My Trip to the Late Pleistocene
What I learnt I lacked from visiting the tribes of The Omo Valley
The Omo Valley in southwest Ethiopia, and more broadly the Great Rift Valley, is the unofficial sanctum for anthropologists and archaeologists. Some of the most significant and telling relics of our evolutionary past were discovered here, including several different species of Homo skeletons and enough stone tools to pebble-dash the Fernsehturm.
It’s understood that Sapiens emerged in and from this area around 200,000 years ago, although this figure is constantly in flux.
The other draw is that it’s home to a number of dwindling prehistoric tribes, all with their own languages and customs - a time capsule conceivably offering an insight into the beginnings of civilisation. But these communities don’t so much as represent our origins in some novel atavistic way, they characterise in purest form our contemporary social dynamics, hierarchies and groupthink.
I wanted to feel my static hunter-gatherer brain buckle under intrigue and see if it could reverse engineer itself from the unwavering thought patterns of modern tribalism to some sort of bona fide default mode. I wanted to taste the innateness and catch a peek at something revelatory - it’s with these totally misguided, overambitious pretentions that I went there.
Addis Ababa, July 23rd
It was the dyspeptic hours of the morning and the 5 of us were packing provisions into the open arse of a 4WD - in my head this Mitshibushi was the DeLorean taking us back in time to the hometown of people and I was a semi-shameful, human-zoo tourist version of Marty McFly.
The day before, myself, my girlfriend Becca and 3 other backpackers we’d recently met had arranged to rent a 4WD for 7 days to travel to and around the Omo River Valley. We were told that it was a legal obligation to hire a driver, so we did; his name was Abay (Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown).
After 7 hours of mostly dirt road and unsuccessfully convincing each other that we’re not disrespectful, amoral vulgarians, we arrived at the base town of Arba Minch. Wasn’t a place I thought would live long in the memory but within a couple of hours I saw a little kid playing SWIV 3D on an old Dell computer, a Chinese tourist slipping into a feculent ravine with his Nikon and a guard of a hotel fruitlessly going apeshit at a tiny hydrophobic dog.
That night we decided on a ‘tribe itinerary’ for the next few days and after reading a chapter of Guns, Germs and Steel where it covers the precedence and mystery of where I was at that very moment, that guilty feeling of being a senseless sightseer had more or less been redressed by awe/my self-serving ego.
The next morning, after a green chilli omelette we headed off to visit the Konso tribe. The Konso were an agrarian society that made most of their income from selling coffee beans, mostly tilled by the women. The 12-18 year old boys all live together and are appointed roles such as fireman or ‘ambulance man’, once 18 they have to brave the Social Darwinist rite of passage ‘tossing the stone’. If they want validation and want to get married they have to demonstrate their maturity by tossing a big oblate stone over their head, twice. I tried it and it wasn’t easy, couldn’t help but think of the handful of brawn-bereft young men condemned to forever tossing alone.
When we arrived we were greeted by giggling children, they asked us for soap, pens and clothes – which we had come prepared for. I pretended to negotiate a trade with one of the girls; a 20-pack of Bics for her necklace made from insect wings. But she insisted with the help of Google Translate that her vintage opalescent beetle-winged bijouterie was an 80-pack at worst. Her adorable brother, eagerly tugging at my shirt, asked if he could show me something – he picked up a stick and with a committed expression wrote ‘Rooney’ and the Nike swish in the dirt. I high fived him, borrowed the stick and wrote ‘I think I’m on the fence about globalisation’.
We were shown around the stone walled village by our guide for the day, Kika, a young man who apostatised for the capital to learn English and get an education. His father no longer speaks to him.
Unlike most of the other Omotic communities in the area the Konso are not animists, they are monotheists and worship the god Waaq. A social stratification system called gadaa- a type of generation-grading shared by other Oromo cultures – is also practiced and includes high priests and even a cult of phallicism.
The Konso were amiable people – the elders not so much, but probably had good reason, they were palpably proud and for the most part resistant to modernity and the assistances of the mzungu (white people). Their surliness put us in good stead for the next tribe.
“It wasn’t that I was jealous of belonging to a group defined by its obdurate values and bloody-minded loyalty (although maybe I was). Just that centre-of-gravity feeling of being part of something that’s bigger than me’’
Before we left for the hour drive from Jinka to the settlements, the owner of the place we were staying at offered us, with wide-eyed encouragement, a load of khat. A native plant that if you chew enough of gives you an amphetamine-like buzz. It takes a lot of rictus faced chews though and when it finally comes around it peaks within minutes.
Sunset was half an hour away and we were off-road en route to one particular Hamar hamlet that was completely secluded on the savannah. We saw it centred under the skyline and sized it up to be about 10 minutes away, but it was like we were on a car treadmill, the huts remained aloof for ages, they just sat there in the vista like little Lego models.
I got out of the car and as I removed the residual bits of bitter khat leaves from the roof of my mouth with my tongue, the crepuscular rays warmed the breezes brushing against my feet - the khat definitely seemed to compliment the grand surroundings.
As a polygynist tribe, we were unsurprised to see only women when we arrived, housekeeping and babysitting. “Men are still out hunting but will be back soon”, one woman cautioned us. I wasn’t sure why this was bad, but our guide (an ex-member of the tribe) said we should leave before they return.
The women, the married women, had whipping scars on their backs and plaited-metal collars around their necks - the mutilations from a courtship ceremony and the choker from the nuptials. A couple of women had some serious welts that looked like skin grafts performed by a bear. Others had a waxy matted look, like a nest of baby snakes under the skin. It was a custom they loved apparently. They said it was fun and wasn’t as painful as not being chosen.
We went into one of the huts where a few ladies were brewing coffee, as two of them studied the red ribbon from Becca’s straw hat, later snatching it off, our guide told us that the Hamar people believe in mingi - the ritualistic killing of disabled or cursed infants and children. A traditional superstition that deems the evil invalids so impure that they don’t even receive a proper burial. It’s the elders that decide this fate and they were a pretty frosty bunch, so I puffed my ventolin inhaler into my execrable lungs in private.
All of a sudden there was commotion outside, the women had seen the men returning in the distance and began to busy themselves with mealtime preparation. We could just about discern a few of them armed with Kalashnikovs, so we downed the coffee and left.
The next day we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience the monthly market in the area. A market where several tribes gather to trade livestock, crops and even guns, but it was mostly Hamar people there pissed on tella, a home brewed beer made from teff and sorghum. I asked to take a picture of one of the men drinking tella from a gourd, by raising my camera and pulling a De Niro face. He warmly obliged but it galvanised one elderly souse from his spot into flailing his cane at us and even grabbing Becca by the arm. He was shot moments later and disposed of without burial. Mingi.
Later a curious member of the Aari tribe came up to me for a charade-based chat about a subject way too ambitious for the communicative medium of shouting loud with your hands. It was something about artexing I was later told. He was very warm and chipper, I took his picture and then learnt that the language of the Aari people is a language without its own writing system. Which I found fascinating – why didn’t their language have a corresponding writing system, surely that’s an obvious social advantage? And then to think of all the expired languages of history that at least had inscribed artefacts to furnish some proof of them ever existing in the first place – but how many remarkable languages that may have elevated the relationship between mind and milieu have vanished with the last words of the last tribe member?
A couple of hours north to a more temperate climate is the Guge Mountains, home to the Dorze, a tribe best known for their beehive-looking homesteads. Giant 2-storey domed huts made from wood poles and woven bamboo, that left me with a kind of unfounded picaresque feeling. I guess it’s because the village felt so unique, especially when you look around and see just how many edifices there are outstripping the surrounding banana trees. And maybe also because the trip so far had been so episodic with the diversity of cultures and settings that it was like planet-hopping in Star Wars – I’m not likening the Dorze people to aliens but the aesthetics were alien to me and actually come to think of it wasn’t too dissimilar from the Ewok dwellings of Endor. The huts, which are also mobile, were really cosy inside but smelt smog stained, some were over a century old though and a lot of that smoke was probably in an effort to smother the resident termites.
The Dorze are a self-contained community that get most of their income from cotton weaving and selling banana leaf craftwork but had embraced the goods and chattels of modernity more than any other tribe in the region. They had phones, wore t-shirts and jeans, some had radios, 2 had cars, one guy even had a top-shelf blender in his kitchen. Having said that, most things were made from the bounty of the non-fruit bearing false banana tree and its massive durable leaves, which I now understand to be an almost incomparably versatile material. They make bowls from it, hats, umbrellas, bags, baskets, footballs, instruments, string and the best banana bread I’ve ever had (made from the leaves).
Late afternoon we were invited to try YoYoYoYoYoYo, a custom that entails banana bread with local honey and hot chillies, chased by 3 shots of Dorze Schnapps. Afterwards we went to another village near by to try honey wine, which is cheap, not as sickly as it sounds and served in a bulbous glass flask. There were no women in the bar, just very friendly middle aged men smoking and struggling to avert their gaze from the 2 Israeli girls. Noah - one of the Israeli girls - still reeling from the shots, passed out before she could finish her first flask and was then sick in the alleyway and on my flip-flops.
“Even the hikikomoris among us have a buried soft spot for togetherness – it’s an evolutionary advantage that’s daubed all over our double helix.”
Their dramatic look of studded scars and huge lip plates is the cynosure and ‘crowd-puller’ of the region. They’re so peerlessly emblematic of even just the word tribe, that any Buzzfeed-like article vaguely concerning the topic of tribes will be reliably accompanied with a generic stock image of the Mursi.
Despite the mutual fascination we seemed to share with most of the tribes, the 5 of us felt more and more like gawky colonialists. And I’d say with the Mursi people this feeling curdled; our fascination with them was openly unrequited. They seemed to be enervated by our presence and appeared to disdainfully convey the universal dead-eyed countenance of ‘you’re an absolute ringpiece mate’. When our car pulled up to their village in the middle of a arid steppe, there were already 4 American tourists there about to leave. So I very lazily just put it down to that.
Naked children ran up to us encouraging us to take pictures, then in an entitled and matter-of-fact manner put their hands out for money. “Mr, Mr, 3 birr for one photo”.
It was icky and awkward. I felt stupid and disappointed in myself, what was I doing here? Of course they hated us, it would be weird if they didn’t, I wanted them to know this and I wanted to apologise. But Abay, our driver, explained to us in a way that he had clearly been briefed for - in the incident of human-safari guilt– that they had chosen this lifestyle. They’re not coerced into some sort of ethno-pageantry by the governments tourist board, it’s a protected area, it’s just a bit of easy extra cash for them and in fact shaves off a few hours of work a day for leisure time. They don’t feel patronised, but they do find our interest in them silly and can get a bit impatient.
We were definitely patronising them, nonetheless, I had my camera out ready for portraits halfway through Abay’s invitation to absolve ourselves.
The Mursi are agro-pastoralists and are part of a larger ethnic group called Nilotes or Nilotic peoples, noted for their Vantablack skin and svelte, ectomorphic builds.
The men had guns, the married women had lip plates, but both had patterned tribal markings and scruffy savannah-steampunk headpieces made from sundries and animal trophies, like hippo tusks and hyena teeth.
The scarification ritual is performed by an elder with a thorn and razor, the thorn to pull at the piece of skin and the razor to slice the tip, leaving a recessed divot that eventually heals as a little glossy bump. The scars intimate beauty, strength and adulthood in the tribe, although children can volunteer, just so long as they gather some serious sangfroid - as much as a moue is said to bring shame on a family.
The full-size Frisbee lip plates were really only worn to entice tourists apparently and for the most part the plates are only adorned for occasions, it’s actually a practice that’s beginning to disappear as a new generation decide to reject it. But the most mawkish of the Musri girls romanticising the merits of orthodoxy, undergo; the removal of 2-4 lower teeth, a one inch incision on their bottom lip and a ‘stage 1’ wooden peg introduced through the slit. This is all done a few months ahead of the girls marriage, by the kinswomen or the girl’s mother, several weeks later after incremental changes to the diameter of the peg, the bottom lip is stretched to a floppy leather hoop. The final plate, a clay disc, sometimes wood, measures from 8 - 20 cm and is designed by the bride. Some anthropologists claim that the varying plate sizes originally related to the bride price, or the dowry, others say it’s just an ornamentation of pride and identity.
“In this secular era of globalist societies where even the workplace is increasingly loosing its union membership, what is there on offer that’s ideologically ‘tempered’ and doesn’t totally denude you of individuality? Where to source this inborn sense of belonging?”
20km east of the South Sudan border and 20km north of the Kenyan border near the disputed land of The Ilemi Triangle, live the semi-nomadic Daasanach people. Their land was a dust bowl, a dirt wasteland meeting the skyline with no interruptions; this particular group we visited though had the benefit of the Omo River lapping on its doorstep. Like the Mursi, the Daasanach are also agropastoral and Nilotic, they herd goats and cattle and when the delta floods they can grow maize, pumpkin and sorghum. Their hotchpotch huts are made from branches, animal hides and miscellaneous bits of plastic and corrugated iron, but despite the plastic tiles, some with faded Fed-Ex logos, this environment was the most I had felt like a time traveller, an anachronism in a diorama of ancient man.
The tribe has trust issues; infidelity is punishable by death and they practice female circumcision, which when asked about they respond with a clenched jaw and a sluggish blink. Not that any of us really wanted to chew the very dusty cud with them over cultural relativism and cultural imperialism. An ex-member of the tribe told us that the Christian missionaries proselytising in the area were ‘working on it’ apparently, whatever that means.
One very cute little girl, wearing a cheetah pelt and two little bits of car tire tread for shoes, came up to me to show off her pet; a petrified brown finch, ceaselessly trying to flap loose from the twine leash tied around its leg – I told her that if she instead had a pet kite, then she’d have an actual kite kite. She said she knew that. I asked how old she was but nobody knew, many of them measure their age by ‘the rains’, which with a future beset with global warming conjured up the mental image of her 40 years from now as an iffy 12 year old.
The division of labour here was similar to the other tribes but with the ‘added advantage’ of a class system, the cattle-less lower class known as The Dies, live away from the rest of the tribe on the shores where they run their breezy enterprise of hunting hippos and man-eating crocodiles, which they trade with the herders for other meats.
As we left, the Daasanach all came together in assembly to talk and to have sorghum porridge for lunch. It was beautiful, everyone seemed so content and connected in a way I’d rarely seen in western society. This was a multi-generational kinship of about 40 people that’s survival was wholly contingent on each other, and it just looked right. I felt how tight-knit they were and their happiness and solidarity seemed to actuate the firmly established part of my brain, that substrate hunter-gather headspace that’s disposed for a sense of belonging free from present-day neuroses and 21st century cynicism. I wanted to put my name down for an initiation ceremony there and then.
It wasn’t that I was jealous of belonging to a group defined by its obdurate values and bloody-minded loyalty (although maybe I was). Just that centre-of-gravity feeling of being part of something that’s bigger than me – a good cause worth fighting for with other people. I realised in that moment how much I was hardwired for this need, we all are, even the hikikomoris among us have a buried soft spot for togetherness – it’s an evolutionary advantage that’s daubed all over our double helix. All of us are still whirring on the same chalky motherboard as our ancestors, and really, until the dubious prospect of transhumanism comes into force there’s no software update in any meaningful sense.
So, in this secular era of globalist societies where even the workplace is increasingly loosing its union membership, what is there on offer that’s ideologically ‘tempered’ and doesn’t totally denude you of individuality? Where to source this inborn sense of belonging? Don’t say humanism – the tribe of humanity – we can all agree humanism is great but it’s just too big and intangible to glut a group-shaped hole.
The raconteur and activist Stephen Jenkinson said that “What we suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us”
Looks like it’s the local 5-a-side charity football team then or weekend canvassing in the cul-de-sacs.
I don’t know. There’s definitely a lack of communal institutions and there are few groups out there that don’t pivot around politics, sports or religion. Maybe it’s just not possible in the modern world to truly tap into that proper purpose-driven camaraderie without going to war with the cyborg transhumans of the future.
So sit tight and remember to select the ‘remind me later’ option when the update eventually comes around.
Photography by Sean Blacknell