Paleontology

Ethiopia’s claim to be the Cradle of Humankind is the strongest of any country in the world, thanks to a remarkable series of palaeontological discoveries, mostly in the Afar region of the northern Rift Valley. Indeed, of the 14 fossils and other relicts regarded to be most important in determining our understanding of human evolution, 11 were found in Ethiopia.

  • The most famous fossil unearthed in Ethiopia is Lucy, the partial skeleton of a Australopithecus afarensis female discovered by the anthropologist Professor Donald Johanson and his student Tom Gray at Hadar in 1974. Then the oldest hominid fossil ever discovered at 3.2 million years old, its limb structure demonstrated that bipedalism had evolved much earlier than was previously assumed. The name Lucy derives from the Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, which was playing in camp at the time.
  • In 1997, the Ethiopian anthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie discovered the world’s oldest undisputed hominid remains, ascribed to the species Ardipithecus kadabba and dated to 5.5 million years old, in Afar.
  • Ethiopia has also yielded the world’s oldest-known stone-age tools. Dating back more than 2.5 million years, these were uncovered in Afar at a site called Gona.
  • A more southerly site alongside the Omo River has yielded the oldest-known fossils of anatomically modern humans Homo sapiens sapiens. Originally dated at 130,000 years old upon their discovery in the 1960s, this pair of skulls was re-dated at almost 200,000 years old in 2005.
  • An excellent palaeontological hall in Addis Ababa’s National Museum of Ethiopia displays the remains of Lucy as well as several other significant old fossils. Also of interest is the palaeontological museum and stone-age tool site at Melka Kunture south of Addis Ababa.