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ETHIOPIA: IRIN interview with leading paleanthropologist Tim White

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  • drreality
    ... From: IRIN [mailto:IRIN@irinnews.org] Sent: Thursday, January 22, 2004 2:15 AM To: RE Ausetkmt Subject: ETHIOPIA: IRIN interview with leading
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: IRIN [mailto:IRIN@...]
      Sent: Thursday, January 22, 2004 2:15 AM
      To: RE Ausetkmt
      Subject: ETHIOPIA: IRIN interview with leading paleanthropologist Tim

      ETHIOPIA: IRIN interview with leading paleanthropologist Tim White

      ADDIS ABABA, 22 January (IRIN) - Prof Tim White is one of the world's
      leading paleanthropologists currently excavating a site in the
      northeastern Afar region, which has turned up some of the world' most
      important prehistoric finds for charting human origins. Here Prof White
      tells IRIN how the Ethiopian government can tap this resource for the
      country's economic betterment.

      QUESTION: What is paleontology?

      ANSWER: A study of past life. It is in addition to archaeology, which is
      the study of past culture. So when you deal with a science that
      integrates the two things, paleanthropology
      captures that, apart from [that] it leaves out geology, although it is
      included by definition. Paleanthropology, when it is used in this
      context, means prehistoric archaeology, geology
      and paleontology basically. Paleontology for most people is the study of
      fossils, and archaeology is the study of artefacts.

      Q: How important is Ethiopia in terms of paleontology?

      A: Paleontology is a very broad subject, because, after all, we are
      talking about billions of years of evolution on the planet. So for some
      time periods, Ethiopia has no rocks of the right age. For other time
      periods, it has the rocks, and its potential is just beginning to be
      exploited. People are now looking at some rocks in northern Ethiopia,
      and they hope to find dinosaurs there, and which would be tremendously
      important for the study of dinosaurs.

      Where Ethiopia has real world renown is because it has a rift valley
      that has captured paleontological and archaeological evidence of human
      evolution. And it is in a corner of Africa because of the geography it
      has been like a receptacle in this rift valley.

      Q: And what do these geographical circumstances mean for Ethiopia?

      A: These geographical circumstances in Ethiopia have moved Ethiopia into
      the lead in human origin studies in terms of all African countries. The
      study of human evolution in Africa started many years ago. The landmark
      discoveries were made in the 1920s in southern Africa. Then the focus of
      attention moved into eastern Africa.

      Ethiopia remained little developed for a variety of historical
      circumstances that have now changed, and with a new generation of
      Ethiopian scholars participating, [and with] broad international
      cooperation, you are seeing result after result coming out of the Afar
      rift and the main Ethiopian rift. This is enriching our knowledge of the
      human career over the last 6 million years, and in that sense Ethiopia's
      position is almost supreme in the last 6 million years. The record here
      is more complete that anywhere else.

      Q: How can this science be integrated with the development of Ethiopia?

      A: What happens with the science of paleanthropology is that you have a
      more intense human interest in it than you have with other
      paleontological things. I mean, kids love dinosaurs around the world, so
      if Ethiopia had dinosaurs it would become yet another part of the
      overall tourist package in Ethiopia.

      But this intense human interest in humanity's past sort of transcends
      religions and nations borders. Everyone is interested in where they came
      from. Ethiopia as the source of most information about human evolution -
      in a sense it serves as a magnet, as an attractant for people to come
      and explore their roots, how do we know where we came from, what were we
      like, what was the world like 5 million years ago.

      Ethiopia is a place where one can travel through time. The first steps
      on the journey are back to the medieval times and places like Lalibela
      that are absolutely astonishing in terms of the Christian orthodoxy.
      Here we are talking about historical periods.

      The next step back is in the prehistoric period, and Ethiopia now has
      all the steps back to the beginnings of technology at 2.6 million years
      ago here in the Afar. The very first tools we have recovered here in
      Ethiopia and dated. So not only do you have the biological evolution but
      also the cultural evolution. What that means is the visitor can come in
      and experience the history, the prehistory, the culture, but also be
      able to trace the roots of all of those things into the very distant
      past, and this is not possible anywhere else.

      Q: How can that be harnessed?

      A: To me it is part of the package that is Ethiopia. Most visitors ask
      all those questions and want to know all those things, but they also
      want to see wild animals, and are interested in the churches and the
      monasteries and want to know about the culture. They want to experience
      Africa. So what you do I think is integrate the scientific conclusions
      and the sites they come from into the total package, and the way that is
      best done is for the arriving tourists to get an
      orientation so they can choose an itinerary that suits their own

      They can see the Awash Park and see wildlife, new geography, the [Great]
      Rift Valley, which geologically is one of the most interesting places on
      the planet, and the added benefit is that they will see the
      paleanthropology - these rich resources that bear directly on where we
      come from and who we are.

      Q: And what impediments are in place?

      A: A variety of economic and political impediments have been present
      until now. The largest one I think has been infrastructure. The
      competitors in the global tourism market, such as Tanzania and Kenya,
      have moved forward more quickly at [effecting] infrastructure
      development, in putting in place the hotels and roads etc.

      With the change in government in the early 1990s here at the end of the
      Derg [former military regime] there has now been a revolution in the way
      the transportation systems and the banking systems and all of the
      accommodation for the tourist have now developed in Ethiopia, especially
      in [the capital] Addis Ababa and the well-known tourist route of the
      northern tourist route of Aksum and Lalibela.

      We have to make this prehistory part of that overall experience. That
      requires investment of outsiders, investment of the government. It
      requires cooperation of the scientists and it requires regulation to
      protect the antiquities at the same time that millions of people
      potentially are going to be coming and wanting to explore them for

      Q: How do the local communities benefit?

      A: The local communities are the key part of this equation, especially
      to preserve these prehistoric sites. In the area where we work in the
      Middle Awash [northeastern Ethiopia]
      we work with the local community to protect these antiquities in the
      sense that they work with our project in that it is an economic benefit
      that is direct to the village. We work with the elders in the village to
      prevent the children moving any of the bones, no one purchases any
      of the fossils, and that is a strictly research team relationship with
      the local community. We have had it for 20 years and it works very well.

      The question becomes what happens when you put the tourist part into the
      equation. Can an unscrupulous tour operator come in and purchase
      antiquities? That would create an economic imbalance and would be bad
      for the antiquities. It might be good for the kid who sold the fossil.
      But ultimately that is why we need government regulation coming in.

      Local communities can soon see how the tourist economy can assist their
      village in the construction of schools, better housing and employment,
      and all of a sudden their being part of this means they protect it. Here
      in the Afar there is an incredible rich culture, and exposing people to
      that culture in a positive manner is going to be important, but so are
      jobs to the Afar people, and tourism can create those jobs. It is a
      trickle-down effect. It is all part of a development package.

      Q: Do you think the regulations are in place to protect these

      A: The regulations are in place within the federal structure, and where
      we need to do work is to make sure that the people regulating tourism
      are aware of those regulations. For example, it is illegal for people to
      own Ethiopian antiquities if you collect them from a site. But unless
      visitor is told about that and told about the damage and educated about
      why that is wrong, and unless the local people are regulated in terms of
      their going out and disturbing a site we could run into a problem, and
      many countries have run into these problems.

      So the present government's recognition of these issues and wanting to
      work together with all the stakeholders is a great opportunity. The
      Ministry of Culture and the Tourism Commission have to work more closely
      together so that we can educate these tour operators and set up,
      actually, a management programme where the antiquities are made
      available, but protected at the same time.

      Tel: +254 2 622147
      Fax: +254 2 622129
      Email: IRIN@...

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