Category Archives: ETHIOPIA

What is the oldest-known archaeological site in the world?

What is the oldest-known archaeological site in the world?

Our human ancestors were roaming Earth as far back as 6 million years ago, but what is the earliest site containing archaeological evidence of their existence? 

It turns out, there are two spots — one in Kenya and the other in Ethiopia — that are considered the top candidates for the world’s oldest archaeological sites, according to about a dozen scholars, all with expertise in prehistoric archaeology and anthropology, who spoke with Live Science. 

The question of what is the oldest archaeological site in the world is “a topic that has since recently divided the archaeological community,” Yonatan Sahle, a senior lecturer of archaeology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, told Live Science in an email. 

The first site, called Lomekwi 3, holds bones of hominins as well as stone artefacts and is located on a low hill in West Turkana, Kenya. In a study published in 2015 in the journal Nature, researchers reported that, by dating the sediment where the artefacts were found, they estimated the age of the site to be about 3.3 million years.

The finds “mark a new beginning to the known archaeological record,” a team of scientists wrote in the journal article. The tools were likely created by Australopithecus afarensis, a hominin (human ancestors and their relatives) that thrived in the region at the time. 

The site is located in a wooded area on a small hill not far from Lake Turkana. It’s possible that Australopithecus afarensis was using the stone artefacts to break open nuts the team wrote in the paper. The number of people who lived at the site at any given time is not clear. 

“Lomekwi 3 is the oldest known archaeological site in the world,” Jason Lewis, assistant director of the Turkana Basin Institute and a co-author of the paper, told Live Science in an email. 

Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College who was not involved in the study, agreed that Lomekwi 3 is the oldest known archaeological site, but he noted that not all scholars agree. “Lomekwi is controversial, and some of our colleagues remain unconvinced of the antiquity of these tools,” DeSilva told Live Science. 

Indeed, a number of recent papers “call into question the status of the artefacts at Lomekwi 3, arguing that some of the artefacts were not actually found in a context where the age of the artefacts can be certain,” David Braun, an anthropology professor at The George Washington University, told Live Science. In other words, the artefacts may not date to the same time as the sediment that it was found in.

Sahle is one of those archaeologists. “For many of us — myself included — unequivocal evidence for the oldest archaeological occurrences comes in the form of 2.6-million-year-old stone tools from Gona,” which is located by the Kada Gona river in Afar, Ethiopia, Sahle said. The dating results for Lomekwi 3 are contested, he noted, and he has serious doubts that the remains found at that site date back 3.3 million years. 

The research at Lomekwi 3 was published relatively recently, whereas research at Gona has been published over several decades and has withstood academic scrutiny, Sahle said. “Inferences made on the chronological and behavioural context of [the] Gona archaeological assemblages derive from decades of research and have, therefore, withstood the test of time,” Sahle said. 

A stone tool was unearthed at the Lomekwi 3 excavation site next to Lake Turkana in Kenya.

The stone tools at Gona may have been made by Australopithecus Garhi, a human ancestor that lived in east Africa around 2.5 million years ago. Fossils of the species have been found near stone tools and they may have been one of the first human ancestors to make sophisticated stone tools Smithsonian’s Human Origins project website notes.

“The Lomekwi claims were not adequately demonstrated when announced, and there has [been] no new evidence provided, despite several well-considered criticisms of the original Nature announcement,” said Tim White, co-director of the Human Evolution Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. White agrees that Gona has the best unequivocal evidence for being the oldest archaeological site.

On the other hand, some scholars are supportive of the idea that Lomekwi is older than Gona. Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, is convinced that Lomekwi 3 “is the oldest site with solid evidence of stone-on-stone percussion,” meaning that it’s the oldest site that has stone artefacts made by human ancestors. He noted that the stone artefacts at Lomekwi 3 appear different from those found at Gona; they are cruder and may not have been used as tools at all. The stone artefacts at Lomekwi 3 “show awkward fracturing of the rocks, including large, thick, irregularly shaped flakes that could have been the accidental byproducts of pounding — for what purpose, no one currently knows,” Potts wrote in an email, noting that people at Lomekwi 3 may not have been creating tools but rather pounding rocks together for unknown reasons. Even if the Lomekwi 3 artefacts weren’t used as tools, they would still be considered artefacts created by humans. 

Brian Villmoare, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, told Live Science, “I do tend to think that Australopithecus afarensis could have made stone tools,” but he noted that he has not examined the Lomekwi 3 artefacts. 

A third candidate?

Braun said that if future fieldwork cannot alleviate concerns about the dating of Lomekwi 3, his second choice for the oldest archaeological site would be Ledi-Geraru in Afar, Ethiopia, which dates back about 2.8 million years.

The earliest-known fossil from the Homo genus, this piece of the jawbone, was discovered at a site called Ledi-Geraru in the Afar Regional State, Ethiopia.

At Ledi-Geraru, researchers found a partial hominin mandible with teeth, and they dated it by examining the age of the surrounding sediment, they reported in the journal Science in 2015.  Sahle expressed doubts about the dating of this site, saying that it may be considerably younger than 2.8 million years and that Gona is the site with the best unequivocal evidence. 

Regardless of which of these archaeological sites is the oldest, all of them make the Giza pyramids (which are about 4,500 years old) and Stonehenge (which is roughly 5,000 years old) relatively young by comparison. 

The Atlantic Ocean was known as the Ethiopian Ocean until the 19th century

The Atlantic Ocean was known as the Ethiopian Ocean until the 19th century

Up to the 19th century, the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean was formally known as the Ethiopian/Aethiopian Sea in classical geographical works. This was the name that appeared on ancient maps, up to the 19th century.

1747 map showing the oceans and seas surrounding the African continent

The roots of such etymology can be described by how over time, areas referred to as place names often expand or contract. As such, what is termed “toponymic displacement” or geographic displacement? becomes commonplace.

European geographers used the term ‘Libyan’ to refer to North African people of Berber background. The people who inhabited lands further south of the Sahara were called ‘Ethiopians’ (or Aethiopians) and the name used for the lands below the Sahara was ‘Ethiopia.’

Ethiopia was also used as the synonym for the Nubian Kingdom of Kush (or Meroe).

The present country called Ethiopia was hardly known, and when it came to the knowledge of European geographers it was called ‘Abyssinia’ (from the Arabic ethnic designation ‘Habesh.’

The word Ethiopia was also used for unknown or quasi-mythical lands situated to the south or east of the Mediterranean.

1710 map of Africa by Daniel de la Feuille

The African interior, which was unknown to European ‘explorers’ and geographers around the 15th-16th centuries, was generally called Ethiopia.

The eastern South Atlantic Ocean was called the Aethiopian/Ethiopian Sea/Ocean due to the fact such part of the ocean was in proximity to the landmass called Ethiopia. This part of the ocean was commonly dubbed the “Ethiopian Ocean” (or Sea) through the 1700s.

In the maps of this time, the Ethiopian Ocean was shown to stretch from the South Atlantic into the western Indian Ocean.

Oceans and seas were conceptualized and titled as strips of water surrounding landmasses.

The discreet naming of oceans surfaced in the 1800s.

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Decades after the classical use of the name had become obsolete, botanist William Albert Setchell (1864–1943) used the term for the sea around some islands near Antarctica.

This 3.3-Million-Year-Old Hominin Toddler Was Kind of Like Us

This 3.3-Million-Year-Old Hominin Toddler Was Kind of Like Us

In a fragment of sandstone sticking from the soil in the sparkling flatlands of Northeast Ethiopia, a fossil fragment of the cheekbone has been detected. Zeresenay Alemseged almost instinctively realised that he had come across something important.

This 3.3-Million-Year-Old Hominin Toddler Was Kind of Like Us
Zeresenay Alemseged holds the skull of a three-year-old Australopithecus afarensis at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The discovery sheds light on the contentious debate about how well the species walked and climbed.

The skinbone brought a jaw, parts of a skull and eventually collar bones, shoulder blades, ribs and — perhaps most important — the most complete spinal column of any early human relative ever found.

Nearly 17 years later, the 3.3-million-year-old fossilized skeleton known as the “Dikika Baby” remains one of the most important discoveries in archaeological history, one that is filling in the timeline of human evolution.

“When you put all the bones together, you have over 60 per cent of a skeleton of a child dating back to 3.3 million years ago, which is more complete than the famous australopithecine fossil known as ‘Lucy,’ ” Alemseged, a 47-year-old professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, told The Washington Post.

“We never had the chance to recover the face of Lucy, but the Dikika child is an almost complete skeleton, which gives you an impression of how children looked 3.3 million years ago.”

The fossil, also called  “Selam” — “peace” in the Ethiopian Amharic language — has revealed numerous insights into our early human relatives. But Alemseged said one of the most startling findings comes from the toddler’s spine, which had an adaptation for walking upright that had not been seen in such an old skeleton.

The result, he said, is a creature whose upper body was apelike, but whose pelvis, legs and feet had familiar, humanlike adaptations.

“If you had a time machine and saw a group of these early human relatives, what you would have said right away is, ‘What is that chimpanzee doing walking on two legs?’ ” Alemseged said.

The Dikika foot is one part of a partial skeleton of a 3.32 million-year-old skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis child

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show for the first time the spinal column was humanlike in its numbering and segmentation. Though scientists know that even older species were bipedal, researchers said Selam’s fossilized vertebrae is the only hard evidence of bipedal adaptations in an ancient hominid spine.

“Yes, there were other bipedal species before, but what is making this unique is the preservation of the spine, which simply is unprecedented,” Alemseged said. “Not only is it exquisitely preserved, but it also tells us that the human-type of segmentation emerged at least 3.3 million years ago. Could there have been other species with a similar structure, yes, but we don’t know for sure?”

Human beings share many of the same spinal structures as other primates, but the human spine — which has more vertebrae in the lower back, for example — is adapted for efficient upright motion, such as walking and running on two feet.

Among the larger questions researchers like Alemseged are trying to answer include: When did our ancestors evolve the ability to be bipedal? When did we become more bipedal than arboreal, or tree-dwelling? And when did our ancestors abandon an arboreal lifestyle to become the runners and walkers that eventually populated Africa and then the world?

One of the significant barriers to answering those questions is that complete sets of vertebrae are rarely preserved in the fossil record.

“For many years we have known of fragmentary remains of early fossil species that suggest that the shift from rib-bearing, or thoracic, vertebrae to the lumbar, or lower back, vertebrae were positioned higher in the spinal column than in living humans, but we have not been able to determine how many vertebrae our early ancestors had,” said Carol Ward, a curator’s distinguished professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the University of Missouri School of Medicine, and lead author on the study.

Selam has provided us the first glimpse into how our early ancestors’ spines were organized.” Unpacking the intricacies of Selam’s spinal structure would not have been possible without the assistance of cutting-edge technology, researchers said.

After 13 years of using dental tools to painstakingly remove portions of the fossil from sandstone — which risked destroying the fossil — Alemseged packed up Selam in his suitcase and took the fossil from Ethiopia to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, in 2010. Alemseged and the research team spent nearly two weeks there using high-resolution imaging technology to visualize the bones.

Left block of images shows the 3.32 million-year-old foot from an Australopithecus afarensis toddler from different angles. The right block of images compares the child’s foot with the fossil remains of an adult Australopithecus foot (top).

The fossil had undergone a medical CT scan in 2002 in Nairobi, Alemseged said, but that scanner was unable to distinguish objects with the same density, meaning that penetrating bones encased in sandstone was impossible. Once in France, that was no longer a problem, and the results, he said, “were mind-blowing.”

“We were able to separate, virtually, the different elements of the vertebrae and were able to do it, of course, without any damage to the fossil,” Alemseged said. “We are now able to see this very detailed anatomy of the vertebrae of this exceptionally preserved fossil.”

The scans revealed that the child possessed the thoracic-to-lumbar joint transition found in other fossil human relatives, but they also showed that Selam had a smaller number of vertebrae and ribs than most apes have.

For researchers, the skeleton is a window into the transition between rib-bearing vertebrae and lower back vertebrae, which allowed our early human ancestors to extend at the waist and begin moving upright, eventually becoming highly efficient walkers and runners. Though he has been studying Selam for nearly two decades, Alemseged thinks the fossil has more secrets to share with the modern world.

“I don’t think she will stop surprising us as the analysis continues,” he said. “Science and tech are evolving so much that I’m sure in a few years we’ll be able to extract even more information that we’re not able to extract today.”