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Interview with Geologist Jon Kalb

Close Up and Personal
In the Bone Trade
Human Origins

It was in the early 1970s when Ethiopia was in the midst of political changes that a group of researchers defied the potential hostilities around them and flocked into the Afar Depression. They were not only eager to explore its geology, but they were also destined to trace its human history.

No doubt, time was on their side. A sequel of their expeditions was the discovery of Hadar, a site that gained international fame for its fossils deposits, including Lucy, a 3.18 million-year-old partial skeleton of a human ancestors. These rare discoveries put Ethiopia on the map of paleoanthropology.

The quest to uncover the unknown also had its human side. Even the Afar desert, with its immense power, couldn't prevent this. As it seems true in every walk of life, there exists a story that overshadows success.

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Jon Kalb traveled to Ethiopia in 1971 to explore and conduct research in the Afar Depression, a region he had read about. He made his first visit to the area with a French geologist, Maurice Taieb, who is credited with discovering the famous Hadar site. It looked like the Afar was waiting to reveal a glimpse of its mysteries. Kalb believed in the Afar desert, that led him to co-found an expedition that consumed his energies. Before long, a split took place between him and Don Johanson, who later discovered Lucy. Kalb went his own way and formed an organization called the Rift Valley Research Mission in Ethiopia (RVRME), which made many discoveries.

Kalb lived in Ethiopia with his family while continuing his work in the Afar Depression. In 1978, however, he was forced to leave the country by the military government. His dream was not fully realized, apparently the result of cut-throat competition to remove him from the Afar fossil sites. To this date, the impact of Kalb's expulsion from the country reverberates even among leading Ethiopian researchers who, as recently as March of 2001, engaged in a furious debate that spilled over into personal accusations.

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Now, Kalb has written a book, "ADVENTURES IN THE BONE TRADE: The race to discover human ancestor in Ethiopia's Afar Depression" (published by Copernicus Books, 2001). After attending his book signing event in Houston at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, and his presentation at the Ethiopian Information Technology Center (EITC), it was quite clear why Kalb was so attracted to the Afar Depression. The Afar is a mystery: one that seems deep and immeasurable--a living natural laboratory split by the Erta Ale volcanic range and bound by a triangular landscape that also gives the area the name Afar Triangle.

In this edition of Theme from Senamirmir, we are honored to present you Jon Kalb, a geologist, and a friend of the EITC members. This would not have been possible with out his kindness and love of Ethiopia. This interview is a tiny view of the whole book; therefore, you need to read ADVENTURES IN THE BONE TRADE!

Thank you EITC, especially Ibrahim Mussa, who made a determined effort to promote the book signing event, which gave me a chance to meet Kalb.

-abass alamnehe
Senamirmir Project

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©Senamirmir Project, 2001