Ethio Heritage

Text of an address to the Ethiopian National Symposium on Eco-tourism and Paleo-tourism in Ethiopia, with special reference to the Afar Region.


Tim D. White
Professor of Integrative Biology
Human Evolution Research Center (HERC)
The University of California at Berkeley

January 10, 2004

Your Excellency Mr. President Ishmael Ali Siro
Your Excellency Mr. Minister and Ambassador Teshome Toga
Your Excellency Madame Minister Netsanet Asfaw
Distinguished Governmental Officials
Media representatives
Friends and Colleagues
Ladies and Gentlemen

Miho Sini:

With my colleagues Dr. Berhane Asfaw, Dr. Giday WoldeGabriel, and Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie (who are here today), and under the Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), I co-direct a research project that has spent the last 23 years exploring Ethiopian prehistory and paleontology.   The Middle Awash research project is investigating sediments deposited over the last six million years along both sides of the modern Awash or Wehaietu River.  We are studying the area between Ayelu volcano in the south and Talalak River in the north.  This Middle Awash research project includes scientists from 17 different countries working in subjects of geology, paleontology, and archaeology.  Our team has found, restored, studied, and published Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba, Ardipithecus ramidus ramidus, Australopithecus garhi, and Homo sapiens idaltu among its many discoveries.  As a result of this protracted research effort, today the Middle Awash record of human evolution and technological development is the world’s longest, and stands unrivalled among the world’s prehistoric sites.

These scientific findings are well known here in the Afar, across Ethiopia, and around the world due to their importance for understanding our past.  The Afar names kadabba, ramidus, garhi, idaltu, Aramis, and Bouri are now known worldwide because of the international attention and public interest that the Middle Awash project’s scientific publications generate.  The Middle Awash record continues to grow.  This week we just completed another field season there, where we worked near the new Afar town of Dalli Fage.

My first visit to Dalli Fage was in 1993 when there was only a galli rata, or camel track, to mark this stony crossing of the Borkana River, a tributary of the Wehaietu.  In 1995 a single small wooden house was built at the crossing.  Today there is a town, with satellite communication, a police station, and dozens of modern buildings including a judiciary, a clinic, schools, clean water, and an Afar administration, all connected to the outside world by an all-weather road to Kassa Gita.  This development from wilderness to town in less than ten years is remarkable by any standards.  Dalli Fage stands as an example of how federal and regional government officials with vision can make a difference.  People such as Mohammed Tahiro and his late brother and Parliamentarian Neina Tahiro, and people like the late Mohammed Bodia Socorro are shining examples of individuals who dreamed about a better future for their people.  They turned their vision into reality by hard work and careful planning.  We must learn from such examples.

Today’s conference represents another step in building for the future of Ethiopia and the Afar region.  His Excellency Ambassador Teshome Toga did not ask me to review our scientific research accomplishments in the Middle Awash, nor our efforts in education and infrastructure development.  These accomplishments and efforts have already been widely disseminated and appreciated here and abroad and we would be happy to discuss them with you here.  My talk, however, will be about a different subject.  It will be about one scientist’s vision of what paleotourism might contribute to the Afar, to Ethiopia, to Africa, and to the world—and how we might realize that vision if we plan carefully, work hard, and work together.

What qualifies me to offer any vision of paleotourism to such a distinguished audience?  I have worked in Kenya and Tanzania with Richard and Mary Leakey as a student.  I have worked in the Middle Awash since 1981, and with Dr. Berhane Asfaw in a survey of the Rift Valley from Fejej in the south to Melka Werer in the north of the Ethiopian Rift.  As a scientist I therefore appreciate Ethiopia’s potential to advance knowledge of human origins and evolution.  As a professor I recognize the power and potential of education in development and nation building.  Additionally, my research experiences outside of Ethiopia, particularly at Olduvai in Tanzania, in South Africa, Malawi, and in Jordan and Turkey and China give me a comparative perspective on how these countries manage their paleoanthropological resources and integrate them with tourism.  Perhaps even more importantly, I have also had the opportunity to be a professional interpreter for paleotourists here in Ethiopia, as well as in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa.

From these experiences I have articulated a personal perspective on how paleotourism might be best developed here in Ethiopia.  This is not the viewpoint of our research group, but rather a personal and deliberately provocative vision.  I present it here to promote discussion and even debate, which I think is healthy at this stage.  Before beginning I would like to thank the organizers for having the vision to convene this conference to begin the planning for the next stage of involving paleoanthropology as a major component of tourism in Ethiopia.  If we work together I am convinced that we will set the world standard in integrating science and development.  We have all the stakeholders here:  representatives from Federal and local government, from the private sector, and from the scientific community.  None of us can afford to fail in articulating and implementing a coherent and progressive vision for tourism involving paleoanthropology in Ethiopia.

Most of the antiquities that have been recovered from here in the Afar are fossilized bones and stone tools that have been exposed during the geologically recent erosion of ancient sediments.  These resources are non-renewable and extremely rare.  For example, we have collected 12,000 vertebrate fossils in the Middle Awash, but fewer than two hundred of these are human ancestor fossils.  It is critical that fossil and artifact recovery be done according to the highest scientific standards because their spatial and geological positions are critically important for the ability of these antiquities to give us new knowledge.  This kind of work calls for sustained, long-term research activities by qualified teams of people.  Mistakes in recovery of such antiquities are not allowable because once the fossils and artifacts have been collected from the surface of a locality, only new erosion can produce new fossils and artifacts.  This process of exposure of new antiquities can take thousands of years, even under favorable conditions.  In other words, as we work these sites we exhaust their potential.

In this sense, the antiquities represent a non-renewable resource.  In agriculture, if a crop fails, a new crop can be planted.  In wildlife management, if all the animals in a game park are poached, new animals can be reintroduced—even former cattle ranches in Southern Africa have been revitalized into game parks.  But once a fossil locality is collected, it can take thousands of years for new fossils to appear.  We have only one chance to do things correctly.

Recognizing these facts, the ARCCH regulates antiquities-related research and collection on the Federal level, under Parliamentary proclamation.  This is a very large responsibility.  Under the rules and regulations of Ethiopia, research areas are allocated to scientific teams judged qualified to conduct the research.  Our experience in the Middle Awash shows clearly that sustained, long-term research is critical to generating important results.  Hit-and-run projects aimed at collecting human ancestor fossils for publicity purposes are bad for the country and bad for the science.  Projects designed to exploit Ethiopia instead of building her capacity and infrastructure are bad for the country and bad for the science.  That is why the ARCCH must carefully regulate this kind of research.

The publication of scientific research results is the mechanism by which the new discoveries enter public consciousness.  Internationally there is intense interest in human evolution.  This means that the popular media follow the professional journal publications on this subject very closely.  Therefore, with each major scientific publication, millions of people all around the world learn more about the human past, about Ethiopia, and about the Afar.  We have worked very hard to make sure that our research is published according to the highest standards, in the world’s top science journals, like Science and Nature.  I invite you to view an example of some recent results of this broad and deep international coverage by visiting the website

We have worked hard to ensure that the publicity associated with our scientific discoveries has been good for Ethiopia.  Through these announcements, the world learns about Ethiopia as a prosperous and progressive country supporting world-class research under stable conditions.  I consider this kind of positive publicity to be extremely important, and I am proud to have worked with the ARCCH and WALTA to insure that Ethiopia’s contributions are widely known here and throughout the world.  And by involving Ethiopian scientists as partners in this research, and developing infrastructure here in Ethiopia, we are creating positive role models that are now encouraging thousands of Ethiopian children in schools throughout the land to learn about science.  This is the best sort of publicity--positive stories that grip the world’s interest and imagination, instill national pride, and build a better future.  But will this publicity bring tourists to Ethiopia?  The answer to that question depends, in part, on what we accomplish here at this conference.  His Excellency asked me to address the question of “How to launch paleotourism in Ethiopia?”

I propose that at least the following five principles are essential for the effective development of paleotourism in Ethiopia:

1.  The nation, the region, and the local people should all benefit from tourism activities.
2.  The antiquities of the country and the scientific knowledge that they bear cannot be endangered by tourism activities.  As a consequence, these activities must be regulated by government.
3.  Scientific research and carefully managed paleotourism are natural partners.  As a consequence, the governmental agencies charged with regulating these different activities must actively and closely collaborate.
4.  The maximum benefit will accrue to the region, the country, and the science by carefully integrating and managing paleotourism, ecotourism and cultural tourism.
5.  The investment of considerable planning and economic resources will be necessary to realize the full potential of paleotourism.

How can these principles be applied to Ethiopia, specifically, to the Afar Region?  Let me give you my personal vision, and explain how I have reached it.  There are people here from government and the private sector much more qualified than I to discuss many of the dimensions I will touch on.  But in the spirit of the organizers’ kind invitation to present this paper, I will offer some suggestions that I hope will stimulate further discussion.  I will address three areas:  Promotion, Creating Tourist Experiences, and Regulation.

AREA 1.  Promotion.  Good paleoanthropological science will automatically create good publicity as described above, because international interest in human origins is intense.  Good science is not hit-and-run science, but rather long-term, protracted, detailed research conducted by qualified scientists under regulations that protect the antiquities of the country and promote the best results.  Due to discoveries of the last decade, Ethiopia is now recognized as a world leader in human origins research, with results featured prominently in the international media, twice, for example, on the cover of Time Magazine.  Promoting paleotourism as an aspect of the visitor’s Ethiopian experience is made easier by these results.  And this momentum is guaranteed to be maintained because there are several other exciting unpublished discoveries that are scheduled for announcement during the next few years.  In short, paleotourism in Ethiopia has been launched effectively in the international marketplace via the normal publication of scientific findings and the publicity that this generates via newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the internet.  Ethiopia is now the leader in world paleoanthropology and we will continue to bring this message to a world audience.  What is needed now is the integration of paleotourism into the overall tourism package here in Ethiopia.

SUGGESTION: The promotional benefits of scientific progress will be maximized if the Ethiopian Tourism Commission actively seeks advice and information from the scientists working under ARCCH permit.  It is essential that the visitor be given the most up-to-date background and results, and the most accurate information.

AREA 2.  Creating Tourist Experiences.  I think that most visitors to Ethiopia will be attracted by the total package of attractions rather than by a single element such as paleotourism.  This places Ethiopia in a unique position among its other national competitors in the global tourism market.  No other country has the richness of paleoanthropological, historic, cultural, and natural resources that Ethiopia boasts.  This “paleo-historico-cultural-natural” advantage has the potential to draw a wide variety of tourists, and it should be possible for each tourist to easily tailor a tour to fit their schedules and interests.

It is important to distinguish among different kinds of tourists, and match them with resources.  This has the advantage of providing individualized positive experiences (one of the most effective means of downstream promotion is word-of-mouth).  Such tourism flexibility has the advantage of conserving tourism resources and thereby making tourism sustainable on a long-term basis.  Furthermore, it provides the tourist with the ability to tailor their visit specifically to their interests.  Thus, my suggestions are multiple.  There will be a relatively few “paleotourists” who will be likely to focus their visit exclusively on prehistoric sites.  Like other “adventure” tourists, they are few in number and more likely to require less-developed accommodations.  It is clear that the vast majority of international tourists have broader interests and will wish to enjoy the total Ethiopian experience that they may wish to tailor for themselves.  These more general tourists will be drawn here by Ethiopia’s rich prehistory, history, cultures and religions, wildlife, and unique geography.  These more numerous tourists will be less tolerant of accommodations that lack three-star amenities.  How can Ethiopia’s paleoanthropological resources be used to attract this kind of tourist here rather than to other destinations available in Africa or elsewhere?

SUGGESTION:  The general tourist will choose Ethiopia because it represents a travel bargain.  With a single trip they can experience everything from modern wildlife and diverse cultures to deep prehistory and monumental historical accomplishments.  Upon arrival, an effective, exciting, enriching, brief orientation of such a tourist to Ethiopia’s cultural, physical, historical, and paleoanthropological landscapes is essential.  The National Museum in Addis Ababa can provide this orientation and can act to promote tourism.

The Axum/Lalibela tourist circuit is already well established and infrastructure has been emplaced.  I would recommend that two Afar tourism experiences be recognized and promoted for the general tourist.  The shorter one would involve a two-day visit.  The visitor would leave Addis Ababa and proceed to Awash National Park.  Along the way, the geography and geology of the Rift Valley would be experienced.  At the park and nearby, modern wildlife and ecology would be experienced.  Traditional and modern Afar culture could be explored in villages outside the park or in Awash Station, involving local communities.  Paleoanthropology would be experienced beyond the general overview presented at the National Museum in Addis Ababa.  This would be done by means of a visitor/interpretive center integrating information on culture, natural history, and prehistory of the entire Afar region.

On this shorter tour, the general visitor would learn how humans and their technologies evolved in the Afar region, and how the fossils of ancient extinct organisms (like the one million-year-old Oryx fossils from Bouri) represent the ancestors of modern oryx grazing in the park itself.  Adding the prehistoric dimension to a modern game park has never been done successfully in any other country, and its implementation in Ethiopia could be a centerpiece of an emergent ‘revitalized’ Awash National Park.  The current park visit needs to be upgraded in every sense for this to work, and this will require serious investment of money and regulation.  On the envisioned short tour, a visit to an actual prehistoric site would be enroute via Melka Kontoure where local people could demonstrate stone knapping and explain the excavations, further involving local communities.  On a single, short visit, the general tourist would return to Addis Ababa having experienced the geology, geography, cultures, wildlife, and prehistory of the Afar.

For the much smaller number of more adventurous, more specialized paleo-oriented tourists who wish a deeper paleo-tourism experience, a longer tour is envisioned.  For these visitors, the loop could be geographically and temporally longer, involving an additional two days, continuing from Awash to the museum at the Afar capital at Samara, followed by a “paleo-visa” tour of the Lucy interpretive center at Eli Wa Ha and discovery site of A’Dar, with the return trip via Bati and Kombolcha.  Any on-site visit would include the issuance of a “paleo-visa” described below.

AREA 3.  Regulation.  The ongoing scientific research on Ethiopian antiquities is currently regulated by the ARCCH which issues permits for its conduct.  Because unregulated tourism activities at specified paleoanthropology sites has the potential for souvenir collection and illicit marketing of antiquities, governmental regulation of paleotourism is necessary.  Throughout the Middle East, and Mesoamerica, illicit trafficking of antiquities is a major problem.  Here in Ethiopia, we are well aware of the loss of invaluable and irreplaceable historical antiquities such as illuminated manuscripts and crosses to collectors overseas.  And here in Ethiopia, there are already disturbing reports of local people collecting fossils and artifacts to sell to tourists or unscrupulous collectors.  Whether they are collected by a tourist, or by an uneducated local person for sale to a tourist, the loss of antiquities from surface sites has proven to be a major problem in countries as widespread as Kenya and Indonesia.  How can this problem be avoided here in Ethiopia without interfering with the development of paleotourism?

SUGGESTION:  Ethiopia needs to strongly and seriously regulate on-site paleotourism.  This can be done by combining a strict no-collection enforcement program with good educational programs on the local, regional, and federal levels.  Tour operators need to operate under strict regulations when their clients visit paleoanthropological sites.  I suggest that the educational programs be combined with a special permitting process by which any serious paleotourist interested in visiting the often-remote discovery sites could apply, on short notice, for such a visit.  The site visit would be conducted by knowledgeable government-appointed responsible local guides working with certified tour guides from the private sector.

To protect and preserve surface antiquities on open-air sites, a “paleo-visa” program should be implemented by the Federal and Regional governments.  In this program, the visitor would fill out a short form and make a payment that would be designated to support the educational program.  In exchange, the visitor would receive an official certificate of permission to travel to the actual study/discovery site (eg. the “Lucy” site).  This would give the visit to the site special significance, and would provide a lasting souvenir for the visitor.  At the same time it would promote development by involving regional and local people in a positive and educational manner.  Interpretive centers stocked with replica souvenirs would also help to curtail unauthorized collection of fossils and artifacts during site visits.

These are a few ideas for us to discuss.  Paleotourism as a component of an integrated but flexible tourism package in Ethiopia has great potential for all stakeholders—the visitors, the nation, the region, the local people, the private sector, and the science.  It is the means by which Ethiopia can become a primary tourist destination in Africa.  How can this vision be most effectively realized?

Two words come to my mind:  “INVESTMENT” and “EDUCATION.”  Paleotourism brings great promise and great challenges.  It will require careful regulation to make it sustainable.  It will require careful coordination among government regulators, scientists, and business people, each with their own concerns and priorities.  This conference is a great beginning.  Let us begin by investing our attention, our time, and our expertise in educating each other at this conference.  Then let us articulate plans that will safeguard the treasures of Ethiopia, indeed, the treasures of all humanity, at the same time that they are made accessible for the world to appreciate and enjoy.

Finally, as a scientist, and on behalf of more than 50 PhD level scientists who work with the Middle Awash project, I’d like to thank the many friends I see here who have helped with the research work over the last two decades.  Gada Sini G’asa and Fohafan!