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The two archaeological projects in the Danakil Depression of Eritrea

Eritrea owns a significant territory on the Rift Valley – a vital place for evolution research for several decades.


However, due to successive political instability in the region, the area was not favorable for research till the mid of the 90s. However, after four years of Eritrea’s total independence (In 1995), a first geological study instigated in the area. Essentially, the research was focusing on understanding the Geology of the poorly understood northern end part of the Rift Valley (the Eritrean Danakil Depression). However, the area came to the attention of scientists especially right after the finding of the almost complete skull of the now famous “lady of Buia”. Since then – thanks to the paramount information, – this region is now considered amongst Africa’s most promising areas for evolution research.

Currently, two independent and joint research projects are running at this inhospitable area of the Eritrean Danakil Depression, at about 100 to 120-kilometer distance from the port city of Massawa. In this paper, the very brief development and activities of these two running projects (the Buia and Engel Ela-Ramud, Projects) will be presented.

The Buia Project

The Buia village is found in the Northern Red Sea Region that is, about 31 km far from the Gulf of Zula. The first ever evidence related to our direct ancestors is coming from this area. This Basin is found at the intersection of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the East African Rifts.

For more than two decades, researchers have been working in this place. Despite, the harsh environment and difficult accommodation facilities research have been continuing in this area for decades. Since the foundation of the project, the local people have been the backbone of the project and they actively involved in all the programs of the project. The Afar people are the most important guides in the area, without them the work at the Eritrean Danakil would be impossible.

The Buia project was started in late 1994 under the auspices of the Eritreo-Italian research institutions. Currently, the project is running under the supervision of the Commission of Culture and Sports. The Buia Project was preliminarily initiated with the aim of geological studies which led to the discovery of important mammal fossils from the quaternary deposits. However, the importance of this area amplified after the discovery of the almost complete Human cranium (skull) at the foot of the Aalat Mountain in 1995. This skull was found in association with several stone tools, large mammal fossil bones including fishes, crocodiles … etc.

The map shows the area of the extended East African Rift Valley created by the movement of tectonic plates.

More than two decades of fieldwork at the Eritrean Danakil Depression resulted in the discovery of over 200 sites, within about 1000 meters thick sedimentary succession, which is so unique in the African context. The sedimentary deposits that preserve the fossil specimens of our human ancestors and the large mammalian fauna are dated to around 1.0 million years before present. Amongst these the most prominent localities include: Maebele, Dioli, Aalad, Aalad-Amo, Mulhuli-Amo…etc. These are the most prominent localities with the evidence of well-preserved fossils of humans in association with stone tools and large mammals.

The Buia area was part of the huge savanna dominated paleoenvironments of East Africa and the Depression is characterized by sedimentary environments dominated by alluvial fans and high energy streams, with some swampy to lacustrine ponds. The strategic location of the Buia basin in the Rift Valley has great significance in understanding mammalian diversification, turnover, dispersal, and extinction. Besides, the discovery of the almost complete human skull from Aalad was predominantly, a scientific breakthrough. This skull is attributed to a female individual, and researchers nicknamed her, “the lady of Buia”. To date, evidence of a complete skull of Homo between 1.4 million years to 650,000 years is scarce in Africa. This unique fossil finding from Buia filled the gap between Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis that is, between 1.4 Million years and 650,000 years.

In the last two decades, various scientists came across substantial evidence that shows the complexity and importance of the evolution process from this region. The result of these investigations shows that the wide range of the Buia area was characterized by unstable climatic fluctuations and was inhabited with diversified animals and humans, around 1.0 million years back. This chronology marks to the complex evolutionary period, where future Buia research is expected to unlock. The region has immense potential to contribute information related to the poorly known part of our evolutionary history and the harsh environment occurred during that time.

The Engel Ela-Ramud Project

The Engel Ela – Ramud Project was started in the year 2012. It is a joint project between the Eritrean Commission of Culture and Sports and the Spanish Institute of IPHES. The project was started by three researchers and with a very limited resource. However, thanks to the promising discoveries, each year it is growing. The Engel Ela and Ramud are two isolated villages found on the Danakil Depression of Eritrea. They are found at about 20 and 30 km south of the Buia Basin, respectively. Both are found at a few kilometers distance from the Eritrea -Ethiopia border.

Engel-Ela Ramud project members of the year 2019

The Engel Ela- Ramud Basin, is part of the extended African Rift valley. The Basin was home to our human-related ancestors and other animals millions of years before present. This Basin owns geology that preserves indispensable information of our evolutionary history. Based on, preliminary dating results, the Engel Ela -Ramud Basin owns older localities compared to the Buia Basin. Today these localities have the oldest known evidence related to our human ancestors in the Eritrean soil.

The Engel Ela- Ramud Basin is contributing striking importance in understanding the evolution of African ecosystems during the Plio-Pleistocene times. This place is less than 500 km far from where Professor Donald Johanson, before 40 years, found almost complete fossil evidence of Australopithecus afarensis (known as “Lucy”) from Ethiopia, dated to about 3.2 million years ago.

The last seven years field works in the Engel Ela-Ramud Basin has resulted in a discovery of a rich record of animal remains and stone tools. The stone tool technology from this area corresponds to various technological complexes and this is attesting to the evolving nature of human cognitive behavior. Majority of the large mammal fossil record from this Basin corresponds to hyenas, elephants, horses, giraffes, buffaloes, large antelopes, gazelle, pigs, rhinos…etc.

The discovery of several mammalian fossil bones from the Basin shows that the area has tremendous potential of contributing new information in the future. So far, several fossil evidence which was not known from the Buia Basin is documented from this place. The Engel Ela – Ramud Basin is potentially very interesting in evolution research.

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