BY YOHANES JEMANEH
Birtukan Hassen is a Cast Molding Technician at the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage. When we met at the Authority, she was molding the skull of Lucy, a project well in progress. The cast was order by the Afar State, a region where Lucy’s fossil was found. The state will display the skull during the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day on December 2017.
“It is very important to protect original remains from unexpected damage,” says Birtukan who molds various types of casts that are replica of original fossils. The casts are closely identical to the original ones, even some of them cannot be easily tell apart by ordinary visitors except experts. In addition, they are very easy to move and transport from place to place, used for various studies and displayed at exhibitions in place of the original ones.
Authority Paleontology Heritages Curator Tomas Getachew believes that Ethiopia has now a well developed and effective portable heritage conservation system. The preservation system is very tight and the authority is also carrying out various activities to rehabilitate heritages, he says. The preservation process begins at excavation and continues up to the library where the heritages are properly catalogued and displayed to visitors.
Ethiopia does not have many paleontologists and adequate experiences in the field. Previously, the country had no well structured paleontological and antropaleonthological study and heritage management system. “This, for long, has forced the country to look for foreign scientists to excavate fossils,” he says. For this reason, a large number of the heritages were excavated by foreign scientists.
Yet, there had not been safe stores to catalogue the fossils. The heritages had not also received the proper attention and care. However, the situation is changing these days. The expansion of education flickers a ray of hope to the sector. Today archeology and heritage management courses are given at various universities. Using the knowledge they acquire, the new graduates are contributing a lot to the development of the nation’s archeology and heritage management system.
The authority also sets up various mechanisms to improve its heritage management system. Among others, it owns a well structured heritage store and library. Most of the fossils and excavated materials are displayed in the safest and secured way with the help of state-of-the-art equipment. This makes the country to be exemplary for others in the region. Various researchers come to the authority’s library to conduct their studies. And they also laud the library as it holds various types of hominids and stone tools that are very supportive to pursue studies on human evolution, according to Yared Assefa, a Paleoantropology Curator at the Authority.
Nowadays, more often than not, original heritages are not displayed at exhibitions so as to protect them from damage. Hence, their replicas are displayed instead. The country has also been showing improvement in terms of engaging local scientists in the excavation of fossils. Mentioning Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged, a paleoanthropologist who discovered Selam, a 3.35 million years (estimated) fossil, Yared says Ethiopian scientists are involved in finding new fossil discoveries and this is a sign to the development made so far by Ethiopia in studying and discovering human ancestors besides being home to the remains.
Today more than four universities are giving archeology courses. This would help the country add to the number of archeologists it has. It is not only the heritages or the fossils that are promoting the country internationally, but these successful scientists are also serving as ambassadors. “The country would like to see more discoveries excavated by Ethiopian scientists and displayed to local and foreign visitors who are keen to witness evolution of humans.”
Today various international heritage exhibitions are taking place across the world. As home of several remains, Ethiopia has also been invited to display its heritages. And the country usually displays its heritages to the international community with the aim to promoting these invaluable tourism treasures and letting people witness what their ancestors look like.
The international heritage exhibitions where Ethiopia participated were successful for two reasons. First, it gives the best possible opportunity to visitors to witness firsthand evolution of mankind. Secondly, Ethiopia was able to promote its tourism treasures. “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasure of Ethiopia” is among the exhibitions that Ethiopia took part internationally. It was held in 2013 in US and organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
At the time, various scientists from home and abroad including Donald Johanson, a Paleoanthropologist who discovered Lucy accompanied the fossil to conduct research and provide the needed care. Since Lucy is one of the most precious heritages of the world, it took a long time to transport the fossil because of the formalities that has to be fulfilled to monitor and preserve it. Including Lucy, 148 various Ethiopian heritages were displayed in US and returned safely. The heritages also include stone tools, ancient holy books and paintings, religious practices and Ethiopian cultural artifacts among others, says Authority Portable Heritage Development Exhibition Director Mamitu Yilma.
Even in the past two years, the country has taken part in an exhibition organized in Qatar and presented various heritages including ancient manuscripts and costumes. “All in all, the exhibitions were successful in promoting the country and attracting foreign tourists,” Mamitu adds.
Since then, the number of foreign tourists has increased significantly. The number of foreign tourists who visited the National Museum has increased to 47,218 in 2017, from 44,397 in 2013, Mamitu notes.
Researchers at the exhibition held in the US also came up with a new hypothesis for the reason behind the death of Lucy. The scientists examine x-ray scans of the fossil and found out that Lucy died falling out of tree. “So this is also one of the outcomes of participating in such exhibitions,” she stresses.
Ethiopian professionals also benefited a lot by participating in various paper presentation and paleontological lectures held side by side to the exhibition. Yared believes that the display of Lucy in international exhibitions played a key role in promotion and knowledge transformation.
The transportation of heritages should be done with too much care. Further, in many cases, it is the replicas that are displayed in exhibitions. In this regard, heritage conservation and rehabilitation programs have helped the country to put in place a secured management system of original heritages than before, he says.
The authority has scientific casting system to mold replicas of nation’s prominent heritages. But whenever heritage transportation is inevitable, experts would go together with the heritage for the purpose of preservation and research.
Today, Ethiopia has 1600 skeletal elements that are dated 3 to 10 million years. Among these, Lucy and Selam are Australopithecus Afarensis hominin which are respectively estimated to live around 3.28 and 3.35 million years ago. Ardi is another Ardipithecus ramidus type of hominin estimated about 4.4 million years. Moreover, the nearest human species which found in Ethiopia is Homo Sapiens Idaltu, a type of hominin lived around 100,000 years or during the Stone Age.
There are 22 types of hominin discovered across the world and fourteen of them are also found in Ethiopia. This makes the country the only east African nation with numerous hominins, Yared stresses. The major endeavor of archeology is discovering full skeleton of human ancestors and finding valuable information about human evolution. In this case, Ethiopia is playing its due role in excavating the fossils and promoting it to the international community.
Ethiopian archeologists are also taking part in the east African paleontology and paleoanthropology conference organized every two year by three east African countries, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. The conference creates an opportunity to scientists to share knowledge and experience with each other, according to Yared.
As Ethiopia is the land of origins of various animals, birds and plants species, it is also home to the discovery of several hominin. This makes the country a unique tourist destination where one should not miss to visit at least once in life time. Therefore, protecting and promoting these historic natural and manmade tourism treasures should be the priority of the nation so that they would in response generate significant income to socio-economic progress.