Day 1,435: Lucy

Wed 05.12.12:

Ethiopia is a remarkable place, not least because it was the only African country not to suffer the indignity of colonisation, and not only for its immensely strong cultural identity: a country which boasts not only its own unique alphabet, but also its own unique was of telling the time (“three in the morning” means “three hours after the sun rises”). It, like Kenya and Tanzania, has pretty good shot at being the birthplace of modern humans. The discovery in the early 70s of ‘Lucy’, for a long time regarded as the so-called ‘missing link’ between apes and mankind, in the Afar Valley cemented Ethiopia as the physical anthropology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, embryology and genetics Mecca for anybody with the slightest interest in evolutionary biology. Any dimwits who honestly believe the world to be 6,000 years old, look away now: Lucy (or, to give her full name: Australopithecus Afarensis), the first early ape we found that walked upright is 3.2 MILLION years old.

Presuming Lucy is you decent ancestor (she’s more likely a cousin, but we’ll come to that later), there are at least 160,000 generations separating you and her. That’s an EPIC number of births, marriages and deaths.

Today I was up bright and early. I met with Tadi’s other CouchSurfer, a softly-spoken Kenyan doctor who called Dan. Dan had been in town for a medical conference and was flying back to Nairobi tonight, so before he left and with no visa shenanigans to be had today, we decided to team up and go see the sights of Addis Ababa. Top of the agenda: The National Museum… home of a certain Australopithecus Afarensis that I may have just been talking about.

The museum was interesting, but Lucy and her friends were definitely the stars of the show… there’s so many of them!

It’s almost a miracle that any fossils survive at all, so to see this many early hominids all in one place (some were replicas, but Lucy was definitely the real McCoy) was, for me, a treat beyond measure. It was also great getting Doctor Dan’s take on the morphology of dem bones dem bones dem dry bones: although our cranial volume is now ten times what Lucy’s was (a result of runaway sexual selection is the word on the street) the structure of our arms, hands, legs and feet has remained remarkably consistent over the past 3,000,000 years.

It one of the iron laws of evolution: things don’t evolve unless they are forced to: by the pressures of either natural selection or sexual selection. If you’re sitting pretty at the top of the food chain and there’s no advantage to be had by having a slightly bigger brain or brighter feathers than the other males, you ain’t going to see much in the way of evolution for millions of years. It’s the reason sharks and crocodiles have barely changed since the late Cretaceous.

Doctor Dan is currently training to be a neurosurgeon. When he qualifies, he’ll be one of just ten in the entire nation of Kenya: that’s one brain surgeon for every FIVE MILLION people. It’s a wonder they get time to sleep. He’ll enjoy a lifetime of being able to patronise any other living being (with the possible exception of rocket scientists) with the line “well, it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”

Rather thinking I may have missed my calling there…

After the national museum, we walked up to the Ethnological Museum (don’t bother asking for directions, the word ‘Ethnological’ isn’t even in my lexicon, never mind the pretty basic English you’ll find in Ethiopia).

The setting of the museum kinda stole the show I little bit: it’s the site of Ras Tafari’s former palace. Ras Tafari… sound familiar? Yes, that’s right: it’s where we get the name ‘Rastafarian’ from. Now put down the bong and listen to Uncle Graham. Back in the 1950s, some (presumably) dreadlocked black dudes in Jamaica were (understandably) bummed out at the concept of preying to the White Man’s God who almost definitely doesn’t exist. As the late great Christopher Hitchens once said: anything that can be stated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Now at the time there was a (Godspeed You) Black Emperor walking the Earth: Haile Selassie the Once and Future King of Abyssinia. Born Ras Tafari, Selassie had ruled Abyssinia since 1930. And, possibly because he abolished the Ethiopian slave trade, got Ethiopia admitted to the League of Nations in 1923 and ruled over a country that was the only one in the whole of Africa to survive Europe’s colonial scramble intact, he become a cult figure amongst the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora, soon being elevated to the status of a god.

The Ethiopians were a bit nonplussed by this turn of events. Many Ethiopians didn’t even like Selassie, never mind think he was some kind of god. In the wake of the 1972-74 famine, Selassie was deposed, thrown into the back of a Volkswagen and driven away to prison where he died under ‘mysterious circumstances’ a few years later (nah… he was murdered by his successor, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam). Some Rastas saw Ethiopia’s woes in the 1980s as divine retribution for killing their god. You know what though? At least Haile Selassie actually damn well existed, which is more than I can say for at least the 100 gods I can name and the millions that us foolish mortals pray to every day…

Not that he exists any more, you know, since he’s dead. But he definitely *did* exist at some point in history, and in my book that’s one up on Jesus…

Selassie’s palace grounds are now the location of the University of Ethiopia, and his former royal chambers, sitting rooms and the like have been converted into libraries, laboratories and lecture halls. The museum was a dimly lit (actually, there was a power cut, so it was pretty much unlit, good job I brought my video light eh?) collection of Ethiopian stuff: clothing, musical instruments, rather cartoonish murals depicting heart-warming stories from the Bible. Like this one: Well, maybe not.

All cultured out, we headed to the Piazza side of town (it’s amazing considering they were only here for a few years, how much legacy the Italians left here – honestly, best place in Africa for a decent pizza) and went for a coffee at the Tomoca Café. Ethiopia is the home of coffee, your daily cup of Joe was discovered here a good few eons ago, possibly by a goat farmer, nobody knows. One thing is for sure: when coffee was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, we went crazy for it – so much so that Pope Clement VIII’s minions tried to ban it, saying it tasted too good and therefore it must be the work of the Satan himself.

Yes, even in the Middle Ages, the devil had all the best tunes.

Tomoca is a bit of an Addis institution and while we were quaffing our quoffee, Doctor Dan and I got chatting with the owner who invited us to the grand opening of a second Tomoca tomorrow night – there’d be music, dancing, talks… and free coffee! I grabbed as many invites as I could. With any luck, by tomorrow morning I should have my visa for Egypt and by the afternoon I should be set to leave for Sudan early the next morning. An evening of coffee heaven to top it off? Just what the Doctor (Dan) ordered…

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Chris

    why couldn’t Clement VIII and his friends promote coffee, on the grounds that something that tastes THAT good MUST be the work of God himself?!

    pretty intrinsic flaw of some religious people’s approach, right there.

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