Ethiopia: When climate changes

4 mins read

Children clapped, giggled, and raced around. The feasting meat was ritually dispatched, butchered, and cooked on an open fire. Local honey wine flowed. Everyone, even interloping archaeologists and anthropologists, danced around camp, bodies decorated with clays and ash. The evening’s spontaneous celebrations, lasting well into the night, made an unforgettable end to a tough but rewarding season.

This is Ethiopia’s Mursiland, occupying an area of the Lower Omo Valley approximately half the size of Wales, and home to a people known as the Mursi. Familiar from images of women wearing lip plates, and promoted to tourists as one of the last unspoilt tribes in Africa, the truth, as ever, is rather more complicated. Surprisingly, to Westerners used to longstanding administrative boundaries, Mursiland is not a formal region. It is the area that the Mursi control, with the aid of the all-too-modern AK 47 assault rifle, and its fringes fluctuate accordingly. Woe betides any member of a neighbouring tribe who is caught on the wrong side of them. The area is also, according to received wisdom, archaeologically barren. We set out to prove otherwise.

From the outset the environment was challenging. Temperatures regularly soared to 45°C, water and food supplies were rationed, tyre punctures were commonplace, snakes slithered in the long grass, scorpions and camel spiders seemed to occupy every rock crevice, acacia thorns ripped clothing and flesh, and guides and GPS proved highly temperamental. The project was also a crash course in the interplay between archaeology and anthropology for, as we quickly realised, we were not going to get anywhere unless we won the trust of the Mursi. And they were wary – with good cause, given past experiences of outsider interest in their land.

Throughout the last decade, the Omo Valley tribes have been subjected to ever more external agencies transforming their territorial lands. These include hunting and national park concessions, bio-fuel and cotton extraction industries, hydro-electric power projects, as well as eco- and ethno- tourism. It took lengthy negotiation, a few demonstrations of our benign intentions, and ample servings of indigenous trust to secure their blessing to survey a sizeable tract of Mursiland, near the international borders of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. So what were we looking for, and what did we find?

Food, floods, and flows

This was the fieldwork element of a project researching human responses to environmental change over the last 10,000 years. The climate and population of the region make it uniquely suited to our investigations. As a group, the Mursi were ‘incorporated’ into the Ethiopian state when Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) established administrative control over the southwestern lowlands. Prior to this, cattle-herding communities in the region had been fairly fluid in nature. Today, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Mursi people. Together they represent a considerable repository of knowledge, and our project started by interviewing current inhabitants about their environment, subsistence activities, and knowledge of the past. This confirmed that Mursi identity finds its origins in various large-scale migrations over the last two centuries, motivated mainly by environmental stresses, and expressed in terms of the search for a ‘cool place’. Although primarily cattle-herders, the Mursi have learnt to vary their agricultural base to fit the fluctuating conditions. Rain-fed and flood-retreat cultivation, fishing, hunting and gathering all form part of this.

Rainfall is a major contributor to the success or failure of these strategies. Today it occurs in two concentrations: Oiyoi (‘big rains’) fall between March and April, and Loru (‘small rains’) fall between October and November. Annual rainfall is only between 300–800mm, meaning that the climate of Mursiland ranges from semi-arid to arid. This places a premium on water, and Mursiland’s roughly oblong-shaped territory is due to it being bounded by rivers. Of these the River Omo is the major waterway, flowing over 1,000km from the Blue Nile and Sobat watersheds in the north to its outlet at Lake Turkana.

But the environment is not static. Instead, Mursiland offers regrettably little climatic certainty for its inhabitants. Such unpredictability makes rain-fed cultivation precarious and the watering of cattle difficult. This increases the Mursi dependency on flood-fed cultivation, which is reliant on highland rainfall to the north. This, too, is erratic, although less so than rainfall in Mursiland, as evidenced by the level of Lake Turkana, which has fluctuated by over 20m in the last century. A general trend of exposure is mirrored throughout the lowlands, with many of the River Omo’s tributaries drying out over the last six millennia.

Platforms, people, and place

From the outset, the archaeology seemed to fit with an environment that is becoming increasingly arid. Material evidence was found that, according to local tradition, was the product of more settled occupation and a wetter landscape in the past. Central to this is the Mursi interpretation of a cluster of elaborate megalithic features on the lower slopes of the Arichukgirong (literally ‘snout of the bull’) Hills near the settlement of Dirikoro. The Mursi call these features benna kulugto (‘stone circles’) and believe they were ancient house floors, or platforms, built to lift dwellings above ground and provide a refuge from surface water. The Mursi also contend that they were made by previous inhabitants of the landscape, the fate of whom was uncertain. Whilst the location was originally reported by the anthropologist David Turton in 1973, the first detailed investigation was undertaken by our team. This proved to be our ‘cool’ place, not climatically but archaeologically. No other example of this fascinating architectural form has been reported from sub-Saharan Africa.

During our first encounter with the Mursi they denied that the platforms held any significance to contemporary life or general tribal identity. Despite this, the monuments lie within an area of the landscape considered sacred. The local name Dirikoro means ‘black earth’, a commodity found in pockets across the landscape. Such black earth is regarded as ‘good for spiritual things’ and the name itself is considered ‘powerful’. Moreover, the black earth is frequently used in ceremonial activities, and can be found daubed on the bodies of warriors, or revered for its healing properties.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 46. Click here to subscribe

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