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Melka Kunture, as it can be seen today, is part of a gently undulating landscape of the Upper Awash Valley, in the highlands of Ethiopia, at c. 2000m asl. All over the Upper Pliocene and the Pleistocene, tectonic activity led to the deepening of the demi-graben depression where the meandering paleo-Awash deposited alluvia. Through time, parts of the paleo-landscape were buried again and again, blanketed both by alluvial deposits, and by volcanic deposits produced by the nearby volcanoes. Accordingly, past surfaces, littered with archaeological implement and prehistoric animal remains, were covered by sediments and escaped destruction. There is now evidence by natural erosion on the banks of the little gullies of the local tributaries of the Awash.
Archaeological excavations allowed for the recovery of the prehistoric heritage and of the related scientific information. More than 80 archaeological layers have been identified during 50 years of archaeological research; 30 of them have been extensively excavated over surfaces ranging from 50 m2 to 250 m2. Tens of thousands of lithic tools, faunal and sometime human remains (Homo erectus sensu lato and archaic Homo sapiens) have been discovered. Many more are preserved in an area of more than 100 km2, and wait for future research and for future generations of scholars.
The visible thickness of these deposits is around 30 m, but the cumulative thickness of the various levels is about 100 m. The archaeological deposits of Melka Kunture are a unique archive of human evolution, spanning over more than 1.7 million years, from Oldowan layers, to a very long and complex sequence of Acheulean layers, to Middle Stone Age and eventually by Late Stone Age layers. All over this sequence, a diversified range of lithic raw materials of volcanic origin were available for knapping by humans: each had different properties and qualities, all were carefully tested and, when found suitable, were eventually exploited. The volcanic rocks utilized for knapping were different types of basalts, ignimbrites, trachytes and trachybasalts on one hand, and obsidian on the other hand. These two groups of raw materials present completely different qualities for stone knapping. Accordingly, Melka Kunture can be seen as a laboratory for human evolution, where the requisites for trial and error procedures were naturally available, fostering the development of cognitive capabilities in humans.
Obsidian is especially important, and appears virtually at each site, starting from the archaeological record with the Oldowan at 1.7 million years. At some sites obsidian is the only material used. The primary source is Balchit, a dome-flow which is also part of the archaeological area. Erosion of the Balchit outcrops and re-deposition by the tributaries of the Awash eventually led to the formation of rich and numerous secondary sources, which did not escape from the attention of prehistoric humans. Obsidian exploitation was still under way in recent historic times, when this naturally occurring volcanic glass was used in everyday activities, as in curing animal hides. The obsidian dome-flow of Balchit is spotted by extensive flaking areas. Cores, flakes, blades and debris have accumulated on thousands of square meters since prehistory and well into historic times.
Criteria (iii) : The archaeological record of Melka Kunture spans over 1.7 million years, and ends in historic times. Prehistoric human groups made a living out of natural resources, both in terms of vegetables, which rarely survive, and in terms of wild animal resources, which left ample archaeological evidence. Obsidian and other locally available volcanic rocks were knapped and used to prepare implements. Lithic implements that littered past landscapes are being retrieved by scientific excavations, allowing to reconstruct prehistoric human activity. The success of human evolution and adaptations history which shaped modern humankind is beautifully evidenced in many archaeological sites. Thanks to sedimentary processes which allowed preservation, there is a continuous record over the Middle and Upper Pleistocene. Such a preservation is exceptional, and documents through an extremely long span of time the ways of life of little nomadic human groups.
Criteria (iv) : Paleo-landscapes rarely survive erosion, and when they do, are often hidden by a load of sediments deposited after they were not any more in existence. In the case of Melka Kunture, there was a subtle balance of processes leading to preservation and destruction, and fragments of very ancient, fossil landscapes are evidenced by ongoing, if limited erosion in the gullies of the Awash tributaries. Visibility, in turn, allows scientific research and the reconstruction of past events. But the whole area is better described as a palimpsest of superimposed fragments of fossil paleo-landscapes, on top of which rural activity nowadays goes on. Melka Kunture is a repository and archive of well preserved fragments of landscapes of Pleistocene age, which includes great amounts of archaeological remains documenting the environment and ways of life of prehistoric human groups.
There is also evidence of the development of a very special landscape at Balchit, up to very recent times. Due to the continuous exploitation of the obsidian dome-flow to produce cutting and scraping implements, the modern landscape of the area is littered by millions of flakes, blades, cores and débris, which accumulated in late prehistoric and historic times. Heaps of by-products of obsidian knapping activities alternate with natural exposures, and with glittering stretches of land. This is an impressive sight over thousands of square meters, where randomly abandoned volcanic-glass implements reflect the light of the sun. The relationship between modern human groups and obsidian sources is in full sight.
Criteria (v) : Most of the archaeological evidences of Melka Kunture belong to times when neither farming nor herding were practiced. Humans belonging both to Homo erectus (sensu lato) and, later, to Homo sapiens were invariably organised in little groups, which walked from place to place to make full use of naturally available resources. The latter ones were closely monitored, when occurring seasonally, as vegetable and animal resources; and systematically tested, when locally outcropping, as rocks suitable for knapping. The building-up of a vast knowledge of the qualities and potential use of any kind of naturally occurring resources is reflected by the successful and long-term adaptation to the highlands of Ethiopia. This, in turn, is fully evidenced in the very long archaeological record of Melka Kunture, over 1,7 million years.
Melka Kunture has been the focus of long-term archaeological, palaeontological, and geological research over the last 50 years.. The results have been disseminated in the scientific community following the standard procedures of participation to international congresses; publication in scientific journals of recognized reputation; publication of a comprehensive monograph; publication online. The wealth of accumulated information has been used for the “Description” and “Justification of Outstanding Universal Value”, which are fully supported by scientific evidence properly published and made available in approximately 100 scientific papers. This includes the age of the deposits, the determination of the human remains, the determination of the fossil animal species, the analysis of the technical achievements of prehistoric human groups, as reflected in the archaeological record, the reconstruction of the general environment.
The collections made during the many excavation campaigns are kept and curated at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, where they are available for further scientific analysis.
Outside the scientific circles, the information has been disseminated to a wide public, which can visit the website, as well as the museum built in the archaeological area.
Archaeological and palaeontological properties or sites with long stratigraphic sequences related to the earliest developments of humankind exist in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
The Lower Valley of the Awash in Ethiopia is characterized by fossiliferous deposits of Miocene age, including the well-known findspot of “Lucy”, 3.2 million years old. The many remains which have been discovered allow to trace early stages of hominin evolution.
The Lower Valley of the Omo in Ethiopia, including Lake Turkana, is also characterized by fossiliferous deposits bearing hominin remains, later in age if compared to those of the Lower Awash Valley. There is also some of the earliest evidence of lithic industries, with archaeological sites dating back to 2-2.3 million years.
Olduvai Gorge, in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area of Tanzania, is where Louis and Mary Leakey first discovered Homo habilis. There is a very long archaeological sequence, as in Melka Kunture. Most of the efforts and attention have been for the sites in Bed I and Bed II, with Oldowan and Acheulean layers, between 1.85 and 1.2 million years ago. The sediments overlying Beds I and II date from 1.2 million years ago to 60,000––40,000 years ago.
Comparisons can also be established with the archaeological record of the Nachukui Formation, a Plio-Pleistocene sedimentary Formation located in the northern part of Kenya, west of lake Turkana. The geological sequence offers a set of Oldowan and Acheulean sites, aged between 2.34 and 0.70 million years.
Broadly comparable depositional sequences also exist outside Africa in the Jordan Valley of Israel, where two multi-layered sites, Ubadiyya (Ubeidiya) and Gesher Benot Ya’akov date back to 1.4 and 0.8 million years respectively. Rich assemblages were unearthed, while human remains were not discovered.
The archaeological and palaeontological evidence embedded in the area of Melka Kunture refers to a time-range when the capability of producing stone tools was fully developed, i.e. it is later than in the Lower Awash Valley and in the Lower Omo Valley. It is better compared to the sequences of Olduvai and of the Nachukui Formation, and to the record from the Jordan Valley. It differs from all of them for the very high density of archaeological, multi-layered sites, at a few km from each other; for the adaptation to a different natural environment, where elephants, a prominent part of African past and present landscapes, were notably absent; for the early exploitation of obsidian, a raw material with specific knapping qualities which was used at a much larger scale than at any other site of the Middle Pleistocene age; for the positive evidence of continuity between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, seen in the remains of a 1.5 million years Homo erectus child who suffered of amelogenesis imperfecta, a genetically-controlled disorder still existing today; for the rich record of obsidian use up to historic times, in the area close to the obsidian outcrop of Balchit.