Earlier this month I went to Addis Ababa and got to meet a couple of people I’d dreamed of meeting since I was a little girl. Chances are you may be on first name terms with Lucy and Ardi too. Or you may know them as the respective type fossils of Australopithecus afarensis and Ardipithecus ramidus. I met their friend Selam (AKA the Dikika child) too, as well as the Bodo and Herto fossils. This may be where my cute first-name-terms analogy breaks down, since it’s hard to claim friendly celebrity acquaintance with crania, but it’s certainly not every day you get to be in the same room as some of the most celebrated human fossils ever discovered. They’re not usually on display to the public, you see.
Downtown Addis Ababa - if you look very closely you can see the precarious wooden scaffolding used all over the city, here about ten stories high
I was fortunate to be attending the sixth meeting of the East African Association for Palaeoanthropology and Palaeontology (EAAPP), where the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, together with the discoverers of the fossils (many of whom were also attending the conference) had kindly made the fossils available for a one-off viewing. Reader, I nearly cried. It’s hard to convey just how moving it is to suddenly be in the same room as your fossil ancestors: Lucy’s bones are so fragile and slender, Ardi has such beautiful feet, and Selam’s delicate infant spine looks uncomfortably twisted.
The National Museum of Ethiopia, where the conference was held, and which has a great human origins exhibition including casts of all the original fossils.
The stated purpose of the EAAPP is to do more or less that: to bring researchers closer to where the data come from, in order that they may present their work in a forum that levels the playing field between local and international researchers, both emergent and established. Palaeoanthropology and palaeontology can have somewhat extractive reputations, and regional initiatives like EAAPP are sorely needed.
No photos of the real Lucy allowed, but her image is everywhere - (top) in the museum cafe miraculously, if anachronistically, amid the rock cut churches of Lalibela and (bottom) on a local taxi company. Ethiopians are very proud of her.
The tired palaeoanthropological trope of short conference/mass amounts of prehistory covered was never more apt over the three days of the EAAPP meeting. We heard about early hominid locomotion via anatomical and trace fossils; dietary reconstruction via stable isotopes and microbotanical analyses; stone tool technology and transport; paleontology and palaeoenvironmental constructions. The final session deserves a particular mention: cultural heritage management and the challenges it faces in eastern Africa. How should scientists and heritage managers work best together to facilitate archival of humanity’s cultural heritage in ways accessible to local and international communities alike? Palaeoanthropology has not always achieved this in a commendable manner, but eastern African initiatives are working to change this: not just by curating evolutionary heritage in the country of origin, as the EARCCH does so capably for Ethiopia, but by training new generations of indigenous scientists.
The oldest residents of the National Museum are thought to be over 100 years old.
We’re delighted that Nature Ecology & Evolution was able to attend the conference (and I’m particularly gleeful that I was the medium through which this was achieved) and look forward to the next EAAPP meeting in Kenya in 2019.
*NEE is coming to the following human evolution conferences near you:
Inaugural Cultural Evolution Society Conference, Jena, 13th-15th September 2017
ESHE, Leiden, 21st-23rd September 2017
Human Evolution: Fossils, Ancient and Modern Genomes, Wellcome Genome Campus, 20th-22nd November 2017