Lucy, Lalibela and the Lion of Judah

7 Jan

Some though not all of the content of this post is also in the photo-essay, Out of Abyssinia

With a cranial capacity of four hundred cc, roughly a third of yours, she’d neither bore you with small talk nor go in for morbid introspection. But she walked upright on two legs – all three foot six inches of her – and when, three and a quarter million years on, her near complete remains were found at a desiccated lake bed east of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, she sent shock­waves through a paleon­t­o­logical community forced now to quad­­ruple its estimate of how long hominids (next door to the apes on Primate Alley) have walked the earth. Over the next two decades the figure would be further revised upwards. So extrav­ag­ant­ly high is the ratio of informed speculation to hard fact (like trying, in the words of my Bradt Guide to Ethiopia, to guess the subject of a one thousand piece jigsaw from twenty scattered bits and no picture on the lid) that any sign­if­icant new find may throw into disarray much of what we thought we knew about who we are and how we got here, and oblige eminent scholars to eat Desper­ate Dan size slices of humble pie. Paleon­tolog­ic­­ally speak­ing the 1974 discovery of Lucy (the Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper being top play in camp at the time) was as sign­if­­ic­ant as it gets.

One early response was to embrace her as a direct ancestor, our gran so to speak. Subsequent finds, also in East Africa and no less startling – including strong indicators of dimorphism, with males not slightly but considerably bigger – suggest she is both less and more than that. Lucy is a great aunt at best, it seems, but likely to belong to a third hominid genus, alongside australo­pithecus, whose last branch died out a million years ago, and homo, of which we became sole survivors when for reasons we can only guess at, homo neanderthalis vanished from the scene between 25,000 and 100,000 years ago: the When being as hotly contested as the Why. With mitochon­d­rial DNA similar both to our own and that of our closest living relatives, chimp­an­zees, Lucy may yet prove the missing link; the smoking gun to establish beyond any shadow of doubt that we, homo sapiens sapiens, doubly wise in that we Know That We Know, are the spearhead of ten million years of prim­atic evolution powered by random genetic mutation and steered by natural select­ion. As it happens, at the time of Lucy’s discovery a team of linguists and zoo­log­ists were spending the decade trying to get Washoe, an unusually bright female chimp, to learn a non vocal form of natural language. The less-than-thrilling result of this pedagogic offen­sive being her mast­ery of the vocabulary and two-word syntax of a toddler on the thresh­hold of true language acquis­ition.

Which makes you think. As did the sobering experience, two days ago at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, of seeing Lucy in the bones. I’d first heard of her twenty years ago in an account by Richard Leakey as gripping for its multi-disciplinary detective work as its tentative conclus­ions, without ever believing I’d one day pay my respects in person.

* * *

I flew into Addis on Monday to be greeted at Bolė International with hugs, smiles and bunches of roses from two young men, nursing student Abebe (“Abburbah”) and social work student Worretta, I’d not set eyes on before. Both have had their life prospects boosted beyond their dreams by the funding of their studies by a good friend of mine and a good friend of hers. And both have proved better company than anyone could wish. Intelligent and well inform­ed, kind and courteous, they’ve not only shown me sides of Addis and surrounds I could not otherwise have seen, but passed me on like a relay baton to different nodes in their Northern Ethiopian net­work.

Lalibela is a case in point. On my travels I use cheap hotels, mainly because I’m a tight-fist but also because they allow marginally less super­ficial exposure to local ways, it being a reliable rule that the more you pay for a room in Asia, Africa or Latin America, the less the experience will differ from that of a stay in London or Los Angeles. But with Ethiopia’s Orth­o­dox Calendar more Julian than Greg­or­ian (though in point of fact neither) today is Christmas Day. Any place of religious signif­ic­an­ce will be jam-packed from now to Epiphany with pilgrims. Before leaving the UK I email­ed a hotel in Lalibela, holiest of holy towns and famed for its rock hewn churches. Bradt said five pounds. The hotel replied within hours to say, yes, it did indeed have a bed for me at just eighty-five dollars the night. Fat chance. I’d only consid­er­ed booking at all on the say-so of my friend the bene­factor. In my other third world wand­er­­ings, arriving on spec in a new town at nightfall generally works out, with the added bonus of leaving intact my cherished self image as a freewheeling nomad for three weeks twice a year. In any case, I’d reasoned, should word on the ground caution against an unplanned trip to sacred Lalibela, well, I’d drop the idea in favour of places where piety was not driving accomm­odation costs into the stratosphere.

Worretta and Abebe, natives of the place and perhaps seeing my visit as a vicarious alleviation of their own pinings (the trip being too costly for them to have taken even once in their three years of exile) made it plain they held my plan B in low regard. Truth be told, it appalled them. Sure, it was their own gloomy prophecies of every last room snatched up in a price war of the faithful that had led me in the first place to consider giving the town a miss. Equally clear though was the fact that in their eyes I might as well visit Agra and skip the Taj Mahal, or spend a week getting stoned in Cambodia and not trouble Angkor Wat with my presence. Out came Abebe’s mobile for protracted negot­iations in Amharic, the upshot being that when I arrive in Lalibela the day after tomorrow I’ll be met by Abebe’s brother: a term, as best I can make out, applicable to any male relative (and Ethiopians have these in spades) of broadly equal status. This brother will take me to a superior hotel, the Seven Olives, which for reasons I don’t suppose I’ll ever uncover has a room for me at thirty dollars a night. Granted, that’s still four times what I’m used to paying anywhere south of Malaga but I guess my wallet will stand the trauma just this once. Should anything go wrong, I am to use the phone and local SIM loaned by Abebe for all to be smooth­ed out.

As if by magic.

* * *

Early evening. With the sun low on the horizon I sat out front of a cafe on main street to watch the traffic: mules and cyclists, footsloggers and women from the fields. They carry themselves well, these women, proudly Abyssinian though most sport cheap cotton prints from the sweat­shops of Bangladesh and China. Woodsmoke from hidden courtyards drifted over the rooftops and the first cooking scents of the night were wafting my way. There was injera, the ubiquitous sourdough from the nation’s staple cereal, tef. From what I guessed were wealthy households – though at this time of year all but the destitute would want to push the boat out a little – I could smell chicken, spit-roasted in butter and berbere (“burberry”) the country’s fiery answer to masala. And of course there was the seductive aroma, too late in the day for me alas, of coffee roasting in a dry pan. Ethiop­ians may be off the mark in claiming to have exported to India the virtues of spicy cooking (and even if they are not, the latter cuisine long ago surpassed theirs in range, depth and subtlety) but they are correct in saying they gave the world coffee, this being the one place on earth where it grows naturally.

Like a child I gently raised and lowered my drinking straw, varying the distance from its tip to the bottom of my glass as I sampled in turn the pulp of three fruits – strawberry, mango and avocado – layered like traffic lights within. It’s a rare treat now that I know the magic words, ie se’kar, to stop them bucketing sugar onto the base layer of avocado.

I’d been the past two days in Axum, Ethiopia’s northern­most town and one-time capital of an empire that stretched to Sudan in the west, Southern Arabia in the east. You can barely move there without banging your shins on collapsed stelae, or falling into tombs dug out in the days of Jeremiah: all remnants of a civilisation that traded as far afield as Greece and India. Today’s Axum, cut off from its former Red Sea port, forty miles to the north in what is now Eritrea, has 56,000 inhabitants, an unfeas­ibly large church and reassuringly small tourist industry. Locals who looked theoretically sane told me with straight faces that its empire was ruled by a dynasty able to trace an unbroken line from a dalliance between the Queen of Sheba (Sabae and Axum being near synon­ymous) and that canny resolver of maternity disputes, King Solomon. The line ended in 1974 when its final manifest­at­ion, ‘Lion of Judah’ Haile Sellasse, was ousted and, it was widely reported, personally smothered with a pillow by renowned charm-boat, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Naturally, Mengistu gave the Amhar­ic equiv­al­ent of not me guv but to borrow from the incisive Mandy Rice-Davies of Profumo fame, well he would say that, wouldn’t he? For sure, and with all due respect to Rastaf­arian myth, evidence of the Lion of J. doing anything of value for his people is thin on the ground to say the least, but even patrician incompetence can look benign when weighed against psychotic interpretations of Marx-Leninism.

I’d spent the day walking in mountains stuffed with biblical heritage. Unlike the rest of Africa, Ethiopia’s Christianity is not only independent of Europe’s but predates it by several centuries, while the story of Judaism here is no less fascinating. Disowned by Orthodox Jews, Ethiopia’s Falasha (Amharic for ‘exiled’) were not received into the fold until 1975, when the Chief Rabbi of Jerus­a­l­em declared them authentic Jews whose isolation on the wrong side of the heathen Caliphate (echoes here of Christendom’s Prest­er John legend) had caused them to lose their way, certainly, but that in no way warranted forfeiture of their rights under the so-called Law of Return. Mengistu’s Derg, which had forbidden the teaching of Judaism and locked up its leaders on fabricated charges of zionist espionage, formed an additional hurdle to their emigration but this too proved not insup­er­able. In the event, those Falasha who went to Israel found their dark skins drawing the kind of welcome received by the Windrush generation of Jamaicans in Britain. Many are now back in Ethiopia.

Before heading for the hills that morning I’d photographed two beautiful girls as they laid on the Abyss­inian coffee ceremony, full works, while speaking longingly of New York City. Back at my hotel that afternoon I’d watched with envy of my own as two young Germans, tall, tanned and muscular, strapped water barrels to a jeep in the leafy courtyard. They were set to rise at five next morning to cheat the sun on dirt roads to Tigray and the sixth century monastery at Debre Damo, which they’d vividly depicted atop its cliff-edged plateau in an Arabian Nights dreamscape, accessible only by roped ascent of four hundred metres of sheer rock. Next time, I’d consoled myself …  For now I’m confined to places served by public transport, though the word is you can get off the beaten track here by flagging down a 4WD to negotiate a price for vehicle and driver. Amharic is not needed, American dollars being the language of choice.

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