Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A conversation with Zekaryas Solomon: multi award winner fashion designer and architect, Zekaryas Solomon

 Zekaryas Solomon

Part I

Best Male Designer 2012 @ BEFFTA,
Menswear Designer of the year 2012 @ fashions Finest

First of all, congratulations on your latest awards which occurred within two weeks of each other and being named  one of "Africa's Top Ten Male Designers"

Issayas:  Would you tell us about yourself?

Zekaryas: I am a guy who was born in Eritrea and spent most of my formative years growing up in Germany. I have a very strong perfectionist professional side, tempered with a very soft fun-loving humorous nature which stands me in good stead for the demands of my chosen profession.

Issayas:  You studied architecture and fashion. Why the switch and was the switch difficult?

Zekaryas: Yes I first studied Architecture, Design and Art at University of Wuppertal, Germany and Fashion Design at London College of Fashion London, UK. Why the switch? This is a questions that I always get asked. Why from architecture to fashion? A question from an Eritrean elder man (kab engineer si nab Sarto yhaysh ilka)? If you are not happy you look always for something. After starting my job in London as design architect for an educational building, all the projects I was involved were connected to lots of problems.My job was sitting hours in the office and fixing plans which made me working so many hours, getting depressed and not having normal life. The worst thing was that I didn't feel creative at all and this made me hate my job everyday. Every morning was so hard to getting up and thinking that I have to go to the office. With support of my close friend I decided to do something that would make me happy. I wanted to do something creative. As I was doing lots of interior designing, dealing with colors and fabrics and partly styling for friends before coming to London, so I thought fashion would be something closer to what I have done and suitable for me. It certainly wasn’t the normal route that most aspiring designers would have taken.  I had always had a love for fashion and so I decided to take a short course in menswear pattern cutting, just to make sure that if I applied for the degree course, it was going to be the route that I wanted to follow. I enjoyed it so much, that I applied at the London College of Fashion with mainly my architecture portfolio and some fashion sketches. One of the question in the interview was: "Mr Solomon, you are an architect, why do you want to study fashion there are so many fashion designers out there?"  My answer was “Yes I am an architect with a passion for fashion; I want to bring both architectural and traditional backgrounds together to create modern and futuristic garments". I believe that I explained my concepts and vision so well that they understood, given my limited experience with pattern cutting and garment technology.

Logo : Zekaryas Solomon

NAM's Africa's Top 10 Male Fashion Designers.
Zekaryas Solomon in the middle.

Issayas: In broad terms, cultural elements such as food, cloth, drink, etc. are considered part of soft power. Your products are a great example of Eritrea's soft power. I use your work as an example when I talk to Eritrean audiences about soft power. Do you put Eritrean cultural elements in your fashion design? Why is it important for you as a fashion designer to do that?

Zekaryas: My designs, specially the baggy trousers are inspired by my traditional and professional backgrounds. The design was taken from Eritrean heritage, re-interpreting traditional costumes with a futuristic, functional edge and also, being trained originally as an architect; the clean lines and impeccable structure is evident in my designs. With the architectural cut and adding special detail like the military styled buttons. It's very important for me to reflect my tradition and identity and the way using traditional attire and make them wearable for everyone.

Issayas:  You have your models wear Shidas (sandals worn by Eritrean fighters for independence and a symbol of Eritrean resistance). Would you tell us about it?

Zekariyas: The story of using SHIDA on one of my catwalks was very emotional. I wanted to say always thank you to my family who made always sure to teach me my tradition, language, history and support me with everything, to all harbegnatat (Eritrean heroes) who gave me a heritage "free Eritrea" and to those (my fans) who are always supporting me to make the next step. I didn't knowhow and where to start and whom first and whom next to thank. I was thinking and researching on one thing which would make every Eritrean proud. The other important thing was to introduce SHIDA and the story of it to all my non Eritrean friends and fans. I chose SHIDA as :

  Symbol of my Eritreawinet (Eritreanism)
  Proud of my country, my history and my people
  Respect of those who lost their lives for us, the new generation.

Check out the shidas (plastic sandals: symbol of Eritrean resistance)
All pictures are courtesy of Zekaryas Solomon.
Above: Beffta.com

Next, Part II

Friday, January 18, 2013

A conversation with Dr. Amanuel Beyin

Part II

 Dr. Amanuel Beyin at an excavation site.

Issayas: What is the importance and evidences of first human exploitation in the marine resources at the coast of the Red sea such places as Asfet, Gelealo NW, Mise East (the sites where you studied for your PhD research), Abdur  and etc.?

Dr. Amanuel: As we all know, Eritrea was at war during most of the seminal years in the history of archaeological research in East Africa, 1960’s to the 80’s. As such, much of Eritrea’s coastal territories had seen little prior research due to protracted political instability and environmental adversity of the region.  The first archaeological evidence for prehistoric human adaptation along the Eritrea coast has come from the site of Abdur (eastern coast of the Gulf of Zula), where a geological survey in the late 1990’s documented stone tools embedded in a coral reef deposit dating to ~125,000 years ago. The Abdur evidence suggests the presence of coastal adaptation by African hominids along the Red Sea coast prior to the generally accepted date for Homo sapiens dispersal out of Africa. The association of artifacts with oysters, shellfish and terrestrial mammals at Abdur has suggested to researchers a mixed subsistence strategy, involving beach-combing, and hunting terrestrial game along the shorelines of the Gulf.  Stimulated by the Abdur discovery, in May 2005, my adviser and I set out to conduct a pilot archaeological exploration on the southern peripheries of the Gulf of Zula and interior plains of the Buri Peninsula, to further assess the archaeological potential of the landscapes outside of the Abdur proximity. The survey documented more than a dozen sites from near coastal and inland contexts representing different age ranges. In two subsequent field seasons, my team (all Eritreans) conducted intensive survey and excavation at three sites: Asfet, Gelalo NW and Misse East. The Asfet site produced stone tools, based on typological attributes, are believed to date to between 100,000 – 50,000 years ago. The other two sites, Gelalo and Misse produced stone tools in association with mollusk shells (presumably food refuse) dated to between 8000 and 5000 years ago.

Asfet setting off the coast of the Gulf of Zula

Gulf of Zula and Buri Peninsula

Dr. Amanuel surveying

Asfet, Eritrea. 2006.


Public outreach with local elders at Gelalo.

Eritrean field crew at Gelalo site, Eritrea in 2006.

All in all, the evidence suggests the presence of intermittent human settlement in the area, ranging in age 100,000 - 5000 years ago. The Asfet stone tool assemblage is particularly important because it represents an archaeological culture (referred to as Middle Stone Age) associated with the Homo sapiens populations that are believed to have launched successful dispersal out of Africa. The evidence reinforces the Abdur discovery in confirming the presence of coastal adaptation by African hominids along the Red Sea coast prior to their dispersal out of Africa. Whether the Asfet and Abdur hominids had directly dispersed to Arabia or Eurasia is difficult to prove. It is still possible that these hominids had returned to the hinterlands of the Horn once living around the coast became precarious for any reason, but at least one of the contemporary or descendant hominids must have made the long trek to Asia.  In a broader anthropological context, the evidence attests the degree of our ancestors’ adaptive acuity in occupying such a strategic area where they could maximize their survival chance by exploiting both marine and terrestrial resources. This acuity was a necessary prerequisite for our ancestors’ subsequent evolution into a culturally more complex species, capable of colonizing all of earth’s frontiers…and possibly other planets, soon!

Issayas:  If I am not mistaken, you are studying the stone industries and varied shell types from the above sites in coastal Eritrea to understand the Human behavior, the paleo-environment and paleo-ecology. How does one understand the behavior and why do one need to understand the aforementioned?
Dr. Amanuel: Yes, in my dissertation I reported on a thorough description of the stone tool industries documented at the three sites I mentioned above. The results of my work have been published in peer reviewed journals and as a monograph (see a link to my personal website below to find out more about my scholarly work). The paleoenvironmental and paleoecological aspects have not been examined yet. The diversity of stone tools at the sites is quite striking. We have artifacts that look like they were used for butchering, as arrow points and for piercing/slicing purposes. Often times, stone tools represent the most common surviving evidence of human behavior at archaeological sites, not just because they were the only tools humans made, but they preserve better. By virtue of being rocks, they are less susceptible to decomposition and alteration by weathering, unlike wood, hide or fabric, which can easily decay. One way to reconstruct past human behavior using stone tools is by examining the sources of the raw materials used and the design aspects of the final products (variability in shape and size of the tools). Stone tool making requires selecting suitable raw materials and an understanding of the fracture mechanics of each rock type. The Asfet inhabitants utilized about seven rock types, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, obsidian, a modestly utilized rock at Asfet, is brittle and can produce flakes with sharp edges. However, it is a very dangerous rock during knapping. The sharp flakes and shatters can cut through the skin of one’s hand at a split of a second if you don’t understand how to manipulate it. Other rocks are not as brittle as obsidian, but are safer to manipulate and endure edge damage better (remember those tools can get worn after repeated use). The majority of the rocks utilized at Asfet appear to have been procured from the local exposures, meaning the inhabitants did not transport the raw nodules for longer distances (they were lucky!).


Asfet artifacts

Gelalo and Misse artifacts

In addition to utilizing a broad range of raw materials, the Asfet humans produced a variety of tools, presumably to meet their daily survival needs. For example, among the common tools we observe at Asfet are the triangular points (see figure), which are usually associated with making arrow points that could be used for hunting. Likewise, while the large almond shaped hand axes are often interpreted as characteristic of meat butchering and scraping activities, the pointed perforators (see figure) are typically associated with piercing and drilling. The younger sites of Gelalo and Misse are characterized by different toolkits, collectively referred to as microliths because of their diminutive nature. These tools appear to have been used as knives and inserts into wooden shafts for making spears. The discovery of abundant stone tools with design aspects indicative of hunting activity and a variety of mollusk shells (large enough to be consumed as food) indicates that the inhabitants of the Eritrean sites employed a broad subsistence strategy, involving hunting terrestrial game and gathering aquatic resources from the shoreline.  By all accounts, we are looking at hunter-gatherers that lived off of the blessings of nature. The same is true of those hominids that spread out of Africa. It took several millennia after these settlements for domestication/agricultural innovations to set off in the region.

Issayas:  How does your study contribute to the current knowledge of the Human evolution researches and dispersal?

Dr. Amanuel: As I mentioned earlier, by virtue of its strategic location along the Red Sea basin (one of the potential dispersal corridors for early humans) and being part of the East African tropical ecosystem (where Homo sapiens are believed to have first appeared), Eritrea represents a critical region of East Africa in the ongoing human origins research. Unfortunately, much of the coastal region had not seen adequate research in the past. This has hindered a well-informed assessment of the contribution of the region to human origins and dispersal theories. The plain question I asked myself when developing the project I described above was: what would be the contribution of Eritrea to human origins and dispersal research?  Of all the sites I examined so far, the Asfet assemblage is particularly important in the context of human origins or dispersal research. As noted above, the assemblage broadly dates to 100,000 – 50,000 years ago, which is a critical period in the evolution and dispersal of anatomically modern humans out of Africa. The evidence exhibits reasonable affinity with northeast African, the Nile Valley and Southern Arabian Middle Stone Age Industries, which means that the inhabitants of Asfet had cultural and biological (?) relationships with the hominids that left cultural and fossil traces in those regions. We do not have hominid fossil remains from Asfet or Abdur yet, but the artifacts are comparable with cultural findings at other East African sites that yielded Homo sapiens fossils (eg. Omo Kibish and Herto in Ethiopia).  While much needs to be done to fully understand the chronological and paleoenvironmental contexts of Asfet, the evidence corroborates the plausibility of the region as a potential refugium and departure point for early human dispersal. Hunter-gatherers successfully adapted to coastal habitats along the Eritrean coast may have served as source populations for the early inhabitants of Arabia and Southeast Asia. Given the paucity of Stone Age record from the western side of the Red Sea basin, the finding provides a much needed reference datasets for future research in the region. Even though there are only a few known coastal sites from the African side of the Red Sea, it is likely the case that the coastal territories of Eritrea and its neighboring regions (Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti) were continuously visited by our early ancestors. Finally, the discovery of the Asfet and Abdur Middle Stone Age sites from the Gulf of Zula attests that numerous sites can be discovered along the African side of the Red Sea basin by future systematic survey.

Issayas: How and when did the first human species spread from the African side of the Red Sea to the Asian side?

Dr. Amanuel: It is not yet well understood as to how exactly early humans dispersed from the African side to the Arabian side of the Red Sea, but there are some hypotheses worth sharing. One hypothesis is that, they may have used canoes or floating rafts to navigate the narrowest section of the basin, which is located across the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. The problem is that wood doesn’t preserve for a long time, so we can’t prove this hypothesis. Alternatively, early humans could have swum the narrow strait during periods of extreme low sea-level-stand. But, given the violent wind currents across the strait, this view does not seem plausible. Others have suggested the presence of episodic land-bridges between the two sides of the basin. There is tangential evidence supporting this view. A recent study of mtDNA variation among southwestern Arabian and Horn of African baboon populations (Papio hamadryas hamadryas) shows that the ancestral lineage of this species originated in the Horn of Africa and entered Arabia in the time range of 200,000 – 80,000 years ago. The striking finding from the study is that the SW Arabian hamadryas baboons are not related to any other baboon populations in the northern parts of Arabia (meaning they don’t have close relatives in the Middle East or northern Arabia). Based on this observation, scientists suspect that the only way the ancestors of the Arabian baboons could have reached the region is via temporary land bridges formed during glacial maxima across the Red Sea (eg. Bab el Mandeb). Hypothetically, the same route or land-bridge that the baboons have used to enter Arabia must have been equally accessible to early modern humans. One caveat with this scenario is that, marine isotopic data shows that the Red Sea has not been severed from the Indian Ocean for the past 400,000 years, which means, either the isotopic data is not picking up some short-lived periods of disconnections between the two bodies of water or there is something else we should know. Perhaps, early humans used no other route except the Sinai land-bridge to disperse out of Africa. Like any other scientific enterprise, the issue of early human dispersal is full of unresolved riddles.

Front cover of Dr. Amanuel's new book.

When did humans reach Arabia? I don’t have a definitive answer to the question, but we know that human ancestors have continuously lived in that region at least for the last one million years. Early humans and their ancestors could have arrived there in waves, through either of the potential routes mentioned above. Based on current genetic evidence, the most successful wave of Homo sapiens migration into Arabia is believed to have occurred ~ 75,000 years ago via the Bab el Mandeb. Some researchers dispute this time frame in favor of earlier dispersal dates. The artifacts from Arabian sites do show close resemblance with their African counterparts, but it is not possible to determine dispersal or arrival events based on cultural affinity alone. One culture can disperse to a new environment after several millennia of its first appearance at the source region. This topic being one of the hotly debated issues in paleoanthropology, I rather not waste the reader’s time with too many conjectures.

Issayas: Thank you for spending time from your busy schedule to answer my questions. Much appreciated.

Dr. Amanuel: Thank you for inviting me to offer my perspectives on this fascinating scientific topic.  

All pictures are courtesy of Dr. Amanuel.

Below are links to various works of Dr. Amanuel and his website.





Thursday, January 10, 2013

A conversation with Dr. Amanuel Beyin

Dr. Amanuel  Beyin

Part I

Issayas: Briefly, tell us about yourself.

Dr. Amanuel Beyin : I was born in Eritrea and lived there until I obtained my BA degree in Archaeology from the University of Asmara (UoA) in 2001. Having been born and raised in a countryside (around Segheneiti),
spending one year in Keren, and later moving to Asmara to follow my high school and university educations, I was fortunate enough to get exposure to varied cultural settings at an early stage of my life. I represent the
generation of Eritreans who witnessed Eritrea’s liberation and independence in their early teen years.  I attended high School at the Holy Savior Major Seminary Catholic Congregation in Asmara, and spent two months in Sawa (5th round) for military training before entering the UoA in Fall 1996. The time I spent at the Seminary was exceptionally formative to building the moral fabric and academic aspiration that guided my ensuing life-journey. For my seminal years at the Seminary, I am grateful to the priests for their compassionate mentoring, the teachers who instilled the value of education in my life, and the dynamic classmates with whom I fought spirited competition for class prizes. The times I failed to win a prize still help me appreciate the importance of defeat while learning.

After entering the UoA, I enrolled in the Natural Science stream and my initial inclination was to study Marine Biology. But when the University announced the opening of a new Archaeology Department during the same year I finished my freshman, I decided to study archaeology. My interest in archaeology was spurred by my inherent curiosity about the origin of human civilizations. The simple question of why/how some human groups have developed advanced technology, while others pursue a simple life had always fascinated me since my early days in school. By studying archaeology, I felt that I will have the chance to uncover the hidden mysteries of past human experience. One thing that I enjoy about being an archaeologist is, every artifact that I find connects me with the mindset of ancient people- their worldview and the decisions they made in the course of their life-time (the food they ate, the tools they made …etc).

During my undergraduate study, I participated in several archaeological survey and excavation projects around Asmara. Toward the final semesters of my undergraduate study I became more interested in human origins research or paleoanthropology, after taking a few courses on African prehistory and observed newly discovered stone tools from the Buia site at the National Museum of Eritrea. I completed the course requirements for BA in 2000, but per the UoA’s policy then, all prospective graduates were required to do one year of National Service before their official graduation. For my National Service, I was assigned to the UoA to work as a Graduate Assistant.

While working there, I applied to several graduate schools in the US. Fortunately, Stony Brook University offered me admission and tuition, and I came to the US in August 2001 to pursue graduate study. For the first two years of my graduate work, I received a fellowship (stipend) from the Leakey Foundation, while the rest of my study was supported through Teaching Assistantships from my department - Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences. In 2005 and 2006, I did a pioneering archaeological survey and excavations on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, around the Gulf of Zula and Buri Peninsula, where my team documented sites dating from ~100,000 – 5000 years ago (some of the results discussed below). I obtained MA (2005) and PhD (2009) degrees in Anthropology from Stony Brook University, and did two years of postdoctoral study at the same institution after receiving my PhD. Currently, I am working as a contract Assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern Indiana, Evansville (USA).

Issayas: What is the importance of Eritrea in the out of Africa hypothesis (The Human dispersal`s out of Africa)?

Dr. Amanuel: Before giving a direct answer to your question, let me address the theoretical context of the issue so that the reader will not miss the broader picture. Fossil, genetic, and archaeological data currently accumulating from sub-Saharan Africa supports an African origin of early modern humans sometime between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. So far, the oldest cultural traces and fossil remains of early modern humans have been discovered in East Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. From the genetic perspectives, African populations display greater genetic diversity compared to others, implying that Africa was populated by Homo sapiens longer than any other continent (older population = more genetic diversity, the same way as an older city would exhibit more architectural diversity compared to a city founded recently). The contentious anthropological question at the present time is; if early modern humans first appeared in East Africa, how did they disperse to the rest of the world? Currently, there are two widely accepted dispersal routes for early modern humans: i) the Northern Route, along the Nile – Sinai land-bridge, and ii) the Southern Route, across the Strait of Bab el Mandeb (gate of tears)- southern end of the Red Sea. Notably, due to its strategic location at the nexus of NE African, Arabian and SW Asian landmasses, the Red Sea basin is emerging as an important region for testing the current dispersal hypotheses.

A less explored, but seemingly a vital region for testing the out of African dispersal hypotheses is the western coastal periphery of the Red Sea basin. This is the only safe corridor for northward human migration during periods of extreme aridity because of the availability of freshwater and access to aquatic food along the coast. During arid climatic conditions, the Sahara desert would have expanded and the Nile dried out, making the Nile Route less hospitable. Likewise, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb would have become narrower during periods of extreme aridity due to global low-sea-level stand, making it easier for African hominids to cross it if they decide to move eastward into Southern Arabia. This hypothesis is gaining momentum at present, partly due to the fact that the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula exhibit similar habitats, thus early humans would have preferred to follow a familiar habitat-zones than moving northward which would have required them to undergo significant physiological and cultural changes to adapt to a temperate climate and the resources there (remember our ancestors first evolved in a tropical region, thus any movement to colder- temperate region would have been demanding). Moreover, recent studies on modern human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), have shown closer genetic affinity between some indigenous populations of East Africa and several native groups to Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Australia.  This pattern has suggested to researchers that early humans may have launched a rapid coast-wise dispersal directly from NE Africa into Arabia (~80,000 – 70,000 years ago) via the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, resulting in the colonization of East Asia and Australia by early humans before western Asia and Europe.

A background map showing the two potential dispersal routes.

Now back to the leading question: what is the importance of Eritrea in resolving the ongoing debate about human dispersal?

Owing to its strategic geographic position along the western coastal periphery of the Red Sea basin, Eritrea (with its 1,300 km of coastline) would have served as an ideal departure point for early human migrations out of Africa.  Hypothetically, any eastward dispersal via the Bab el Mandeb or northward along the western Red Sea coast would have been preceded by prolonged adaptation on the Horn of African coastal landscapes, such as the Somali, Djiboutian and Eritrean shorelines. That part of Eritrea comprising the Gulf of Zula and Buri Peninsula would have been particularly a magnet for continuous human adaptation due to its strategic location at the northern end of the East African Rift Valley, which is considered to have been a viable corridor for human movements between the interior landscapes and the coastal peripheries. Human groups that successfully settled along the Eritrean coast would have gradually spread southward up to the peripheries of the Bab el Mandeb, from where they would have dispersed eastward across the narrowest part of the Strait into Arabia to avoid competition and resource scarcity on the African side. Likewise, there wouldn’t  have been any conceivable obstacle for northward dispersal of early humans along the Eritrean-Sudanese-Egyptian coastal landscapes. But, as I stated earlier, the genetic data supports the former, even though one can’t rule out the latter. It is against these plausible scenarios that the Eritrean coastal territory is emerging as a critical region to understanding the timing and conditions leading to early human dispersal out of Africa. The next question will highlight the nature of current archaeological evidence from the Eritrean coast.

All pictures are courtesy of Dr. Amanuel.

Next, part two of the conversation continues.