The first pioneering geological and palaeontological investigations into the Lower Omo Valley were carried out between 1932-33 when its value to the study of human origins was first highlighted by Professor Camille Arambourg’s “Mission Scientifique de l’Omo”. During World War 2 allied military forces occupied southern Ethiopia which provided a platform, in 1942, for L.S.B.Leakey to send members of his Kenyan staff to collect further specimens. Many of these were lost in transit, but the observations were convincing enough for the instigation of further work. However, owing to political unrest after the war it was not until the 1960s that a return to the Omo was prompted with The International Omo Research Expeditions (1968-1976) in which the palaeontology and early prehistory of the Lower Omo was significantly enhanced. A number of more recent research projects have contributed to the growing understanding of the valley’s significance to human origins, although these are situated along the southernmost stretches of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley.
Since the late 19th century the Omo River has attracted explorers from across Europe whose accounts of the many cultures, animals and wonderful lands remain compelling today. Donaldson Smith’s expedition of 1900 is pictured to the right. The first detailed study of Mursi culture began in the late 1960s by David Turton as part of doctoral research. Submitted to the University of London in 1973, “The Social Organisation of the Mursi: A pastoral tribe of the Lower Omo Valley” recounts in a small passage, ‘I was also shown a number of circular stone arrangements’ which the Mursi ascribe to previous inhabitants of the valley, although how long ago was unknown. 19th and early 20th century explorers of the shores around Lake Rudolph (Lake Turkana) in Kenya had described similar arrangements, and archaeological investigations of these have since proven them to be of considerable antiquity, even thousands of years old. But the Mursi circles had been forgotten or overlooked. Indeed the Lower Omo Valley was regarded as a place of origins or a traditional land in a modern world; it was still not known what, if anything, lay in between.
Discussions in 2008 with Oxford anthropologist David Turton rekindled an interest in these Mursi ‘circular stone arrangements’. Exquisite black and white photographs from the Turton archive of unusual stone formations at Dirikoro in Mursiland, and circular clusters of stone barely visible beneath the growth of vegetation, but tantilisingly inset with vertically upright stones were gazed upon with imaginative thought. Could these be human-made, or are they some strange quirk of geological formation? Surely the former. And if so, then what could they be, and how old? Are they part of a megalithic tradition of construction that has been found along the Lake Turkana to the south, and the Rift Valley to the north?
These were surely important and deserved investigation.
The first trial season of fieldwork began in August 2009. A handful of chipped stones were found during the slow trek into Mursiland. The start was promising. But then several long days of constant walking in +40 degrees C heat with little or nothing to show was a disheartening blow. Eventually the team realised that we had all passed over a vaguely circular arrangement of stone several days before, but it was partially buried and we were unfamiliar with these lands. Over the next few days the gradual clearance of vegetation and soily overburden revealed a remarkable sight and the first of 25 “benna kulugto” platforms. But these are just one of a number of surprising and in many ways unique results from the project so far.