Building a research infrastructure in Ethiopia

2 minute read

In the current Science, Elizabeth Pennisi reports on Ethiopia's efforts to bring more resources and tourism to its fossil heritage:

Then in 2003, that lab [at the National Museum, built in 1982] was razed to make way for a six-story, modern structure that includes a two-floor library, a 500-person auditorium, and 200 rent-free offices, plus storage and study space for more than a million specimens. The three wings are devoted to paleontology and archaeology; art and history; and administrative, conservation, and educational spaces.
Foreign aid is helping: France is supplying furniture, and Japan may outfit the hominid spaces. Everyone involved is thrilled and not just with the prospect of more space. "It shows how much emphasis has been given [to research]," says Ethiopian native and paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio. "In a country that has a lot of needs, the government could have easily used that money for something else."

The article includes a map showing the impressive array of 25 active archaeological or paleontological field sites across the country. The funding and effort are also being devoted to training students -- not only in paleontology but across the sciences -- including the establishment of new universities.

One of the more controversial areas is tourism -- including the encouragement of travel to active research areas:

At the same time, "one of the most important things that needs to happen is the integration of tourism and science," says [anthropologist Tim] White. And that, too, is happening. National Geographic has pledged support for an educational center at the village nearest to Hadar, home of the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy. With better roads under construction, "it could easily be a destination spot for tourists," [anthropologist Donald] Johanson predicts. Exhibit plans are still taking shape, but there likely will be casts of Lucy and other fossil hominids, as well as photographs from the site.

This raises fears (by some) that the sites will be more vulnerable to destruction by trampling and looting. On the other hand, bringing a better transportation infrastructure is bound to improve matters for the scientific research teams, possibly including the most enduring problem -- security.

Personally, I wonder whether such projects can be a financial success. Many of the paleontological museums in the American West are a great experience for visitors because you can get close to the original (and often still-active) sites, see original specimens, and do it all without the huge crowds of urban natural history museums. But that's the point: there are no huge crowds of people. These are substantial tourist draws for small towns in the West, but they aren't often making back the substantial federal or state grants that help to build them. It's an important cultural resource and a valuable investment, but it may not be realistic to expect small regional Ethiopian museums to draw premium paleo-tourist dollars.


Pennisi E. 2008. Rocking the cradle of humanity. Science 319:1182-1183. doi:10.1126/science.319.5867.1182