Project History

ma database
ma database

The Middle Awash paleoanthropological research area extends along both sides of the modern Awash River in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia, north of Gewane town.  Geological work began in 1938 with an Italian geological mission (Gortani and Bianchi, 1973).  Taieb further explored the area, found fossils and artifacts, and did mapping and stratigraphic profiling as part of his Awash basin survey (Taieb, 1974).  Taieb and associates Coppens, Johanson, and Kalb began intensive work at Hadar in 1972.  This work recovered the first fossil hominids found in the Afar Rift (Johanson et al., 1982).  Work at Hadar (including the recently renamed Dikika) continues today, north of the Middle Awash, and east of the Gona study area.

In 1975, Mr. Jon Kalb left the Hadar group, created the Rift Valley Research Mission in Ethiopia (RVRME), and continued exploration of the Middle Awash study area.  In 1976, Antiquities Officer Alemayehu Asfaw discovered the study area's first hominid fossil, from Middle Pleistocene deposits at Bodo (Kalb et al., 1980; Conroy et al., 1978).  Fieldwork of the RVRME project ended in 1978 and was summarized in a series of publications in 1982 and later.  The RVRME proposed a stratigraphic nomenclature for the entire southern Afar on the basis of their preliminary ground reconnaissance and air photo interpretation.  The subsequent Middle Awash project found the RVRME stratigraphic nomenclature impossible to apply because descriptions of beds and marker horizons were imprecise, upper and lower contacts were undefined, there was no valid mapping of a reference area, and boundaries between formations were set systematically at fault contacts.  Radiometric dating and tephrachemistry were not done by the RVRME.

In 1981 the Middle Awash project was initiated, under the leadership of the late Professor J. Desmond Clark.  Under a permit issued by the Centre for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CRCCH) of the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs, the project explored areas on both sides of the Awash River, north of Gewane and south of the Gona.  This Middle Awash study area had been defined and designated by the previous workers.  Archaeological excavations were undertaken at Bodo and Hargufia, the first radiometric dates for the area were determined, and the first Pliocene hominids were recovered (Clark et al., 1984).

Planned Middle Awash field research was postponed from 1982 to 1990 while new Ethiopian antiquities legislation was formulated.  With new laws in place, our group resumed fieldwork in 1990.  The 1990 work concentrated on the better-known geological sequences east of the modern Awash River.  By 1992, with geochronological control established by Dr. WoldeGabriel and his coworkers, the time-stratigraphic framework for fossil and archaeological discoveries on the eastern side of the study area was well in hand.  Papers in Science (Clark et al., 1994) and Nature (White et al., 1993) put on record the archaeological, geological, and paleontological discoveries made in 1990.

The Middle Awash project's primary attention since 1992 has been directed to the western side of the modern Awash River because it was there that the study area was, to that point, least investigated.  Work there was very productive, extending knowledge more deeply into the past, and developing a comprehensive stratigraphic record for the basin.  Initial discoveries included Ardipithecus ramidus (White, Suwa and Asfaw, 1994; WoldeGabriel et al, 1994), Ardipithecus kadabba (Haile-Selassie, 2001; WoldeGabriel et al., 2001; Haile-Selassie et al., 2004), and Australopithecus garhi  (White et al., 1999; de Heinzelin et al., 1999).  The project's recent research publications include a monograph on the Acheulean of Bouri (de Heinzelin et al., 2000), and papers on the Daka Homo erectus calvaria (Asfaw et al., 2002) and Asa Issie Australopithecus anamensis (White et al., 2006).  The project's Herto discoveries of the earliest known Homo sapiens (idaltu) drew international attention to Ethiopia when published in June of 2003 (White et al., 2003; Clark et al., 2003).

Middle Awash field studies continue today on both the eastern and western sides of the study area.  On the eastern side of the study area, particularly at Maka, Matabaietu, and Gamedah, Pliocene outcrops continue to yield fossil vertebrates.  Geological studies aimed at linking these areas to those west of the modern Awash River (Hatayae Member, Esa Dibo, Bahroo Koma, upper Asa Issie, Burka, Guneta) are underway.  Important discoveries of Pleistocene hominids and archaeology in the Talalak and Halibee areas in the northwestern quadrant of the study area were made during 2003 and 2005, and it will be important to link these occurrences, including a partial Homo sapiens skeleton to sites such as Andalee and Ala Kanasa east of the Awash. 

The Middle Awash project's current laboratory work is focused on ca. 4.4 Ma, and dozens of project scientists are involved with the effort to prepare the large assemblage of Ardipithecus ramidus fossils and contextual data for publication.  Meanwhile, the research team has arranged with the University of California Press to publish a total of five monographs on the Middle Awash during the next several years.

Middle Awash research team membership has grown to keep pace with the expanding exploration and research horizons of the project. This research has now involved approximately 70 scientists and hundreds of local people (see Personnel). The Middle Awash team includes scientists from 18 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, England, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guam, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Spain, Tanzania, Turkey, and the USA.  We anticipate continued growth as the project matures.