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2021-11-28 16:27:19   •   ID: 2282

A Handaxe from the Lower Omo Valley

Figure 1
Figure 2
This rather simple and 13 cm long lanceolated hand axe,made from ferruginous local volcanic rock, was found by the German prehistorian Günter Smolla (1919-2006) during an excursion in the lower Omo valley probably in the early 1970s.

It is asymmetrical and bifacially shaped by only a few flakes that had been detached. Despite pronounced post-depositional degradation, the Handaxe shows clear signs of human agency.

Smolla, although a specialist in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, already knew what he had found there....

The Omo-Tukana Basin represents one of the best studied geological regions in East Africa, resulting in accurate dating of both Paleofauna and archaeological remains.

Stratigraphic markers of the Omo region include volcanic ash layers, which form the primary basis for regional correlation within the Omo-Tukana Basin and with sequences of similar age in the surrounding basins.

A correlation of the Omo Group sequence with deep-sea deposits in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden has also now been established.

Feldspars from volcanic eruptions included in pumices, which were incorporated into tuff layers, but also into intercalated basalt flows, provide an accurate radiometric age control for multiple levels in the Omo Group succession.

Magnetostratigraphic studies and of well-preserved ancient faunal communities provide independent time estimation and allow reliable cross datings (overview in Gathogo 2017).

From an archaeological and paleoanthropological point of view, especially two formations in the lower Omo Valley in Southern Etiopia are of particular significance.

- For the occurrence of some of the oldest artifact-bearing accumulations in the world associated with the Shungura Formation, which is currently dated from 3,6 mya and ca. 1 mya associated with Oldowan sites at about 2,3 mya. These localities are technologically comparable with the Oldowan at Gona and Hadar (both in the Afar region) as well as findings at Lokalalei and Kanjera in Kenia, which are however several 100 thousand years older - see 1678 .

Importantly Paranthropus bosei and Homo Habilis Skeletal remains were incorporated in the same strata.

- For the rich MSA evidence of the Kibish Formation that occurs along with findings of early Homo sapiens specimens (Omo Kibish 1 and 2, dated radiometrically to 196 +/- 2 k.a. BP; Fleagle 2008)- see 1668 and Figure 3.

From an aesthetic perspective these artifacts are of great beauty for a modern observer and bifacial tools such as Points and Scaper are made from precious materials, such as cryptocrystalline silicates, high quality chert and jasper (Figure 3).

Compared with the late Pliocene / Early Pleistocene, the MSA at Lake Turkana is sparse-see: 2060 . Shea and Hildebrand (2010) reported details of a well stratified MSA-LSA site at from West Turkana at Nakechichok 1. This site is remarkable because its inventory bears no close resemblance to the Kibish findings. It is a small in-situ inventory that has a clear laminar Levallois aspect.

Evaluation of MSA sites on the left side of the lower Omo has just began and may offer a great potential. These findings were found as part of the so called Mursiland Heritage Project.

Levallois Flakes and Tools with some similarities with the sparse MSA evidence at Turkana West were reported scattered over the landscape and the Dirikoro Waterfall Site at the headwaters of a the River Elma, a tributary of the Omo River (Drapeau 2018).

Figure 3
As earlier reported in this Blog, the earliest known scattered evidence of the Acheulian dates back to c. 1,75 mya and is limited to a few African sites sites: Kokiselei (Kenya), Konso (Ethiopia), Olduvai Gorge (Tansania)-FLK West, and Sterkfontein (South Africa).

From the regional view of this post the only early Acheulian in the Lower Omo / Turkana region is actually present at the Kokiselei 4 (KS4) site in West Turkana. So far, intact Acheulian sites have not been discovered in the Lower Omo Valley, possibly because the corresponding strata from this period are not as accessible as elsewhere.

Today, over 13000 people live in the Lower Omo Valley home, divided into a network of around 12 pastoralist groups including for example the Mursi, Suri, and Bodi. Each community in the Lower Omo Valley has maintained its own, very distinctive traditions.

For many reasons, these people are in danger of loosing the basis of their specific livelihood and future.

A state-sponsored "eco-tourism" makes people and villages staffage for an "authentic Africa experience" for the tourists. Only a few, the least the inhabitants of the region themselves, profit from this development.

To make things even worse, the entire ecosystem of the lower Omo and Lake Turkana is irreversibly at risk by the construction of a huge dam, named Gibe III, at the the Omo. The Gibe III dam is the third largest hydro-electric plant in Africa.

The dam slows the flow of the Omo River and ends the semi-annual floods that supplied riverside farmland and pastures for livestock with alluvial sediment enriched with valuable nutrients.

Since hundred of years, in the times before the dam was built, sophisticated mechanisms of risk minimisation and recovery strengthened the region's resilience to drought.

Now, pastoralists have to migrate to other regions to find suitable areas for pasture, leading to conflicts with other groups.

You will find more informations about this issue in the book you can download here: The River: Peoples and Histories of the Omo-Turkana Area .

Two travel reports are important to critically complement the picture: Visiting Omo and Visiting Omo2

Nothing about these events is unusual or unique. Similar interventions into the ecosystem are happening every day and all over the world - the genus Homo sapiens is almost certainly on the very edge of extinction, although it is the most common Mammal on Earth- and it once started so hopefully....

Suggested Reading:

Homo faber - 2 millions d'années d'histoire de la pierre taillée - De l'Afrique aux portes de l'Europe - Catalogue d'exposition MAN; 2021

Provenance: G. Smolla (GER)