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Interview with Geologist Jon Kalb

Close Up and Personal
In the Bone Trade
Human Origins

Senamirmir:   It was 30 years ago in November when you first traveled to the Afar Depression. Jon, Happy 30th Year Anniversary!

Jon Kalb:   Thank you. It will be a pleasure to answer your questions.

Senamirmir:   Are you a Texan by birth, but an Afar in spirit?

Jon Kalb:   Well put. I was born in Houston, which lies on a flat coastal plain. Although interesting in many ways, I much prefer the desert with all its wildness, remoteness, and challenges. In many ways the Afar (or Dankalia) is a beautiful place, hardly the "wasteland" described by many writers.

Senamirmir:   Would you share with us something about yourself and family?

Jon Kalb:   My relatives on my father's side were from Germany and Switzerland, and moved to Texas in the 1850s; my mother's family was from Ireland, Scotland, and Norway, and came to Texas in the early 1900s. Thus, you can appreciate that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, many of whom now speak Amharic, and is the better for it.

My college education began in Texas, but I moved to Washington D.C. where I graduated from American University with a B.Sc. in geology. In Washington I also worked for the Smithsonian Institution as a research assistant in the Department of Paleobiology, then later I was given a fellowship to Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, which then led me to graduate school in geology at Johns Hopkins University. During this time, my summers and some winters were filled with gaining field experience in geology, paleontology, and archeology in Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, and the South Pacific.

Senamirmir:   How were you inspired to become a geologist?

Jon Kalb:   As a youngster I was interested in exploration and nature, but I definitely was not a classroom type. Ironically, I found my first vertebrate fossil when I was 9 years old at my elementary school in an area that was being excavated for a new wing of the school. It was a "rock" limb bone, probably of a bison.

Senamirmir:   What were your interests and specific goals when you decided to go to Ethiopia?

Jon Kalb:   I had read about the Afar Depression, or Afar Triangle as it is also called, in graduate school, and before that Alan Moorehead's book about the exploration of the Blue Nile. Ethiopia's geography offered remarkable contrasts between rugged highlands and the Afar lowlands. I was specifically interested in the unique geology of the Afar, formed by the intersection of three rift valleys, that included the Awash Valley. In the early 1970s the fossil deposits of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana in the East African Rift were being explored by teams from the U.S., France, and Kenya--it made sense that similar deposits could be found in the Afar rifts.

Senamirmir:   You took your family with you to Ethiopia and lived and worked there for over 7 years. For a young man with a wife and baby daughter that must have been a deep commitment to move to a new country. Was that move to be a permanent one?

Jon Kalb:   Initially, I thought I would work in Ethiopia long enough to formulate a Ph.D. dissertation project and then return to the U.S. to obtain a doctorate. But after living in Ethiopia for awhile, and after my first couple of fieldtrips in the Afar, there was no way I would consider returning to the U.S. Ethiopia impressed me greatly--an extraordinary country with a remarkable history and culture, and of course the potential of the Afar to science was unlimited. Also, I was fortunate because I started out as a guest of the Ethiopian Geological Survey and made many friends. As the years went by, it became clearer and clearer that my family and I had immigrated, or so we thought.

Senamirmir:   You were expelled from Ethiopia in 1978 and you visited the country in 1994 following the change in governments. Why were you expelled?

Jon Kalb:   As many of your readers can appreciate, the Derg was not prone to write letters justifying their actions, but allegations were widespread that I was in the CIA, which I was not. When I was ordered to appear at the Department of Public Security, where I would be informed of my expulsion, I told the colonel in charge that I knew that it was Ethiopian custom that if an accuser's charges proved false, then it was the accuser who became the accused. As a long time legal resident of the country, I felt this same justice should apply in my case. But that was not to be.

Senamirmir:   Spring, your second daughter, was born in Ethiopia in 1974, and Justine, your first daughter, was age 6 when you took her with you to the Afar. Has either followed their father's footsteps?

Jon Kalb:   Neither has returned to Ethiopia, but after moving to Texas in late 1978 our vacations often involved long treks in the countryside. My daughters called them "survival vacations."

Senamirmir:   Please tell us about your current activities?

Jon Kalb:   I have learned that there are three phases to producing a book: writing the book, the production of the book, and selling the book, all almost equally time consuming, or so it seems. It's been a long process, but fortunately I have a good publisher. Besides Adventures in the Bone Trade, I have also recently published, with four co-authors, a 500 page Bibliography of the Earth Sciences of the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. If you will allow me, the book can be ordered from the American Geological Institute, The price is substantially reduced for geologists living in the Horn of Africa, and covers a range of topics relating to natural resources,from ground water to petroleum. The bibliography has 10,250 titles, comes with a CD-ROM, maps, and an historical introduction.

Senamirmir:   Do you have any plans to return to Ethiopia?

Jon Kalb:   I have no plans. The intrigue surrounding prehistory research there is just too overwhelming. I've experienced enough of that. I would like to see the rest of the 600,000 year old Bodo skull excavated, which the RVRME found in the Middle Awash in 1976, but surely someone has done this by now. (RVRME stands for the Rift Valley Research Mission in Ethiopia, a research organization I founded in 1975 with the authorization of the Ministry of Culture. We were based in Addis Ababa, with an Ethiopian staff, and we conducted fieldwork year-around.)

Senamirmir:   Would you please pass Senamirmir's regards to Judy Kalb?

Jon Kalb:   To be sure.

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©Senamirmir Project, 2001