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ANR OLD – The OLDowan: emergence and evolution of an early hominid culture in eastern Africa

The ANR OLD is a transdisciplinary research aiming to understand the effect of environmental and biological pressure on the Oldowan culture emergence and evolution, with in the local context of a valley (lower Omo Valley, Shungura formation), in comparision with the regional context (Eastern Africa) before 1,8 million years.

Illustration: Fossiliferous and archaeological deposits of the Shungura formation, E and F members (2.4 – 2.2 million years)

The project OLD aims at developing a local and regional scale approach of the cultural and environmental dynamics for the 2.8 to 1.8 million years (Ma) time period in eastern Africa. This period, which has seen the emergence and early developments of the Oldowan culture, is crucial for our understanding of the early stages of humankind since it is marked by a range of major environmental and biological shifts. The adaptive responses of the hominids to these events still have to be determined at a local scale. This challenge will be faced by combining an integrated research program focused on the Shungura Formation in the lower Omo Valley (Ethiopia) with a broader regional overview of the early Oldowan, at the scale of the Eastern African Rift System.

The project OLD will contribute to the international promotion of the French research in prehistory and paleontology, by focusing on a region that is in the spotlight for all early hominid-related studies and by reinforcing a research field that suffers from a drastic decline in the French research panorama. Beyond the expected scientific benefits, the project has significant societal and heritage implications. The Lower Omo Valley, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is directly threatened by large-scale agricultural projects. Another major challenge of the project is to develop concrete solutions for combining scientific researches, heritage conservation and local economic development.

Three partners, heavily invested in this research field, are involved in the project: PACEA (CNRS/University of Bordeaux), iPHEP (CNRS/University of Poitiers) and CFEE ("Centre Français des Etudes Ethiopiennes", CNRS/MAEDI, Addis Ababa). The expertise domains of the partners are complementary and cover the whole analytical requirements of the project. PACEA will provide its expertise relative to archeological, lithic, paleontological, geological, and geoarcheological studies. The iPHEP will be involved in paleontology (vertebrates, fossil hominids) and environmental reconstructions, and the CFEE will participate to the lithic analyses. The proposed team has been largely operational over the last decade, as part of the OGRE (Omo Group Research Expedition) field program, directed by J.-R. Boisserie in the Omo Shungura Formation. The excellent integration of OGRE in the Ethiopian scientific and institutional context ensures the access to all documentary resources (collections, field) required for the project.

The Project OLD is submitted as part of the generic call for project of the ANR, to the "Défi 8: Sociétés innovantes, intégrantes et adaptatives, axe 5: Cultures, création, patrimoines". The project responds to the objectives of this axis, for both its involvement in the study of long-term cultural and behavioral adaptations of early hominids to changing environments and its implication in the regional policy for this UNESCO heritage preservation. The coordinator of the project OLD is Anne Delagnes, who supervises the archeological investigations in the Shungura Formation. The scientific managing of the project will be shared by A. Delagnes (PACEA) and J.-R. Boisserie (iPHEP). The logistic and administrative managing will be performed by the three partners, with a strong involvement of the CFEE for the organization of the missions in relation with the local authorities. The project involves archeologists, geologists, paleontologists, paleoanthropologists and paleoenvironment specialists. It is planned for a duration of 42 months.

Scientific outcomes will be principally realized through publications in international, high-impact journals. Given the project topic and the strong potential of the study context, it is very likely that the obtained results will correspond to the expectations of such journals. The team publication capacity is reflected by a consistent pre-existing list of publications on the topic, with altogether 24 papers in peer-reviewed journal and collective books, as well as 23 presentations in international meetings, of which 28 have one of the two scientific managers of OLD as first author. The project scientific communication will be also developed through an active participation to international meetings that periodically gather specialists of ancient prehistory and paleontology, as much in Africa as in Europe and in the USA. OLD publication policy will be coordinated by the two scientific managers according to ethical rules agreed on by all OLD participants and warranting at the same time data protection and a fair distribution of authorships.

Higher educational actions will target at the same time the Ethiopian and French academic spheres. In Ethiopia, the works developed in the framework of OLD will integrate students and curators of the ARCCH, and will contribute to their training on research and its techniques. Courses will continue to be given to Ethiopian students by J.-R. Boisserie according to the needs of the Master Paleontology and Paleoenvironments of the Addis Ababa University. In France, teaching by the two scientific managers of the project in the framework of Master programs at Bordeaux and Poitiers/Montpellier will notably focus on the research in the Omo. The training of young researchers will be done by supervising Master-level and PhD theses: five M2 internships and two PhD theses (an ongoing one and a forthcoming one) are planned in the framework of OLD.

In terms of media impact, potential outcomes are important, given the vivid interest of the public and the media for topics related to the early beginnings of Humankind. In the framework of the project OLD, a website dedicated to the research in the Lower Omo Valley will be created and updated on a yearly basis according to new results and field discoveries. This website will contribute to grow the awareness on the conservation and heritage aspects, in relation to further outcomes of the project OLD with a significant societal impact. It will also aim at promoting the awareness of the public about cultural and biological evolutionary mechanisms, which are largely misunderstood.

Finally, the research developed in the Lower Omo Valley has major bearings on heritage preservation. The Lower Omo Valley is listed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO since 1980 for its paleoanthropological, cultural, and natural heritage. For some years now, agricultural (cotton and sugar cane plantations) and industrial (road building, oil surveys) development projects, promoted by the Ethiopian government for opening up the southwestern part of Ethiopia, are directly threatening the Shungura Formation and its fossiliferous deposits. Through their presence in the field, the scientists involved in project OLD will afford information and awareness to the ARCCH, the UNESCO, and the European Union (Addis Ababa agency). The project OLD will contribute to establish a complete cartography of the sites in relation with a georeferenced database. This will constitute the inescapable basis for elaborating a real heritage management plan, reconciling economic development and site conservation. The considered development of “paleotourism” could be supported by paleoanthropological and prehistorical research outcomes. This option would generate employment (guides, rangers) at a local scale and would be a non-negligible economic contribution to this impoverished area of Ethiopia.

Illustration: Excavation of the archaeological site Omo A43, F member, 2018 OGRE fieldwork

ANR members
ANR members
Partners Name and surname Occupation Implication (Number of months) Role and responsibilities
PACEA Delagnes Anne DR CNRS 30 Project coordinator and scientific manager, archeology, lithic analyses
PALEVOPRIM Boisserie Jean-Renaud CR CNRS 20 Scientific manager, paleontology of large mammals (hippopotamids), paleoenvironmental reconstructions
CFEE Ménard Clément IE CFEE 2 Scientific secretary, administrative and field support
CFEE Beyene Yonas PR, Ethiopia 12 Archeology and lithic analyses
PACEA Brenet Michel CR INRAP 8 Knapping experiments and lithic analyses
PACEA Maurin Tiphaine PhD student, Univ. Bordeaux 12 Archeology, spatial and taphonomic analyses
PACEA Galland Aline PhD student, Univ. Bordeaux 36 Lithic use-wear and taphonomic analyses
PACEA Gravina Bradley CR ANR 12 Archeology and lithic analyses
PACEA Saint George Margaux Master 2 ANR 4 Omo heritage and digital archives
PACEA Bertran Pascal CR INRAP 8 Geology, sedimentology, site formation processes
PALEVOPRIM Corbé Marion PhD student, Univ. Poitiers 36 Geology, sedimentology and geochemistry
PACEA Queffelec Alain AI CNRS 8 Sedimentology
PALEVOPRIM Schuster Mathieu CR CNRS 8 Geology, sedimentology
PACEA Spinelli-Sanchez Océane Master 2 ANR 4 Quartz properties
PALEVOPRIM Blondel Cécile MCU Poitiers 4 Paleontology of large mammals (bovids), diet and paleoenvironmental reconstructions
PALEVOPRIM Daver Guillaume MCU Poitiers 6 Analysis of hominid postcranial remains
PALEVOPRIM Guy Franck CR CNRS 4 Analysis of hominid cranial and dental remains
PALEVOPRIM Merceron Gildas CR CNRS 5 Large mammal diet and paleoenvironmental reconstructions
PACEA Souron Antoine MCF – Univ. Bordeaux 15 Paleontology of large mammals (suids)
PALEVOPRIM Valentin Xavier T Univ. Poitiers 4 Fossil preparation
PALEVOPRIM Barboni Doris CR CNRS 12 Phytolith and pollen analyses,
paleoenvironmental reconstructions
PALEVOPRIM Fara Emmanuel MCU Dijon 12 Landscape analyses and paleoecology
PALEVOPRIM Mazur Jean-Charles T CNRS 7 Preparation of pollen and phytolith samples
PALEVOPRIM Surault Jérôme T Univ. Poitiers 12 Field mission logistical support