribe that was very peaceful, loving, and trusting.  They worried about our health and safety at all times and made sure we had plenty of villagers to be with us.

 

We attended a funeral

PNG Traditional Tribal Funeral March

At a funeral the mother’s tribe traditionally puts mud on their bodies and adds ferns to the waist line.   Marriage is very frequently across tribal lines which create alliances and offerings that create stronger bonds in the community.  A bride price could easily be dozens and dozens of pigs.

View the video on Youtube: Traditional Funeral March in Papua New Guinea

Sharing an umberella with the colorful tribal friends

Colorful rainbow umbrellas are popular among the villagers.  The people sometimes look Mauri, native Australian, they love their beatlenut which is another form of currency.

Looking for something to eat

Shoes are optional.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are some of the happiest peaceful people on the planet.  They live off the land.  I wouldn’t call them poor, as they have some of the most beautiful land in the world, and they have fruit on the trees and yams and sweet potatoes in the ground.  With a few pigs for trade, they are doing great.  The family, tribe and clan bonds go very very deep.  The wealth of the tribe contributes to the wealth of the individual and visa versa  It is commune style living.

We saw a sing sing in action as tribes from across the island gathered in Mt Hagen in anticipation of the Prime Minister of PNG.

PNG Mudmen

Mudmen

SingSing in Full Swing Mt Hagen Cultural Dance Festival

You can identify a tribe based on their paint and look.  These tribesmen are from Mt Hagen.

Tribal Abs of Steel

Tribal thumbs up

Their beautiful features are some times from endangered birds so that creates controversy, but these guys don’t seem too concerned.  There is a hierarchy of needs.

what are you looking at willis?

Scary kids!

Some of the war paint is definitely designed to look scary.  Shaving the heads down the middle too.  Yikes.

Cultural Dancing in Mt Hagen with little kid

I love how the kids get into the tribal dancing too.  Traditions being passed on.

Enga dance troupe

Saki recognized some of his friends, he was showing us how it was done… drumming on the SharePoint mug

beautiful head dress

Youtube: A Walkthrough of the Beautiful Tribal Sing Sing of Papua New Guinea in the Highlands

Catholic Church Singing in the Small Village in Highlands Papua New Guinea has a Tribal Sound and Feel

loin cloth

I have to imagine the tribes are in different stages of living off the land or embracing western society, but it is great to see them coming together to sing and dance.

There is one serious thing the tribes and clans still need help fixing.  It is the tribal to modern warfare.  It was a great education to see how problems would have been settled in the past.  I’ve heard even in the capital some Enga people still don’t trust the judges to settle issues if they feel marginalized and wronged.

Enga is still known to have tribal fighting.  This is a clip from the museum in Wagga.

Modern Warfare Papua New Guinea

Rules of Warfare in Papua New Guinea

The tribe where we stayed has not been involved in a war since the mid 90s.  They have decided it is better to pay the bigs and kina than retaliate.  The tribal warfare goes back many many years, but it has become more dangerous due to the escalation in weapons.  All tribes have weapons including bows and arrows, how most of the wars start.  We did visit a tribe where their huts and buildings had been burned to the ground.  It was sad to see, but they were happily rebuilding.

Rebuilding the town with a smileEnga Tribal Dancer

Left: Rebuilting their houses and huts.  Right: Traditional look of the tribes we were visiting.

 

 

 

 

PNG traditional hut

We spent one night in this hut.  It was Felix’s Uncle’s house.  We all slept in one big room on the elevated floor on mats around a fire in the middle.

 

On our last night the kids caught a cecada massive flying bug, and asked us to eat it.  Saki explained that’s what they use to eat and they still did.  He popped one in his mouth.  They found another and another and before long I was crunching down on what I can only describe as a cream puff taste.  Michael thought it tasted like peanut better.

Eating bugs

Youtube video: The kids brought me a treat!  A large Cicada, of course I’d give it a try….

 

I’d love for you to see some video as well… go to my Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

 

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YT Video: Cool Dancing Music with PVC pipes with Funny Dancer