Conversations with: Dr Behailu Habte

Today’s guest is Dr Behailu Habte, Curator of Prehistoric Collections at the National Museum of Ethiopia. Behailu is a lithic technology specialist, with particular interests in the Later Stone Age in the Horn of Africa. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures, France, working within the “Late Stone Age Sequence Project” directed by Francois Bon. He has since moved back to Ethiopia to take up his current position where he has been assisting scientists to carry out both remote and in-person projects, enabling research continuity in the face of the pandemic, as well carrying out as his own research.

What are your research interests and your particular area or method of expertise?

First, thank you very much for inviting me to this conversation! I am delighted to take part in the project.

Well, I am so curious about the prehistory of Africa at large, where much of our past resides, and what interests me a lot, in fact, is the lithic technological changes and variability found during Middle and Later Stone Age periods over the past 300,000 years ago. In particular, Anatomically Modern Humans dispersed out of Africa around 50,000 years ago, which nowadays we know as the beginning of the Later Stone Age period in Africa, and it interests me a lot to better understand the cultural backdrop to this period through the lithic technological changes we see in the Horn of Africa. The beginning and development of this period, however, remains blurred, but at the same time it leave us with curiosity to unfold the unknowns.   

How did you first become interested in human evolution?

I do not remember when I first got interested specifically in human evolution. But I do remember when I first got interested in prehistory—it was in 2008. Back then, I got hired at the National Museum of Ethiopia as a Junior Cultural Heritage Registration and Standardization, and took part in field excavations for the first time. As far as I remember, my first archaeological field experience was in 2009 when I got involved in the excavation of some Medieval Megalithic sites in Southern Ethiopia, coordinated by an Ethio-French archaeological mission. During this time, we often came across obsidian tools, as we dug deeper underneath the Stelae context, which then sparked my curiosity to know more about prehistoric lithic technologies and lifeways. A couple of years later, I went to Addis Ababa University to do my Masters on Later Stone Age lithic assemblages recovered from sites located along the Main Ethiopian Rift. It was there that I became very fond of the prehistory of the Horn of Africa – even more so of the origins of human biological and cultural revolutions. 

Tell us a little bit about your PhD. What did you study and how did you find the overall PhD experience? Would you change anything about it?

I have just finished my PhD recently from University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures (France), and I studied lithic assemblages from the Main Ethiopian Rift, coeval to final Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age periods. As you may know, there are many more questions than answers regarding the Middle/Later Stone Age periods in the Horn of Africa. As of now, only a handful of stratified sites were investigated, mostly during 1970s, and as such our knowledge about culture-history and technological sequence of Later Stone Age periods remains weak.

I joined the field mission devoted to “Late Stone Age Sequence Project” directed by Francois Bon (University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures), which aims to uncover more Later Stone Age contexts. Under this mission since 2007, we have conducted a series of surveys and excavations along the Ziway-Shala Basin of Central Main Ethiopia Rift. The basin consists four lakes called, Ziway, Shala, Abiyata and Langano; this lacustrine system is particularly interesting because it was subject to climatic induced-fluctuations during Pleistocene and Holocene periods. When the lake levels reduced during arid climatic cycles, we see easily identified human occupations marked along the ancient shorelines, with the anthropogenic layers containing artefacts and bones. These occupation layers are very interesting for my research. I investigated three well dated sites from the basin and studied their lithic techno-typological make-up. Besides that, I also re-analyzed lithic collections recovered from two sites located in the Main Ethiopian Rift to help us put them in a comparative perspective with the more recent ones. In the end, based on the technological analysis and radiometric dates we obtained, I was able to organize the data into five culture-chorological phases of the Later Stone Age spanning the last ca. 31 ka, each distinguished by its lithic technological features. The first phase particularly, represented by lithics recovered from Agadima Shelter, accounts for some of the earliest known well-dated Later Stone Age sequences in the Horn of Africa. Overall, I believe my PhD research is a rare of its kind, proposing culture-chronological frameworks for the region.

Archaeological survey around Lake Langano in 2012 (Central Main Ethiopian Rift) 

Following your PhD, what projects have you worked on?

Now that I am back from France since finishing my PhD (almost exactly a year ago now, as I came back on 2nd of November 2020), I have continued working at the National Museum of Ethiopia, as Curator of Prehistoric Collections. The general research spirit, however, is not as good as I expected due to issues affecting us both globally and locally. Globally, we are still under the quagmire of the COVID19 pandemic which have prevented us conducting collaborative field research with colleagues. For instance, we planned to continue the archaeological survey around Ziway-Shala Basin between December and January 2020, under the framework of Late Stone Age Sequence Project, but we could not make it there because of the pandemic restrictions. Locally, we face civil war in Northern Ethiopia, which has seen fighting between Federal forces and Tigray rebels since last November 2020, which has complicated thing, apart from research activities, by also affecting overall movement in the country.

Despite this, I am currently involved into two research Projects: Late Stone Age Sequence Project now directed by Dr. Clement Menard (Director of Centre Européen de Recherches Préhistoriques de Tautavel), and The Solomonic-Zagwe Encounters Project (Solzag) directed by Dr. Tania Tribe (SOAS-University of London). Because we are in this exceptional global health crisis, we have been urged to look for exceptional ways out. In this regard, I would like to thank Dr. Tania Tribe and Dr. Christopher Tribe, who empowered us to advance the SolZag Project field survey and data collections under their guidance remotely. I would say this is a new experience on how to continue collaborative scientific activities during such unique circumstances. 

Excavation in 2015 at the Holocene deposits of Deka Wede site in Ziway-Shala Basin (Ethiopia) 

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I have in at least four main activities: working at the National Museum of Ethiopia, curating and organizing the collections and also assisting visiting researchers who come to study the lithic collections in our custody—the later in fact is much more infrequent compared to what we had in pre-Covid years. Second, I am planning and working on the publication of my PhD study results – I confess it is taking me too long to materialize it, but hopefully it will be done soon. Third, I am working with colleagues of SolZag project to refine our survey data and publish its initial results. In this, I work on the lithic finds collected from Lalibela surroundings— they are so interesting lithic finds. The last but not the least, I am currently doing collaborative research with a PhD student, Lucy Timbrell (University of Liverpool), and coordinator of this website, that includes some remote data collection work on Middle Stone Age lithic assemblages stored at the National Museum of Ethiopia. This collaborative work will not only help Lucy resume her research remotely, as the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in Ethiopia has posed travel restrictions for her, but also we share new knowledge regarding the older prehistoric contexts that I have hardly investigated previously. I think these are the main things I am working at the moment, and will see what to plan after things return to normal after COVID and instability in Ethiopia.

Excavation at Final Middle Stone Age context of DW4 sites in Ziway-Shala basin in 2018 (Ethiopia) 

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I am proud of being part of both the “Late Stone Age Sequence Project” and “SolZag” Project.  Both projects are so special in that while the first one gives me exclusive chances to investigate Late Stone Age sites through lithics artefacts, the later provides an exceptional outlook on the lithic finds coming from the Medieval ages. I feel like both projects offer an ideal research platform for me to understand the continuity/discontinuity of lithic traditions from prehistoric all the way to historic periods. 

Why do you think studying human origins is important?

All research is important, but maybe studying human origins interests many of us as it raises the most debating and puzzling questions. In my opinion, it is probably the most important field to study, not only because it invites the scientific community to address the questions of who we are and where we came from, but also it also captivates wide public imagination for the same reason. As a prehistorian, though, studying human origins can be specifically important when thinking about biological and cultural evolutions human went through, and looking at the interplay of both facets in defining how we evolved – anatomically and culturally.

Archaeological survey around Lake Beseka of Northern Main Ethiopia Rift in 2018 

What do you hope to discover or find out through your research in the next 5 years?

Well, I have so much things to do in my mind in the years to come. I would love to see myself becoming a leading prehistoric researcher in the Horn of Africa in the coming 5 years. To this end, I have in mind to initiate more Middle and Later Stone Age archaeological research in Ethiopia, especially on sites I have already reassessed during my field survey in 2018. This future plan actually relies on the availability of grants that I hope my project proposals may win; of course, any interested colleagues will be welcomed to collaborate in the project. I am certain that the research will generate new data from archaeological sequences attributed to the Middle/Later Stone Age, and will improve our understanding of lithic technological variability in the Horn of Africa.

What qualities about your colleagues do you admire the most?

I admire my colleagues who keep a balance between scientific research – with par excellence – and social commitments. In my view, I think we should not only be a “fossil nerd or lithic nerd” – life needs to be relaxed and we should not monotonously follow the same routine every day.  As an archaeologist studying past cultures, and accepting the view that ‘we are a social animal’, I believe in looking for ways to keep the balance between our science and social lives, and indeed I know few colleagues who meet this quality of balance – they are smart!

Archaeological survey around the Bulbula Canyon of Ziway-Shala Basin (Ethiopia) in 2019

Finally, if you were not an archaeologist, what career would you choose?

Difficult question to answer indeed.  I really do not know what career I would choose if I was not archaeologist… I have a mixed feeling. Back in high school, I loved plant science, literally trees and shrubs, so perhaps I would be a botanist? I do not know!

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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