Published: July 2010

Middle Awash

Evolutionary Road

The Evolutionary Road

The Middle Awash area of Ethiopia is the most persistently occupied place on Earth. Members of our lineage have lived, died, and been buried there for almost six million years. Now their bones are eroding out of the ground. Step by step they record how a primitive, small-brained primate evolved to conquer a planet. Where better to learn how we became human?

By Jamie Shreeve
Photograph by Tim D. White. Digital reconstruction of Ardipithecus ramidus modeled in resin.

In the Afar desert of Ethiopia, there are a lot of ways to die. There is disease, of course. One can also perish from wild animal attack, snakebite, falling off a cliff, or in a shoot-out between one of the Afar clans and the Issa people across the Awash River to the east.

But life is fragile all over Africa. What is special here is the occasional durability of the deceased’s remains. The Afar Basin sits smack atop a widening rip in the Earth’s crust. Over time, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the slow accumulation of sediments have conspired to bury bones and then, much later, disgorge them to the surface as fossils. The process is ongoing. In August 2008 a young boy was taken by a crocodile in Yardi Lake, in an area of the Afar known as the Middle Awash. Three months later, Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, stood at the lakeshore near where the child had died. Blanketed by lake sediments, he said, the boy’s bones had a decent chance of becoming fossils someday too. “People have been dying out here for millions of years,” said White. “Occasionally we get lucky and find what’s left .”

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