Deadened Spirits
Returning to Ethiopia after the Red Terror


EDITOR’S NOTE: Twenty-five years ago, Donald C. Johanson spotted a bone fragment in an Ethiopian gully. He went on to recover the fossilized remains of “Lucy,” sometimes called “the missing link” between modern humans and ape-like ancestors. In this exclusive book excerpt from Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, co-authored by Kate Wong, Johanson describes returning to Ethiopia in 1990 and witnessing what Communism had done to the country.

As Alitalia 802 from Rome made a wide turn around the capital city of Addis Ababa on September 28, 1990, I spotted Bole Airport and anticipated the landing. I could see the blue haze of smoke hovering over the city from the many charcoal fires that kept people warm during the cold nights at an altitude of 7,726 feet. It had been 14 years since my last major expedition to Hadar.

Since 1982 the Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs had imposed a moratorium on paleoanthropological work, and the Ethiopian Revolution was also cause for caution. It was led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless, brutal, and coldly calculating Marxist who was rumored to have personally smothered Emperor Haile Selassie to death. In 1977 Mengistu launched the Red Terror to crush any opposition to his Provisional Military Administration Council and brought about the deaths of hundreds of thousands, including many of Ethiopia’s best-educated and most affluent citizens.

Now firmly within the steel grip of Mengistu’s regime, the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) had reached a state of semistability by 1990, which led the Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs to lift the ban on fieldwork and issue invitations to research groups like mine to again undertake paleoanthropological investigations. I had patiently waited for this day, and as the plane landed I let out a deep sigh. It had been a difficult and long banishment for paleoanthropologists like myself who had nightmares about spectacular fossils eroding to the surface, only to disappear again into the ever-changing geography. As I stepped into the blinding African sun I was so ecstatic to be back that I nearly knelt down to kiss the tarmac.

With my camera bag slung over my shoulder and another carry-on containing irreplaceable items necessary for the field, I made my way toward the airlines transfer bus. Surrounded by Ethiopians dressed in colorful cotton shawls called gabis, I enjoyed the familiar sound of soft conversation in Amharic. When we arrived at the terminal, we flooded out of the bus, jockeying for a slot in one of the slow-moving immigration lines. Finally stepping up to the kiosk, I slipped my passport and arrival form through a small opening into the waiting hand of an immigration officer. After a thorough scrutiny of my passport and visa particulars, I heard the welcome thud of the entry stamp, and with a somewhat guarded look from the officer I was waved on to the baggage-claim area.

While waiting for my luggage, I scanned the crowd, inexplicably hoping to see someone I recognized. Right away I picked up on a different vibe: an overwhelming sense that these people were sad. Ethiopians are normally cheerful, upbeat, and welcoming, but that day all I saw were long faces and dreary expressions. Fifteen years under Mengistu’s rule had deadened their spirits.

The sound of a diesel engine outside heralded the arrival of a baggage train stacked high with our luggage. The squeaky, dilapidated carousel lurched into motion, and through a small, square opening covered with hanging straps of rubber, suitcases began to trickle out. As I loaded my two bags onto a cart, I remembered how much I dreaded going through customs, where I could already see half a dozen yanked-open suitcases with contents spilling out — clothing, kitchen implements, radios, tape-cassette players, unworn shoes, boxes of laundry soap — items that were remarkably expensive and almost impossible to find in Ethiopia. The customs officials were taking their time, scrutinizing everyone’s baggage, looking for anything they could charge an import duty on. So when a stonyfaced official caught my attention and waved me over, I thought, Uh-oh, here we go.

I had passed through immigration and customs in Addis more times than I could remember, but I still got butterflies in my stomach at the thought of catching an official on a bad day and having my luggage thoroughly searched as I was forced to justify every single item I had so carefully packed at home. After my long absence, I was even more anxious. I wondered if the process had become more rigid.

I slowly pushed my cart toward the tall, thin customs officer and tried to muster a little smile. He stood waiting with his hand outstretched. In a cold, surly voice, he demanded, “Passport and currency form!”

Tenastiling,” I greeted him timidly, handing over the papers. He looked startled, then his expression softened.

“Oh, you have been to Ethiopia before?”

I nodded. “Yes, have you ever heard of Dinkinesh?”

His eyes grew wide, and to my delight, he said, “Lucy?”

“Yes!” Eager to please, I tapped my chest. “I found her, 16 years ago!”

He grinned. “Welcome back! Ethiopia should be proud to have you here!” With a piece of chalk, he approved each bag, and said, “You are welcome!”

Donald C. Johanson is founder of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. Kate Wong writes for Scientific American.

Reprinted from the book Lucy’s Legacy by Donald Johanson and Kate Wong. Copyright 2009 by Donald Johanson and Kate Wong. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.