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Interview with Geologist Jon Kalb

Close Up and Personal
In the Bone Trade
Human Origins

Senamirmir:   Would you briefly tell us about your book. How is it being received by the scientific community?

Jon Kalb:   To begin with, Adventures in the Bone Trade, is written for the layman, and contains photos, maps, figures, an extensive bibliography, and a glossary. Foremost, the book is about the Afar Depression: its geography, geology, paleoanthropology, archeology, natural history, and its remarkable people, the Afar nomads. And of course it describes the discoveries you have all read about--not just the Lucy find, but nearly all the discoveries made since Lucy was found in 1974. Second, Adventures tells about the exploration of the Afar as a whole during the Italian period and over the last 30 years. I concentrate on describing the explorations of the various teams that have worked there since the early 1970s, my own role in these efforts, and how, what, and where discoveries were made. Altogether, I describe why the Awash Valley may prove to be the most continuous record known of human habitation, but it will take another decade before just the general outline of this record is understood.

In the telling of these discoveries I also describe the competition between teams and individuals and the adverse repercussions these relationships have had on, and continue to have on, Ethiopian science. I also devote much to describing Ethiopia's fascinating ancient history, particularly as background to understanding the relationship between the highlanders and the Afar people, and the historical origins and conflicts that led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974. And of course, having lived in Ethiopia throughout the 1970s, woven throughout much of the book is the recent history of Ethiopia--the revolution, the "red terror," the liberation fronts, the invasion of Ethiopia by Somalia, the Soviet and Cuban presence, and the Eritrean war. Thus, in many ways, Adventures is 3 or 4 books in one, all showing how different events and people interact with one another. Finally, I tell my own story and that of my family, friends, and colleagues.

In answer to your other question, the book is being well received by the scientific community, as well as by non-scientists. I hope this applies to Ethiopians as well, both here and abroad, especially as a source for college-age and older Ethiopians who want to learn more about their country, its history and prehistory, and particularly Ethiopia's great contributions to understanding human origins.

Senamirmir:   Why did you wait until now to write your book, 22 years after you left Ethiopia?

Jon Kalb:   Since leaving Ethiopia, and in collaboration with colleagues, I have spent much of my time writing scientific papers about the Middle Awash discoveries, which have been published in a number of journals. Much of this work was not completed until the mid-1990s. Otherwise, the book covers events and discoveries up to the present, not just the time I spent in Ethiopia in the 1970s. I also describe my legal efforts to reveal the sources and circumstances behind the CIA allegations, which played a central role in the decline of funding by the U.S. National Science Foundation for the RVRME in the Middle Awash (and in the awarding of funds for those working there today). This effort took much of my time in the mid-1980s, but it resulted in my winning a court settlement from the foundation, as well as access to a number of documents that I used in telling the story. Incidentally, I also received a number of relevant documents from anonymous sources, none of which I used in my book, but they made for interesting reading.

Senamirmir:   You and your team conducted extensive work in the Middle Awash and made numerous discoveries. Which discovery was the most rewarding of all?

Jon Kalb:   I have to say these were numerous and described in my book in some detail. So, if you will permit me, let me tell you about a discovery that was not described in my book, or if it was only in passing. At the time I was working at Hadar (the Lucy site) in 1973 we had a German archeologist working with us, Gudrun Corvinus. On the gravel plateau overlooking the site she showed me a number of small, crudely-shaped rocks and pieces of quartz she had found arranged in curious patterns. She knew the stones had been put there recently, but neither of us had any idea what they signified. As it was, we were able to ask an elderly Afar man who was attending some goats nearby. He laughed and said the stones had been shaped by children to represent animals, specifically camels and cattle. I believe the quartz stones represented camels, the most prized of the Afar domestic animals. Afar children commonly tend to the smaller animals and I frequently saw them sitting under trees, no doubt bored and looking for something to amuse themselves, such as making rock toys.

Senamirmir:   Who was Maurice Taieb? What was his contribution to the work on the Afar depression?

Jon Kalb:   Maurice was a French geologist born in Tunisia, who in 1970 made one of the greatest discoveries on the African continent--the fabulous site of Hadar, where not only Lucy was found, but thousands of other fossils. I personally rate the discovery of Hadar as far greater than Lucy itself, because finding the site comes first and without the site you have nothing.

Senamirmir:   Lucy, a 3.18 million-year-old hominid skeleton was discovered by Donald Johanson in 1974. What does this find mean to humanity?

Jon Kalb:   When the new species to which Lucy was assigned, Australopithecus afarensis, was described in the scientific literature in 1978, it was believed by many to be the likely common ancestor of all later hominids, and still is today. However, remarkably, 8 new hominid species have been found since Lucy, including 3 new genera. Four of the species are older than Lucy, one of the genera is as old (and more human-like), and 3 of the genera are older (and more ape-like). Thus, an increasing number of fossils are being found in Africa and elsewhere that give evidence to considerable more diversity among early hominids than was known in 1978. At the time no one had the fossil evidence to refute the claim that afarensis was the common ancestor of all later hominids, but new finds are surely giving paleoanthropologists pause to rethink a number of "old" ideas.

Senamirmir:   The discovery of Lucy was attributed to Johanson, but he was only part of a team that contributed to the find. Where do you put the line between a team and an individual getting the credit for a discovery?

Jon Kalb:   That raises one of the most heated issues in science. There are two schools of thought about this: one is that everyone directly involved in a discovery should get credit for their role, in direct proportion to their contribution; the other school is to take the money and run... In a team effort, I believe that everyone involved in data gathering and documentation should get credit for their contribution, not only for what they did right for the project, but also to hold them responsible for their input. It is also vital that credit is given to an individual's funding source, that is, if you want that funding to continue.

Senamirmir:   The relationship between you and Johanson seems to have been a rocky one. Now, after almost 30 years, the wound appears to be fresh. Why? Is it ideological? scientific?

Jon Kalb:   Actually, I have no relationship with Johanson, nor are there fresh wounds--I just told a story in my book, that's all. I thought I treated him pretty well, except to point out that he needs to get up to speed on his French literature.

Senamirmir:   What was the role of Addis Ababa University at the time when international researchers were pouring into the Afar Depression?

Jon Kalb:   Not nearly as much as it should have been. Beginning in the late 1960s, the AAU Geology Department and Geophysical Laboratory were the most active when the Afar's unique geology was recognized (relating to the triple junction). The Biology Department helped me recruit students for the RVRME in the Middle Awash, and gave us use of one of their laboratories, which we desperately needed. I do not know what the situation is today, but the university should have played a much more central role in all the Awash research. That was a decision that should have been made at the highest levels of the government. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, AAU was doing everything it could just to say open, and more recently to keep its faculty out of prison and its students out of harm's way.

Senamirmir:   You partly dedicated your book to the late Sleshi Tebedge, who was a member of your team in the Middle Awash. Will you comment on him?

Jon Kalb:   Sleshi was a fine person who was one of the real pioneers of the Middle Awash discoveries. He had boundless energy and was a masterful organizer, and a determined scholar. When he came to the University of Texas as a graduate student specializing in vertebrate paleontology--after receiving his B.Sc. degree from AAU in biology--he had to catch up with his fellow students, most of whom had undergraduate degrees in geology. I remember when he took a course in mineralogy, his professor gave the class an exam on the first day to find out how much each student knew about the subject. Sleshi made the lowest grade in the class...but on the final exam he made the highest. He was one of my closest friends.

Senamirmir:   In April 2001, there were numerous public allegations and unpleasant exchanges among researchers over field permits in the southern Afar, and other matters. One of the issues concerned the Bodo skull, which was loaned to an Austrian anthropologist for Computer Tomography Scanning (CT-scan). If you know about this, what are your views on the dispute?

Jon Kalb:   Let me tell the story as it concerned me, because surely those exchanges that you refer to went way off the deep end. Some time ago I was contacted by Professor Horst Seidler, the Austrian you refer to, who sent me a map of an area that the Ministry of Culture had given him for fieldwork. He asked my opinion as to whether fossils might be found in the area. Seidler was apparently just weeks away from taking a large team to Ethiopia, at great effort and expense. I recognized the area on the map as one along the Hararghe escarpment that was basically a pile of rocks lying next to a volcano--useless for fossils. It was apparent that someone was badly misinformed at the Ministry, or was trying to make a fool out of Seidler, the Ministry, or all three. I advised Seidler to drop the project altogether, or request a new permit area. He chose the latter. So I advised him to request an area in the lowlands to the north of the "rockpile" that I thought contained sedimentary exposures and fossils. I had first heard of this area in the mid-1970s from an Afar guide, and later from an Ethiopian colleague who wrote me shortly after I left Ethiopia saying he had seen fossils there while conducting a survey of the area that had nothing to do with paleontology. Then as I describe in the last chapter of my book, I knew that generally there were exposures along that strip of the southern Afar--because I saw them from an airplane in 1994 on a flight from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, via Dire Dawa.

The Ministry gave Seidler a permit for the area, called Galila (or Galili). As I understand it, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), claimed that Seidler was working in an area already given him (H-S) by the Ministry, while Seidler claimed that Haile-Selassie was working outside of that permit area. Backing up, Haile-Selassie's graduate advisor at the UCB is Tim White, who held the permit for the Middle Awash. The Galila area is far removed from the rich fossil beds in the Middle Awash and in fact is not even in the Awash Valley, which raises the question of why White had a student there in the first place when there are scores of Ph.D. dissertation projects to be undertaken in the Middle Awash.

So, Seidler became the target of the UCB team and the object of many allegations, one of which was that he had bribed Ethiopian officials to allow him to conduct a CT-scan of the Bodo cranium, which he undertook in 1998. My understanding is that Seidler did so with the full permission of the Ministry of Culture, and that one or two officials from the Ministry actually hand carried the skull to Vienna and back. Certainly this research was to the benefit of Ethiopian science. That's about all I know of the story.

Senamirmir:   What do you feel about the condition of the Afar Depression in general? Should certain areas be protected as a scientific ground for humanity?

Jon Kalb:   The first report I submitted to the Ministry of Culture after establishing the Rift Valley Research Mission in Ethiopia (RVRME) in 1975 proposed making the Middle Awash, Hadar, the Kariyu basin (described in my book), and areas in between, a national research preserve. Without question these areas should be protected and turned into an International Heritage Site, as designated (and I would guess partially funded) by UNESCO. I know efforts have been made to protect much of this area as a biosphere preserve and a national game park, but I have no idea how effective this has been. My sense is that generally Ethiopia has a very poor record protecting its wildlife. I recall a quote attributed Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania. When told by a group of naturalists how important wildlife was to attracting tourism, his reply was, "Personally, I don't care for wild animals, but if they're good for development, then I'm all for them." Wildlife tourism is one of the biggest industries in East Africa, but minimal in Ethiopia, and largely consists of charging hunters large sums of money to shoot animals. Maybe this has changed recently. I would be interested to know.

Senamirmir:   No doubt the discoveries in the Afar region are extraordinary, but for the Afar people living in the area the benefits remain remote. Reportedly the Afar people are worse off now than they were 30 years ago. Quoting from your book on (p.132), the Sultan Ali Mirah asked you "What resources have you found that we can use for the present?," and you answered, "None, yet." Is it not true also today?

Jon Kalb:   You are right, the Afar have always been given the short end of the stick. My answer to this long ago was to train Afar at the university level to become part of the research effort in the Awash, because indeed the prehistoric "riches" in the Depression are more a part of their heritage than anyone else's.

Senamirmir:   If you had the opportunity to re-live your experiences in Ethiopia all over again, would you do it differently?

Jon Kalb:   I am not sure I could have done it any differently. Perhaps when the CIA rumors started I should have gone straight to the Derg, and said, "Look, these stupid charges have been made about me--please bug my telephones and assign a security man to follow me around all day, at my expense. Then you will know exactly what I do." Actually, for the same reasons, I genuinely hoped my lines were bugged and my office would be searched. By the way, my favorite of all the spy accusations was that I worked in a "militarily sensitive area"--"That's right," I told people, "in the PLEISTOCENE!" After all, the Middle Awash is littered with 600,000 year old handaxes and cleavers."

Senamirmir:   If our readers want to order your book--ADVENTURES IN THE BONE TRADE: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia's Afar Depression--where can they get more information? What about if they want to get in touch with you?

Jon Kalb:   The book is still being sold in most large bookstores. If not available, it can be ordered on-line from,, or directly from my publisher Springer-Verlag. I can be reached at

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©Senamirmir Project, 2001